Zettelkasten Forum


Academic in the humanities, plus some reflections as a beginner in ZT

Hello all! I've been lurking a bit, but finally decided to make an account to say hi.

I'm a graduate student in the humanities, and I've just started to implement the Zettelkasten system for my dissertation research. I came across the ZT method through the DevonThink forums and am using DT as my ZT storage system.

I started my ZT about three weeks ago, and as I've had a problem in the past thinking too much instead of putting things into action, I've just dived right in. I've mostly used ZT to collect notes and insights from research, with the idea that it would help me with the thinking and writing process later on.

I've failed miserably in the past with various note-taking and organization systems, because I would always get stuck on deciding on categories and where to file certain things. My laptop files, for example, are currently a mess with uncategorized files on my desktop, documents, and downloads even though I have a somewhat organized file system. As for my notes, it was the retrieval process that was most difficult. I've often had trouble with tags, because I would have multiple versions of the same tag, but with slight variations in phrasing, spelling, hyphens, etc. The lack of predetermined categories really spoke to me as I am a non-linear thinker.

Yesterday, I read Ahren's How to Take Smart Notes because I figured it was time for me to add indices or structural notes. While reading, something really clicked for me in terms of using ZT for writing. What made a difference for me was the realization that I could use project notes, separate from my permanent ZT notes but still in the same ecosystem, to manage my research projects and tasks. I've experimented with different task/project management software in addition to ZT to manage the research process, but the one thing that tripped me up was the lack of flexibility involved with systems such as the GTD. So I would have questions that I would tack on, or further ideas for exploration after having written a ZT, but nowhere central to find these questions again (except tagging them with "to-do," "follow-up," or "questions," which also wasn't helpful). After reading Ahrens, I decided to set up a folder, or "group" in DT speak, for my project notes.

In my database, I have the following structure:
1. ZT (for zettels and index/structure notes. I make sure I have easy access to structure notes with a smart group)
2. Literature Notes, (notes only, with pdfs stored and linked with zotero), and
3. Project notes (where I store questions, replicate notes with questions/follow-ups)
4. Research journal (daily log - may or may not continue with this)

In my projects folder I currently have the following structure notes:
1.Writing Topics (each note is a to structure/index notes centered around a certain topic/theme),
2. Questions (factual) and Questions (further ideas/research)
3. Reference List Building (where I store footnotes that I will later want to extract for my reference lists, to be stored in zotero)

I think I will avoid using tags and flags as much as possible as a categorization technique, instead using them to store items temporarily before processing them into some kind of structure notes. For example, I will flag items after a smart search that pulls up documents that contain certain key words, and then delete the flags/tags after compiling a table of contents/structure note. I've also implemented a bottom-up process for compiling indices, compiling links from a smart search into a document, and then trying to discern some kind of categorization that emerges. I am also very indecisive with my naming systems, so structure notes gives me the flexibility to change the title of a collection of notes to something more descriptive or fitting.

I now feel like I have a sense of how ZT can help with the writing process. I feel much more excited to write, because I now can go to "writing topics" and pick a topic that I want to write about (which will already have compilations of zettels, organized around a question/theme), instead of trying to pull something out of thin air or through "brainstorming."

I still have questions about integrating ZT into my research workflow (ie. should I compile a to-read list in ZT/project notes?), but I am excited to share my progress with you all.

Comments

  • @MH__ said:
    Hello all! I've been lurking a bit, but finally decided to make an account to say hi.

    Yesterday, I read Ahren's How to Take Smart Notes because I figured it was time for me to add indices or structural notes. While reading, something really clicked for me in terms of using ZT for writing. What made a difference for me was the realization that I could use project notes, separate from my permanent ZT notes but still in the same ecosystem, to manage my research projects and tasks. I've experimented with different task/project management software in addition to ZT to manage the research process, but the one thing that tripped me up was the lack of flexibility involved with systems such as the GTD. So I would have questions that I would tack on, or further ideas for exploration after having written a ZT, but nowhere central to find these questions again (except tagging them with "to-do," "follow-up," or "questions," which also wasn't helpful). After reading Ahrens, I decided to set up a folder, or "group" in DT speak, for my project notes.

    I still have questions about integrating ZT into my research workflow (ie. should I compile a to-read list in ZT/project notes?), but I am excited to share my progress with you all.

    Hello and welcome to the ZK forum! I'm a fairly new user as well, and also "reading" Ahren's book. I find it has a lot of good ideas and I am going back through the book, trying to apply some of the reading / writing / understanding / learning concepts that he describes in Chapters 10 and 11, to his own book.

    At the moment, I'm attempting to write some permanent notes into my ZK based on temporary or "fleeting" notes (as Ahren calls them), written while reading through his text. I think it's going to take some time to actually grasp and understand everything he is saying, so I expect it will require several cycles through to be happy with what I have understood.

    I suggest continuing to seriously study Ahrens as well and then learn by doing. You will arrive at answers to some of your questions (your own answers) as you do.

    Best of luck and hope to see you again on the forum!

  • Welcome aboard, and glad to hear that the Zettelkasten-stuff makes you excited about writing! I think that's a great feat already :)

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • Hello, MH_,
    I am a brand new Zettelkasten noter who also plans to use this process for my own dissertation research! (Ph.D. in Humanistic Psychology). Just wanted to reach out in solidarity on so many levels regarding what you said about files and note-taking! Here's to new adventures towards enlightened dissertations! 🙌

  • @GeoEng51 Would love to hear more about your thoughts on Ahrens!

    @ctietze here's to no more staring at a blank page!

    @jeannelking Thank you! Good luck to you, as well. I am kicking myself for not starting sooner, but I needed that feeling of being overwhelmed for me to seriously implement a system like this!

  • @MH__ said:
    @GeoEng51 Would love to hear more about your thoughts on Ahrens!

    There's been quite a bit of discussion on this forum about Ahrens' book. I don't want to jam up this space with more. If you want, let's discuss via e-mail. You can contact me via john dot sobkowicz at hey dot com. If we come up with some scintillating insights, we can always do a follow up post here :>)

  • @MH__ , welcome to the forums.

    @MH__ said:
    The lack of predetermined categories really spoke to me as I am a non-linear thinker.'

    This is a huge advantage compared to us top-down thinkers. Yes, jump in the waters warm. Today it is hot and I love diving with these swimming metaphors.

    @MH__ said:
    I think I will avoid using tags and flags as much as possible as a categorization technique, instead using them to store items temporarily before processing them into some kind of structure notes.

    I'm conflicted about the use of tags. I'm not yet convinced they have much value, with one exception. The best use of tags I found is the grouping of projects.

    For example (fragment below of Tag Cloud) #lojong, #myhaiku are both tags for projects and I refer to them often and common tags bring together the right notes. #paper is the number of research papers I've read and processed into my Zettelkasten. It is just an endorphin hit every time I look at the number. I'm embarrassed to reveal I sometimes use a #quote. The rest I've never returned to and have stopped applying them. It is interest for me to see the low number of #philosophy tagged noted.

    @MH__ said:
    I still have questions about integrating ZT into my research workflow (ie. should I compile a to-read list in ZT/project notes?), but I am excited to share my progress with you all.

    There are other tools, better designed to keep a reading list in (Goodreads) and project notes in (maybe Evernote).

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • edited August 10

    @Will, my favorite use of tags, or at least the use I seem to get the most mileage out of, is to use them to identify a particular author/text. So Loy's Ecodharma (to fall back on our example), is tagged #loy2018. All searches for the tag bring up every note referencing Loy's book. For articles, I include identifying letters of the title: so, Johannes F.K. Schmidt's "Niklas Luhmann's Card Index: The Fabrication of Serendipity" (published in 2018), becomes #schmidtNLCI2018.

    I don't use the identifying letters for the title of books, because I assume authors tend not to produce more than one book a year. When I run into that problem, I guess I'll have to revise my system!

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

  • @MH__ , a hearty welcome from one humanist to another. I echo the endorsements of Ahren's book, and I'll add to it Umberto Eco's How to Write a Thesis. While it's meant for students, it's an excellent approach to humanities research (at least I think so) and supportive of using a Zettelkasten.

    My one caution -- let structure notes emerge organically. I found that to be the most helpful way to see clusters of my knowledge emerge. I'm currently doing another degree (in geography), and my various structure notes on geography and cartography emerged from the ZK itself, reflecting how I engage with the material.

    Good luck!

    Observations logged here: write.as/via-poetica

  • @Phil said:
    @Will, my favorite use of tags, or at least the use I seem to get the most mileage out of, is to use them to identify a particular author/text. So Loy's Ecodharma (to fall back on our example), is tagged #loy2018. All searches for the tag bring up every note referencing Loy's book. For articles, I include identifying letters of the title: so, Johannes F.K. Schmidt's "Niklas Luhmann's Card Index: The Fabrication of Serendipity" (published in 2018), becomes #schmidtNLCI2018.

    I use two different approaches to gathering all the notes from a book or paper.
    1. I use a reference manager that keeps citation info and stores PDF's of papers and provides a cite key that is placed in each note. So I can search on the cite key and get all associated notes.
    2. All books and texts are processed in a workflow that starts with a Structure Note and from it every note associated with the book/text is linked. I have a Keyboard Maestro macro that will place all the links in a Structure Note in the Note List and then I can use the keyboard up and down keys to simply scroll through the list.

    Adding a tag seems like an over kill.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • edited August 10

    @Will said:

    Adding a tag seems like an over kill.

    Perhaps. But it does allow for a different slice-and-dice, and gives me a quick global overview of a particular text's contributions to my ZK, which can lead to some interesting and unexpected connections. Plus, I've been burned too often in the past by losing track of citations, and this minimally-demanding extra layer also feels like a bit of insurance.

    I also give the source a full reference following the body of the note and use Zotero as a reference manager..

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

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