Zettelkasten Forum

keeping track of key phrases from readings

edited August 2020 in Writing

When reading/taking notes I often come across a short phrase that neatly/elegantly expresses a key idea that I want to keep track of for use in my own writing (properly cited, of course).

I distinguish such phrases from quotations, in the sense that the kind of phrases I am thinking of are more modular: they can be useful even when completely extricated from the context in which I found them.

For example:
Many of Brown's journal entries exhibit what Smith refers to as "Locke's epistemological optimism."

What I am writing about in this sentence is otherwise completely unrelated to the content of Smith's article. I just liked the way he described Locke.

So, I am wondering if (and how) anyone keeps track of such useful modular phrases, if/when you come across them.

Does anyone maintain a list of "key phrases"? What about tagging them, with something like #phrase?

Even better, might there be a way of extracting all such key phrases from all the various notes where they appear and compiling them in a sortable/searchable "key phrase" compendium? Something like emacs/orgmode TODO functionality? Is that a writer's pipe dream? :)

Anyway, happy noting/writing/zettel'ing, all.


  • Yes, I do this. I don't worry that might I'm just pandering to my hoarding/collector self.
    I listened to a podcast featuring Tim Farris and Maria Popova from 2014. In this interview, Maria lets out that she uses the marginalia coding "BL" to signify "Beautiful Language". I've adopted this marginalia coding and when I process into my Zettelkasten I tag the phrase #beautiful_language.

    I have only started this in the last few months so I haven't yet explored your idea of a "sortable/searchable "key phrase" compendium" past adding a tag. Using the boolean search functionality of the Omni Bar, I already sophisticated search capabilities.

    Will Simpson
    I must keep doing my best even though I'm a failure. My peak cognition is behind me. One day soon I will read my last book, write my last note, eat my last meal, and kiss my sweetie for the last time.

  • edited August 2020

    I didn't know the term of "key phrase" but I did notice them when I wrote my grad school thesis in 2013. At that time whenever I read an article, usually a pdf, I will use 3 or 4 different colors of highlighting.

    One of those color was blue, and I will always use it whenever I wanted to adopt terms or ways to communicate something. For example; in an article I will find the sentence "we grew our cultures in petri dishes and used a 12-hour cycle of light/dark". I will use yellow color because it was important but nothing like the next sentence found in another article. "The cultures were kept in 300 mL flasks with continuous oxygen, culture media M1 in a 12-h light cycles at 275 K". That was highlighted blue and I will use that kind of description for my own experiments because it was a better way for explaining things and it wasn't something that could be thought as plagiarizing since my numbers and cultures will be different.

  • @Will "marginalia coding" is an excellent way of describing it. I had a professor who would draw a small chair in the margins to mark a passage he wanted to sit and think over. Never forgot that.

    @Splattack As it happens, I also use blue to highlight such "stealable" sentences and phrases. Now I'm thinking of how to efficiently extricate them :)

  • Upon reflection,

    in plaintext notes, I am going to try the following scheme for marking extractable key phrases,:

    PHRASE: "this is an extractable phrase" [xi][#Citation2000]

    The capitalization makes it fairly visible in the body of the note, and because the 'tag' is at the beginning of the line, each phrase is on its own line, and it has a : to set it apart from uses of the word "phrase" in other contexts, it would be possible to use a grep command to grab and compile all such lines from a lot of documents. But, more likely I'll just use a Saved Search for "PHRASE:" in The Archive.

    I am also thinking I'll mark questions with this scheme ("QUESTION:"), since I often write questions that come up in the context of taking notes but then lose track of them/forget about them.

    Thoughts/comments/critiques welcome. :)

  • Yes. It is part of of a more aphoristic branch in my Zettelkasten. I attach beautiful wordings to concepts they express.

    It is quite similar to the multitude of definition I let co-exist.

    Sample from my Structure Note on "Attention":

    • Definition
      • [[ID]] as ressource.
      • [[ID]] as psychic energy
      • [[ID]] as mental tool

    Even if I capture a beautiful phrase without anything saying similar I create a new Zettel in which I try to say the same thing and/or explain why it is beautiful. Then the new Zettel gets linked by outline notes etc.

    I am a Zettler

  • @Sasha makes a great point. Its important to "attach beautiful wordings to concepts they express". I have varied success with this and I think I'm getting better at sniffing out the essential. The essential concepts being expressed and using my own language. This is the difference between collecting quotes or facts and Zettelkasting them.

    The first sample is an older note where I didn't take the time to dig into the expression.

    The second example shows me swimming around in the words fishing for a little more of the essence. I was able to integrate it more in my Zettelkasten which felt great, which is my measure of success. Bold text is me.

    @argonsnorts your idea might have some application but I think in the use cases you outlined, it would distract from the project of knowledge nurturing which is Zettelkasting. Creating a tag followed by text in some delimiter and using grep or some other command-line tool for extracting these into a list similar to "emacs/orgmode TODO functionality".

    1. #BL - care must be made not to just collect beautiful quotes. I can't envision the value of a list of collected phrases taken out there context.
    2. @Question - this sounds too much like trying to turn a Zettelkasten into a task manager. Yes, some sort of @inbox is helpful but this is temporary tag.

    I have a sample where this is golden though. When studying for the MCAT's using this to export key ideas for import into a 'spaced learning' tool like Anki.

    Will Simpson
    I must keep doing my best even though I'm a failure. My peak cognition is behind me. One day soon I will read my last book, write my last note, eat my last meal, and kiss my sweetie for the last time.

  • @Will Thanks for your thoughtful response. For me, a collated list of phrases facilitates finding concise and clear descriptions of common concepts for me to borrow (steal) for use in my own writing. For that, the original context doesn't matter—I'm only borrowing the expression.

    For example, if I am writing about the the Newtonian conception of the universe, instead of describing it myself, I could search my list of phrases to find that someone else has described it as a system in which "everything in nature had its proper place and nothing was superfluous." [2][#Goetzmann1986] For that purpose the context isn't particularly important, if it even matters at all. Case in point: Goetzmann's work is not about Newton, but about explorers of the 19th-century American frontier.

    As for the use of the QUESTION tag, it would only be like a task manager if I used it like that. Instead, it serves to mark open questions that I could come back and think about later, and maybe try to address.

    If the ZK is about "knowledge nurturing," then the questions that occur to me are definitely part of that process: they indicate areas in which I lack knowledge and need to do more nurturing. :smile:

  • @argonsnorts Thanks for your clarification. I do see where a list of quotes/beautiful language to peruse for inspiration would be useful. And by your example, I do now see where in most cases the context doesn't much matter.

    The "QUESTION tag". I read into something in this thread about a todo list and extrapolated that one would be using #question to gather these and make a list to be actively worked on. I can see that this is not necessarily how one would use this tag but more to draw one's attention to the question. I'm not sure a tag is the best mechanism for this.

    I can't imagine there'd be a need to just look at all questions across one's whole Zettelkasten without further specifying a search restriction. Something like "Newtonian conception" AND #question to get all the questions captured around the Newtonian conception of the universe. Maybe. What would one do with this list? Wouldn't a better workflow be to have questions answered as one created a new note and in the process of linking it into the broader Zettelkasten notice in a prior note a question that this new note answered? Then updating both?

    I see my questions as gaps, learning opportunities, uncertainty. I see them as wanting answers in the future. This is a way of letting the question percolate over time. I don't want to regiment this process.

    I like the idea of marking and calling attention to the questions in my notes to make them stand out but I'm just not convinced that tagging is the best method.

    Will Simpson
    I must keep doing my best even though I'm a failure. My peak cognition is behind me. One day soon I will read my last book, write my last note, eat my last meal, and kiss my sweetie for the last time.

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