Zettelkasten Forum


To start ZK (in the midst of a big project), do we at first go "in reverse?"

I'm grateful to this community for supporting me in my first few days and for being so generous with time (and with my multiple posts).

Has anyone done this conversion of a robust amount of digested materials to zettels while in a book-writing project or something of that nature?

I'm working on a book project which already has an outline for each chapter and several documents that could be converted into notes. To make progress, is it a good idea to transfer the outline ideas and documents into zettels? I can see how this would take a ton of time (and am hoping the 10+ days I've taken to understand and start ZK will pay off). And yet, if it helps in the end to connect research to ideas to outlines and generates "productive play" in my ZK, is it worthwhile?

I may have the analogy incorrect since I'm so new. But is it a little like going in reverse, in that you end up converting material you've already digested into zettels? If anyone has tried this, or has reflections on it, I'd love to hear it.

(And I promise to level off with my question asking soon. :) )

Big gratitude.

Comments

  • Could you be a bit more specific about the book project? A lot might depend on what you are trying to do. A fantasy novel and a text book on engineering would no doubt demand different approaches. Not that I have written either of those, but twenty years ago I did publish a 150,000 word history book, and ten years ago I completed an 85,000 word doctoral thesis. So I have at least some idea of what might be involved. :)

  • @MartinBB Sure: It's a creative non-fiction book focusing on the science and practice of embodiment (of which proprioception, which I've mentioned elsewhere, is one of the elements).

  • When I was researching and writing my book I eventually hit on a method that helped me, which was to put everything that related to chapter 1 into a folder called "Chapter 1", and so on. It only took me about five years to work this out, which was swift for me. I suppose I was remembering one of my schoolteachers, who used to say "put together what goes together". I would say that any effort you make towards understanding, organising, and linking your material is unlikely to be wasted, whatever method you use. If you want to use the Zettelkasten method, then an advantage is that you can start small and see if it helps you. Experiment a bit by creating some notes and linking them where appropriate. I think it is important to realise that you are not adopting a set of rules -- you are trying out a method for recording information and ideas, for connecting them, and for retrieving them when you want. There is nothing magical about this, and nothing is cast in stone. It may not work for you, but the only way you can find out is by trying it. And I would say do not be afraid to bend the method to your needs if that would be advantageous. The fact that something works for somebody else does not mean it will work for you -- and what would be impossible for another person might be perfect for your case. Only you can find out what works for you. Good luck with it!

  • edited March 9

    @bforbes I don't think that creating a ZK that delivers new insights and creatively establishes new, heretofore unanticipated connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, is something that works to a timeline. If you expect it to, you are likely to be disappointed.

    This is just my opinion, but starting a ZK seems to be a job for the beginning of whatever journey you are on, whereas it sounds like you are nearing the end of your journey. If you have your book organized into chapters, with an outline for each, what is stopping you from just writing it? You must have gathered and compiled and processed a lot of information already, or you would not have got to the point that you are at. Are you hesitating because you don't like what you have achieved so far? Do you have a sense that there is more to your topic or research than you have revealed? You should examine why you are pausing at this point in your journey and looking backward. There may be good reasons or maybe you are just nervous about finishing.

    If you have time and want to explore whether or not there are new thought trains and new insights to discover, and want to pursue the ZK approach, then by all means press forward. But if you are on a tight or even somewhat constrained timeline, or if there are other reasons that you should finish up your work and move on, "experimenting" with a ZK may not be helpful or, at least, may not pay your hoped-for benefits within the required time frame.

    I've learned, over the 9 months that I've been at this so far, to be patient with what is revealed in my ZK - the timing cannot be predicted and neither can the results. But note that while I am working with purpose I am not working to a schedule; the experience of others who are much more focused on a specific topic, within a specific time frame, may be quite different.

  • I agree with @MartinBB, start small and simple, don't try to engineer everything up front, and allow it to grow organically.

    The result will be something that doesn't necessarily resemble any of the systems you see discussed online but is uniquely yours to meet your specific needs.

    Also agree with the point about rules – a lot of people coming in look for specific rules to follow, but it doesn't work that way. Since everyone's needs are unique any attempt to define rigid rules will result in many people not being able to use the system. It's better to try to understand and apply the foundational principles.

    Key principles include:

    • Write atomic notes that capture the entirety of a single concept/thought/idea/principle/etc in a way that makes sense to your future self
    • Link notes together in meaningful ways that enable your future self to understand why the links exist

    Pretty much everything else beyond those two is getting into the mechanics and logistics.

    While I'm not writing a book I do have a large collection of notes (over 10k) in a spaced repetition system that I want to port over to my ZK. I started out by spending a lot of time importing a chunk of them over but found this time was not necessarily well spent, at least not for me and my needs right now. So I've shifted gears and am focusing on getting the content out of the proprietary SRS format and into Markdown files, with the eventual goal of incorporating them into my ZK but not focusing on that in the near term. This gets them into an open format and doesn't require me to spend large amounts of time merging them in with my existing note system.

    But it does allow me to reference them externally when needed, once they are liberated from the proprietary format. And as I find the need to reference them I can prioritize pulling those over.

    If I were in your situation I would consider a similar approach: don't necessarily try to bulk import the current work into the ZK yet, but instead use the ZK to focus on a single set of principles that will be covered in the book but perhaps haven't been yet. That way you can build out those notes in the ZK independently of the existing work. As you build out the notes in your ZK you will find yourself making reference to material that only exists in the book, and you can do that in one of two ways: you can make a simple textual reference like "this is related to concept X in my draft of the book, see page XXX" or you can copy the relevant atomic bits of content from the book and backport those into the ZK when you see the value in doing so.

    In this way you start small, start with a focused area that is not heavily covered in the book/existing research yet, and organically grow and incorporate the content into your ZK if and when the situation warrants.

    I visualize it as similar to an amoeba moving and reaching out to find and incorporate food in its environment.

  • @GeoEng51 Those are great points, thanks.

    I'm actually on a somewhat constrained timeline, but have only written 3/4 of one chapter and outlined the next. None of the other chapters are outlined, and there's much research to be done, so that's what attracted me to switch gears at this point. I'm closer to the beginning of one project than I'd like to be.

    That said, appreciate your point about not constraining ZK to a timeline. I'm wondering if anyone has done it close to the beginning of a book project, or whether that's ill-advised. I'll reflect on that.

    @GeoEng51 said:
    @bforbes Do you have a sense that there is more to your topic or research than you have revealed?

    That's a great question, and I'd say the answer is yes. The area I'm looking to develop now is the relationship between concepts, and finding new connections.

    I'm also hoping that ZK will help me better outline the next chapters. And the research article load is huge, and I'm hoping it will help me take better notes.

    Thanks for the input!

  • @davecan said:

    If I were in your situation I would consider a similar approach: don't necessarily try to bulk import the current work into the ZK yet, but instead use the ZK to focus on a single set of principles that will be covered in the book but perhaps haven't been yet. That way you can build out those notes in the ZK independently of the existing work. As you build out the notes in your ZK you will find yourself making reference to material that only exists in the book, and you can do that in one of two ways: you can make a simple textual reference like "this is related to concept X in my draft of the book, see page XXX" or you can copy the relevant atomic bits of content from the book and backport those into the ZK when you see the value in doing so.

    In this way you start small, start with a focused area that is not heavily covered in the book/existing research yet, and organically grow and incorporate the content into your ZK if and when the situation warrants.

    I visualize it as similar to an amoeba moving and reaching out to find and incorporate food in its environment.


    Thanks for this. I keep seeing the feeding and nourishing metaphors, which is super cool. And doing a hybrid approach sounds like a much better use of time and energy, and an aid to the process, than trying to immediately port everything into ZK at a time when that learning curve is steep and I haven't discovered what works for me yet. Much appreciated!

  • @MartinBB said:
    If you want to use the Zettelkasten method, then an advantage is that you can start small and see if it helps you. Experiment a bit by creating some notes and linking them where appropriate. I think it is important to realise that you are not adopting a set of rules -- you are trying out a method for recording information and ideas, for connecting them, and for retrieving them when you want. There is nothing magical about this, and nothing is cast in stone. It may not work for you, but the only way you can find out is by trying it. And I would say do not be afraid to bend the method to your needs if that would be advantageous.

    Super helpful, thanks so much.

    Really appreciating this Forum!

  • The "put together what belongs together" remark by @MartinBB reminds me of Twyla Tharp's book The Creative Habit where a technique boils down to: collect interesting things that might be nice for a project in a box. And eventually review the pile and be inspired and then bring order to it. :)

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

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