Zettelkasten Forum

How big is a single idea in a literature note?

I was reading the following two passages written by Martin and Mitch when I realize a seemingly simple yet complex question, how do we define a single idea/core idea in a literature note?

Let's say I just read a passage on how to make a cake and create a number of highlights and comments. Now is the title "how to make a cake" a core idea? Or should I go into more detailed title like which flour should I buy or how do I use the oven? If I need to go to the detailed titles, does it mean I need to create a separate note for each title?


The struggle with one literature note per idea
Understanding zettelkasten notes


  • Since we are talking about cakes: My grandma was an expert cake maker. She had an extensive recipe collection (for all kinds of foods) on index cards in a long wooden box (which was literally a Zettelkasten although she didn't use the German word), and I guarantee that in her recipe collection any cake recipe went on only one card. She didn't make separate cards for which flour to buy or how to set the oven.

    These days, you may be using personal knowledge base software that uses a more granular data model in which the different parts of the recipe are different elements/units. When working digitally there are a lot of options for the data model of a personal knowledge base. Typically people in this forum follow the Zettelkasten metaphor and treat a note/zettel as analogous to an index card; in that model, the most practical solution would be to put the whole recipe in one note just like my grandma did it.

    "How do we define a single idea/core idea" is a perennial question, most recently discussed in, for example, "More programmer nonsense Re: Atomicity - Writing and Thinking", where one of the relevant concepts was usability: you want to create structures that will be most usable to your future self. What will be most usable depends in part on the content: cake recipes, like many other kinds of content, will have a well established structure for which you could even create a template.

  • @Jackhansonc I'm with @Andy - I think the recipe should go on just one card. However, there are many aspects of the cooking that could be on separate cards. For example, I am learning about making sourdough, gluten-free bread. There are many related topics, such as how to make the yeast water, how to create the starter, how to feed the starter, and what equipment makes the job easier, which could all be on separate zettels, connected to the zettel with the recipe.

    Moving away from the analogy, the decision is, to some extent, in your hands. Different people might parse the information in different ways.

  • The details depend on your level of analysis. Example:

    You think about a country. So, you create a note about the country. But this country is divided into counties with cities and their districts. Each level can have an atomic note, because the concept of the country is as atomic as the concept of the district.

    However, it is unlikely for someone with macroeconomics in mind to write notes on districts and unlikely for a boy, writing about the ecology of the local wood, to care about the country and its relationship to the wood. (Everything is possible)

    But on the level of knowledge: There are building blocks of knowledge. Take arguments for example: An argument has exactly three elements.

    1. The logical form
    2. The premisses
    3. The conclusion

    If you are an atomic purist, you just have those three elements on the note and then link to the empirical evidence that supports the truth of the premisses.

    But sometimes, you need to bend the rule, when practicability is more important than theory.

    In any way, the ability to recognise atoms comes with the combination of theoretical knowledge on the nature of knowledge and practical experience in dealing with it (e.g. using your ZK to learn or write)

    I am a Zettler

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