Zettelkasten Forum

Where do you do the contextual thinking for a project?

Hello! :-)

I am happy to report that my Zettelkasten is starting to "come alive". During the last few sessions that I have been using my Zettelkasten, I have rediscovered old forgotten thoughts that have enhanced the thinking I was doing in the present.

One of the keys to this is that I use my Zettelkasten almost every time I have to think about some of my projects.

For example, suppose I'm having trouble developing a character's personality in a fiction story. What I do is create a structural note that aims to answer the question, "What is the ideal workflow for developing the personality of a fictional character?" In this way, the structural note is not about the specific project of that story: the thinking is decontextualized (from its original project), which makes it easier to use that same thinking in other projects and contexts.

However, this is where my doubt arises: what do we do with the thoughts that are inevitably contextual to a project?

Going back to the story example, let's say I am developing the personality of ONE specific character. It makes no sense to decontextualize this thought: I want to develop the personality of THAT character.

So, where is it best to create (and store) these kinds of contextual thoughts (and notes)?

I think using a workspace external to the Zettelkasten (like a Second Brain project folder) might be a good solution. However, I feel that moving my thinking somewhere other than the Zettelkaten has the huge opportunity cost of not using my Zettelkasten.

So, my intuition is that the ideal way should be to manage such contextual notes within my Zettelkasten. However, I don't know how to do this. What I can think of is to create a structural note for that specific character and add the notes it needs. However, I don't know if it makes sense to create and have notes in my Zettelkasten like: "The character A in story B is afraid of the dark because of past trauma C".

In short, where do you do the contextual thinking for a project, and where do you keep it - inside or outside the Zettelkasten?

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” —Isaac Newton


  • edited June 13

    In my system I don't have two separate environments for zettelkasten and projects, so I tend to not encounter this kind of problematic choice.

    I consider separating the environments a "higher order silo effect".

    Every project has its own folder, but folders are soft barriers. A project note can be involved into a zettel note, or a zettel can be referenced as a resource into a project.

    Into my system tend to emerge a "micro contextual zettelkasten" for a single project, that integrates with other micro project zettelkastens and with general zettelkasten when there is need to share the same knowledge slices in different places.

    Reflecting about your case, I think that in my system a book to write has its own project folder, a character is a project resource (I call this kind of stuff "entity"), the character is made as a structure note that combine the different facets of the character, and is involved on itself ,as an atomic concept, into the rest of the "book's micro-zettelkasten" born into that folder. Other stuff (contextual-free resources, for example) can be referenced from outside, using links that "breaks" project folder barrier.
    I tend to place every single stuff where it seems fit best.
    Projects are siloed in folder for having a kind of order and structure, but silos are easy climbable using links inside inwards and outwards

    Using two different environments make this thing harder, I think. In that case, maybe, I could lay the resources involved in my thinking/knowledge development phase into the zettelkasten, the output deliverables into the project system.
    So, the character development belongs to zettelkasten.

    in the end I think yes, your choice can work. Zettelkasting your characters is what I would do.

    I only see the need to find the right way of writing the specific content.
    How to model a character feeling in a context of a story.
    I don't see the need to having a "full canonical 100%" zettel, I could relax the concept orientation and the total de-contextualization.
    It's a small specific model to define.
    I've had a similar issue in one of my use cases of Zettelkasten, the building of a framework for website accessibility.
    Nothing fancy. the framework is a network of rules, principles, patterns and so on.
    I've developed a very small model of "accessibility zettels".
    Some of these zettels seem strange. They are still "thoughts" (reframed according to my personal view of the accessibility domain) but different from ordinary zettels.
    Something like rules of thumb in a specific context of use. So, they are atomized, decontextualized from the sources, reframed, but they still have a specific use context, they are not fully decontextualized. Some of them can often seen as an "instance" of an abstract principle in a specific context.
    Maybe it is not the thing that someone could call zettelkasten, but it works really well for that use case.
    The most important requirement is that they compose well together, as blocks, when I try to build the structures (checklists, in the end) that I use for my work.
    So, in your case, you need to find the right model of character feeling that allows you to build effective character representations.
    In general atomicity and making relations using links are pretty universal. It is never a bad idea use them.

    Maybe I've written a pretty confusing thing, we can talk together better if you want, reasoning on practical examples. I'm not a writer, so I have some difficulty imagining your thought models when you have to write a story. How do you think when you write, what building blocks you use.

    Edit 2024-06-12 Reasoning further, I think that my proposal of modeling has some pitfalls to evaluate further.
    In my use case of accessibility, I see that zettels haven't all the same level of abstraction and the same role. Some of them can be considered units of thinking and builing blocks for output at the same time, others are closer to thinking phase, others are closer to the output.
    For a story development, maybe we are even closer to the output side, it is a more contextual type of modeling than mine in accessibility.
    Yes, I think that in the use case you have proposed we are really at the edge between zettelkasten environment and project environment for some of the blocks we need to write.

    This doesn't mean, anyway, that we can't use many of the canonical zettelkasten tools and principles for develop our characters. For Example, @jiwonac has proposed a good idea, using something like folgezettel (a train of thought is pretty well, too) for modeling a complex interaction, still usable even if we wanted to consider this stuff belongs to the output domain.
    This is enough, for me, to consider character development suitable in Zettelkasten domain.

    We should try with a real example if this stuff works. It definitely needs to be fixed once tried.

    In the end, your "The character A in story B is afraid of the dark because of past trauma C" is a building block of the model of your book, and if you consider this model the output of the zettelkasten, that note is an output building block.
    At the same time, I feel that you "develop" that note in a zettelkasten-like process in the network of other similar notes, rather than simply "writing" it fleshing from a real Zettel.
    I see a blurred situation. Rather than overthinking, maybe it's better to try...

    In my own system, that I've thinked as "integrated" and "soft barrier" having not separated Zettelkasten and Project, I don't consider this a real issue, anyway. Project zettels and output blocks live together even when they really have a different type.

    Post edited by andang76 on
  • Hi! I have two thoughts/suggestions, which can coexist.

    1. Use folgezettel or a similar mechanism (e.g. breadcrumbs) to clearly specify the context. For example, in Luhmannian Zettelkasten, 1a8 is clearly commenting on some aspect of 1a7. Thus, there is no need to further specify context due to the inherent locality of folgezettel.

    1a7: What if I wrote a story centered around blah blah...
    1a8: The main character should have these characteristics...
    1a9: It might sell the theme better if the MC was...

    In a tool like TA or Obsidian, you can specify one more more parent notes to each note through interlinking.

    1. Separate the tool used between exploratory work (Zettelkasten) and production work (LaTeX manuscript, Word document, Scrivener project, etc.).
  • edited June 8

    @FernandoNobel said:

    In short, where do you do the contextual thinking for a project, and where do you keep it - inside or outside the Zettelkasten?

    I keep it inside. I tag all notes related to a project (including what you call contextual thinking) with a "project tag" specific to that project. My current project tag syntax is "project-" followed by a keyword for each project. Some notes have multiple project tags, and, of course, any note can have other kinds of tags too.

    However, I don't know if it makes sense to create and have notes in my Zettelkasten like: "The character A in story B is afraid of the dark because of past trauma C".

    It makes sense to me. If I search my note system and I want to exclude search results related to specific projects, I can exclude notes that have project tags. But I don't recall that I ever needed to exclude all projects from a search. Most often my use of project tags when searching is to search within a set of project-related notes.

    EDIT: By the way, I don't write fiction. I can't say how well my system would work for fiction writing.

  • edited June 10

    Same system.
    The current maturity of most of the TfT or PKM digital systems allows you to clearly define any domain boundary you need, whether it is by action status, activity category, etc. In my case, although I'm not a purist or intensive ZK user, I combine Ingest, Digest, Excute, and Curate within the same system (Tana.inc, currently on paid Beta).

    David Delgado Vendrell

  • Thank you @andang76 , @Andy and @daviddelven for you comments! :-)

    Now I don't have time to develop my ideas fully. However, my conclusion is that it doesn't matter where you do contextual thinking: you can use your Zettelkasten or any other thinking environment.

    Of course, using the Zettelkasten has advantages:

    • (1) Easy access to the contents of the Zettelkasten. The context-switching friction cost of querying and linking to/from your Zettelkasten is zero (you are already working on your Zettelkasten).
    • (2) Zettelkasten software tools. You can use all the excellent software tools that Zettelkasten offers (full-text search, links, tags, etc.).
    • (3) Ease of improving the contents of the Zettelkasten. The contextual thinking of the project could improve the content of the Zettelkasten and, similar to (1), it is easier to improve the contents of the Zettelkasten as they are directly accessible.

    However, using another thinking environment also has its advantages. For example, walking is a thinking environment that allows you to exercise simultaneously as you think. On the other hand, using a PARA project folder makes it easier to work with the digital files needed for a project.

    I am developing a fiction story within my Zettelkasten to test this conclusion. So far, the main benefit of doing this is that I am getting is (2).

    Finally, I think the most important idea is that we should take advantage of the opportunities to:

    • use our projects to improve the contents of our Zettelkasten
    • and, vice versa, use the contents of our Zettelkasten to improve our projects.

    “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” —Isaac Newton

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