Zettelkasten Forum

Introduction and Questions

Hi everyone! I'm Joe, a recently graduated master's student working on international security and defense issues. I ran into the zettelkasten system while deep diving for ways to deepen my research, organize my usually jumbled thoughts, and connect my ideas. The zettel process is helpful because most of my work turns into written productsI often readng academic journals and think pieces on military concepts and other international policies.

I just restarted my zettel journey after reading Ahrens' "Smart Notes" and powering through a few Youtube videos. My current focus is figuring out a "good" way to process literature notes. My initial way of creating literature notes would be a two-step process: taking general notes while reading and then finalizing a summary for the "final literature note" to connect with my fleeting notes to create permanent notes.

I'm still a zettel newbie, so how do you process your literature notes? Any recommended readings about the topic? I look forward to engaging with everyone and learning more about the zettelkasten system!


  • When I read academic journals and think pieces, I mark them up with marginalia and highlight key ideas. I then transfer those markings to a note. The example below is in its first rough draft and sits intermingled in my ZK but corraled with the "#proofing" tag. I read this article last night and have yet to refactor any of the highlights. Refactoring will be done in place. This note will eventually have fewer words. It will contain links to child ideas and related notes within my ZK. The tags/keywords will change, and the title may evolve. I'll attach this note to an existing hub or structure note and create a one-line summary of the key idea.

    Over time the note evolves. It will stay in my "#proofing" oven until I'm satisfied it can roam with the herd. I know that is vague, but the initial birthing of the note varies with content and mood. I don't get stuck on any idea of permanence as all my notes, which are proxies for ideas, are subject to change; otherwise, they become dogma.

    The above note is new, so I have included a screenshot of a different note that has been worked enough to show what I'm doing when I turn a note loose.

    The original copy of the marginalia and highlights is not kept but evolves toward the ideas it contains. It provides the structure for the note as it matures. I use a review process that helps me rethink each note on a spaced time repeating schedule. This way, I can look at the best I can at the time when it surfaces, also knowing that I don't have to stress about being perfect as I'll be seeing this very same note soon. I found that when presented with a note this way, I often can now think of a way it might relate to some other thread that I'm currently working on.

    Do you have questions?

    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.

  • I took some time before dinner to start the refactoring of PD Overview (NINDS) 202207130901, now titled PD Pathology (NINDS) 202207130901. It is still in the "#proofing" oven. I'll sleep on the ideas and see how I feel about it tomorrow. It has shrunk from 1056 to 247 words and a more atomic idea of ## Pathology. Some of the content was peeled off, making a couple of additional notes, some parts were folded into existing notes because of idea similarity, and some highlights were discarded. One small quote remains; the rest has been reworded with my understanding. The references are included, and links to relevant ideas in my Zk. The original note has morphed into this. The old note is history. Now I'm moving on to refactoring four notes on the philosophy of travel—a super fascinating field.

    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.

  • @americankickball Welcome to the forum. @Will just gave you a Masters (if not PhD) short course on bringing information into your ZK - worth its weight in gold.

    Don't get too caught up in various terms like fleeting notes, literature notes, etc. They have different meanings to different people. In the end, a note is just a note. The only distinction I make is a note outside my ZK (what I call a fleeting note because it will disappear in short order), which I do not intend to ever bring inside my ZK, and a note in my ZK (which I call a zettel). As @Will pointed out, none of your zettels should be static - they will be ever evolving. Some people develop ways of recording references to the source of some of the ideas in their ZK using Zotero or some other library database software. I'm not that fancy; if I think I need a reference, I just type it as normal reference text at the end of a zettel.

  • Thanks for the responses, @Will and @GeoEng51. My most successful process is actively reading and taking notes that are (first) in a mixture of my voice and the authors. I do this mainly when working with a conceptually dense topic to "ease my understanding." After, I process the note down into purely my words and understanding. Finally, I create individual concepts and atomic idea/notes from the readings. I've found that since I started, I'll make a "permanent note" that could be further "atomized."

    I'm always learning as a go and finding useful notetaking styles. Thanks for the insight!

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