Zettelkasten Forum

When is a Zettelkasten not helpful for writing / understanding the true advantages of the ZK

edited January 2018 in Writing

Hi, the Zettelkasten seems to work best for long-term writing projects and the magic seems be in connecting ideas and thoughts with one another that build over time. Under the circumstance in which you are writing a short paper, an article, a blog post, a business proposal or other document that will not be a long term project, is the ZK approach to notetaking, drafting, and outlining still the best method to use?

More specifically, let me showcase the general workflow as I understand it, and then pose the question on whether this method always works best. Also feel free to correct my workflow if I've misinterpreted from the posts on this website I've read.

Assuming you don't already have information in your ZK on the topic...
1. Research
2. Cluster notes
3. Input into Zettel, make connections
4. Create document outline
5. Insert note references into draft
6. Replace note references with the Zettel text
7. Repeat as necessary until draft is complete

Are there circumstances in which you've found it more advantageous to skip steps 3-6 and just start typing your draft out after consolidating notes / pulling out themes? I recognize the obvious advantage that adding notes in the ZK first allows you to pick up on connections from existing notes. But if the topic is quite small, given its a small paper, or a focused topic, so connection advantages are limited, are steps 5 and 6 still a better way to compile a document? Because if not for making connections to existing Zettel, and if the paper is not complex, I'm not sure the advantages of having Zettel references first before inserting the Zettel content.

For simpler writing projects I was actually seeing this workflow to be more cumbersome than helpful but I was wondering if this was perhaps because I'm very new at this and if it would become better and faster over time. Or if I need to recognize and acknowledge the times to use the ZK method and the times not to.

@ctietze do you always use this approach when you write this blog for example?



  • I would not distinguish projects of different sizes. Small projects might grow large over time ;-)

    Whether I write a blog post or an article for a magazine or a book is irrelevant to me with regard to the source of my material: it all comes from the one zettelkasten.

    Also, when I verzettel something (e.g. a thought I had or an article I read) I cannot and do not want to foresee in what context it will be of value in the future.

    The difference for me does not lie in the zettelkasten but maybe in the writing tool. I might use Word to write an article and work with the zettelkasten in a slightly different way then when I use Scrivener to write a book. Word only provides a linear way to arrange material, Scrivener on the other hand allows me to arrange material in a more spatial manner.

    But the zettelkasten stays "the single source of truth" in any case.

  • @ralfw thanks for your response. At what point do you add notes to the ZK vs add paragraphs directly to paper though? You also store thoughts or connections you've built up in your head, correct? Technically every (decent) paragraph in an article or paper is a thought or concept. At it's most extreme level every paragraph could be individually composed in the ZK, then pieced together on paper afterwards. During your paper preparation, what framework do you use to determine what's ZK thought build up and what should be written in the article itself?

    Also the point I was making was that if you're sitting at your desk preparing to pump out an article, it seems rather cumbersome to piece it together in a ZK first when your output is not a buildup of thoughts over time but rather something you're about to produce one hour from now. At that point it seems easier to frame it out in a notebook or freehand and insert the juicy stuff in the ZK afterwards if only to save for later use. But seems all writing for you starts in the ZK first no matter what? As in the ZK is used to help form the thought as well as supply them?

  • Each paragraph might be zettel worthy ;-) But the paragraphs already come from zettels; I distill them from what's already in the zettelkasten.

    An article/book is a projection of zettelkasten content. For me that's primarily a unidirectional flow from zettelkasten to Word or Scrivener or Ulysses for writing.

    Mostly at least. Because sometimes I might stumble across something new while writing. Then, of course, this new thoughts will become a new zettel of its own.

    If I need to aggregate zettels first before I write, I sometimes create special zettel for that, but mostly not. In general I scavenge the zettelkasten for material pertaining to the text to write - and then project it into the writing medium.

    I prefer a clear process. Either I verzettel stuff - a flow of stuff into the zettelkasten. Or I use zettels for new stuff - a flow of stuff from the zettelkasten to the outside.

    In the end however, it's a matter of personal taste. Play around with different approaches. Don't try to find an "endorsed method" of working with the zettelkasten. Beware of cargo cult ;-)

    Rather stick to principles: you need to be able to easily reference "thoughts", you need to easily find them.

    From that follows for me:

    • for easy reference: just a single thought (on a certain level of abstraction) on each zettel, surrogate keys (IDs) for zettels, a zettel structure to identify references to other zettels via ID.
    • for easy finding: a chronological order because sometimes you remember time/space where a zettel was created, an index (from tags) to find zettel by words not used in their text , fulltext search.

    And then: When in doubt create one more zettel :-) In the end there will be so many, anyways, it won't make a difference.

    But don't be obsessed with zettels. Let go of them. Create something new - like a blog posting - which stands on its own and does not need to made into zettels again.

    To me a zettelkasten once and for all removes the fear of running out of ideas :-) There's no scarcity of them. Hence no need to make paragraphs etc. into zettels.

  • Since @zwhaley asked, I admit: I’m not pure in my Zettelkasten flow.

    To think to aome purpose, I write. Without pen in hand, I cannot seem to hold onto my fleeting thoughts and form a coherent piece from them.

    That’s why I write some, maybe even most blog posts from the bottom of my heart first :) Then I extract notes afterwards, when the narration of the post is finished. Same for emails and forum posts. Often, the gist is not new to my Zettelkasten, and I can recall it from the top of my head, but some angle or detail is new and arose from the conversation itself. Anyway, I don’t write forum posts in my note archive and then paste them here. Rather the opposite. Same for blog posts, most of the time.

    When I need to craft the text from well-known notes because of its complexity and time pressure, I start with notes, write around them, and extract Zettel later. I write inside my archive mostly when I have leisure time dedicated to research.

    Because I’m a programmer most of the time :)

    The discussion topic sounds a bit different, though: limits of writing and the ZK. What about disadvantages?

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

  • @zwhaley I ride this horse backwards. If I have an certain text idea I might skip the all of the steps and just hack my keyboard. Means: I write the text in one sitting without any planning.

    After I finished the text, I then process it as it if was not my text and add the useful stuff into my archive.

    But if any research is involved it is done in your research and thinking environment: The Zettelkasten.

    I am a Zettler

Sign In or Register to comment.