Zettelkasten Forum


PhD student reporting what it's like to use a Zettelkasten for the first time with my classes

This is the first semester where I'm using my Zettelkasten for my courses (PhD program in humanistic psychology, creativity studies specialization). Now that I've got some reps under my belt, here's how it's working so far:

Feeding My Zettelkasten

  • I typically read in the mornings before the day starts. I take fleet notes as I read. (Oh my, do I now love taking fleet notes!!!)
  • Then I let those fleet notes sit while I work on other stuff throughout the day.
  • In the evening, I'll review my fleet notes with Archive open and a stack of physical note cards. (I use both physical cards and Archive.)
  • With a bit of distance from when they were taken (hours), I'll look for the things that speak to me or that I want to share with ZK on a Dear ZK card.
  • I'll write up my physical cards as if they were postcards to my ZK (introducing the subject from my reading, then expounding on it with my own thoughts).
  • I use my Archive and physical ZK to find where these new cards build upon existing ideas for where to add them into my ZK brain.
  • The completed card goes into Archive (this system REALLY works for me).

Being Fed By My Zettelkasten

  • I'll look at my writing topics and needs for the week in my courses.
  • I'll open Archive and search for tags related to the topic (plus a few random searches just to see what novel ideas want to show up)
  • I'll pull the physical cards that seem relevant and physically play with them, laying out possible ideas for my paper/discussion on my desk.
  • I'll land on an order with the physical cards and pull the digital content - included my references which I already listed on my zettels - into a draft Word document.
  • I let it sit for a bit and come back to it for more edits. If other ideas want to pop up from my Zettelkasten, back to the Archive I go.
  • When it's ready, I submit it as appropriate and thank my Zettelkasten for making it SO. MUCH. EASIER OH MY GOODNESS!!!!

Seriously. It's like Ahrens said in How To Take Smart Notes: with a Zettelkasten your paper is basically written as you read. All you have to do is pull it forth when it's time.

If you are a student and are wondering if it's worth starting a Zettelkasten - it is!

Comments

  • Bravo!!

    I'll second this. I'm currently in a second master's program with a thesis coming up in about 8 months. I could not write my reports without my ZK. No going back for me! I'm also now more confident that I could pursue a PhD.

    Have you read Umberto Eco's How to Writ a Thesis? It's a fantastic complement to Ahren's book, for those with academic inclinations, especially humanists and social scientists.

    Observations logged here: write.as/via-poetica

  • @jeannelking said:

    • I'll open Archive and search for tags related to the topic (plus a few random searches just to see what novel ideas want to show up)
    • I'll pull the physical cards that seem relevant and physically play with them, laying out possible ideas for my paper/discussion on my desk.

    Great post, @jeannelking, and it's inspiring to read your experiences with using your Zettelkasten in your academic workflow. Quick question though, with apologies if you've addressed it elsewhere: do you have both a physical and digital archive? If not, where do you draw the line between digital/analog?

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

  • @jeannelking Do you mind if we publish your post on the main page?

    @ctietze Veröffentlichungswert, oder?

    I am a Zettler

  • edited September 7

    @jeannelking

    I love this—just two phases. Feeding and Being Fed.
    I've found the I can write essays using a similar method.

    1. Use tags and keyword searches to gather notes relevant to the essay topic
    2. Make a structure note as a first draft of the results
    3. Export notes to IA Writer for editing
    4. Export to Word for presentation to the class

    Easy peasy :smile:

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • @Sociopoetic said:
    Have you read Umberto Eco's How to Writ a Thesis? It's a fantastic complement to Ahrens' book, for those with academic inclinations, especially humanists and social scientists.

    I haven't but will add this one to the bookstand - thanks for the recommendation, and please share your ZK thesis experiences when you get there...I'd love to hear!

  • @Phil said:

    Quick question though, with apologies if you've addressed it elsewhere: do you have both a physical and digital archive? If not, where do you draw the line between digital/analog?

    My Zettelkasten is both physical and digital:

    • I create physical cards because a) I think and plan spatially, and b) the act of writing allows me to slow down and actually take in/think about what I'm processing mentally. (I'm blazing fast as a typist and suffer from typing volumes of stuff that I cannot recall afterwards.)

    • I enter my cards into The Archive because a) it's a great way to quickly find existing content in my ZK, and b) I may access my ZK from anywhere I have an internet connection. (Pre-pandemic, my job required 80% travel so digital/remote accessibility is important to me.)

    Somehow, this combination of writing to process plus revisiting to enter into my Archive is helping me remember and make connections better (I believe) than if I were to use physical or digital cards exclusively. All physical would slow my accessibility to content, and all digital would weaken my retention and recall of content.

    Hope that helps!

  • @sfast said:
    @jeannelking Do you mind if we publish your post on the main page?

    @ctietze Veröffentlichungswert, oder?

    Honored, yes you may!

  • @jeannelking Yes - thank you for sharing your experiences - most inspiring!

    I understand the power of thinking visually, but I don't have the patience to write onto a paper Zettel and then transfer that into The Archive. If the handwriting part was important, I could do that using GoodNotes on my iPad and then having GoodNotes transcribe the handwriting to text, but even that is still too fiddly for me. I type at a modest rate and just like listening / reading / thinking / typing all together - somehow the brain seems to be able to integrate all that.

    However, each of us needs to find a work process and flow that suits us best. I can see the advantages of the process that you describe.

    Like @Will, I love the metaphor of feeding and being fed.

  • @jeannelking said:

    Somehow, this combination of writing to process plus revisiting to enter into my Archive is helping me remember and make connections better (I believe) than if I were to use physical or digital cards exclusively. All physical would slow my accessibility to content, and all digital would weaken my retention and recall of content.

    Hope that helps!

    Yes, thanks! So you take analog fleeting/literature notes and then process them permanently into the Zettelkasten? Do you keep the physical cards after you've digitized them?

    Sorry for the follow-up questions, but others' workflows are fascinating to me.

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

  • @Phil said:
    So you take analog fleeting/literature notes and then process them permanently into the Zettelkasten? Do you keep the physical cards after you've digitized them?

    That’s right.
    Fleet notes: discard after translating into paper Zettels
    Paper Zettels: keep after digitizing.
    :^)

  • @jeannelking I understand fleeting notes as per “smart notes” though could you elaborate on what yours might look like? Is it a quick thought? Word?
    Do you find it disrupts your reading flow?

  • @VDL1516 said:
    @jeannelking I understand fleeting notes as per “smart notes” though could you elaborate on what yours might look like? Is it a quick thought? Word?
    Do you find it disrupts your reading flow?

    When I read, I keep a blank notebook with me. As I read, when something strikes me I scribble it down in my notebook. Solid line between entries, and I write extra large. Sometimes it's just a few words, sometimes it's a longer entry. Depends on what struck me.

    When I finish reading the chapter, I let them sit so my brain does other things and processes the information in the background. That evening, when I sit down to revisit my fleet notes for what to feed into my Zettelkasten, it looks something like this:

    I took notes on things that interested me, but not all the notes made it into my Zettelkasten. The Mumford and Todd notes were interesting but didn't really add anything profound or insightful to my Zettelkasten conversation. Neither did the paradox of creative people: that one's pretty obvious for me and would have simply created a "no duh" zettel. The stuff about Wallas's Four Phase Model, though? SUPER meaningful, and I had a lot I wanted to say about it upon revisiting that fleet note. (Really, chapter author, you just drop the whole concept of intimation?! That's like one of the most interesting parts of his FIVE Phase model!) That one made it into my Zettelkasten. As I make a decision one way or the other for each fleet note, I draw a line through it just so I know I've decided (in or out) and acted (created the zettel).

    As my method of notetaking in the past was to write my notes directly in the books/articles I was reading as if I was talking with the book's content directly, this fleet notes style works just fine for me and my reading flow.

  • Good approach - thanks for sharing the image. I would guess that processing your "fleet notes" on the same day would be important, before a night's sleep had time to reset your brain?

  • edited September 10

    @jeannelking said:

    When I read, I keep a blank notebook with me. As I read, when something strikes me I scribble it down in my notebook. Solid line between entries, and I write extra large. Sometimes it's just a few words, sometimes it's a longer entry. Depends on what struck me.

    And this, right here, is how you've inspired me to make the note taking part of the reading process. I tend to revisit books (and the notes I make in them) long after I've finished them, which takes a lot more time because I've got to re-familiarize myself with both what I read and my own thoughts about it.

    Your method seems a lot more effective.

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

  • @Phil said:
    And this, right here, is how you've inspired me to make the note-taking part of the reading process.

    Yes, @jeannelking is an inspiration!

    I started reading with a notebook handy only a 3 books ago, it was during the Idea Index discussion that I started.

    My method/workflow is evolving but is now a combination of your idea index, annotated with notes like @jeannelking's example. I'm finding reading more fruitful am I tend to keep myself involved in the reading process more asking questions and looking for connections.

    Here is a picture of one of my notebook pages made while reading -
    Gary Snyder (2004): The practice of the wild: essays, Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard - [@Snyder:2004a]

    I had 3 pages like this and they were factored into 12 zettel and a structure note. They are crossed out as I processed the notes into zettel sorry they are hard to read. This was a physical book but what is nice is that this method/workflow works equally well with a digital book.

    I tend to revisit books (and the notes I make in them) long after I've finished them, which takes a lot more time because I've got to re-familiarize myself with both what I read and my own thoughts about it.

    The time between noting and processing said notes is inversely proportional to their perceived value. If we think a note has high value it is best to reduce the time between noting and processing.

    Maybe but not always. Notes can be like fine wines requiring a long fermentation. Sometimes ideas are not readily apparent. I think I know the feeling you are alluding to though. When the time came to process the note in the picture above, "Wildernesses are the West's Temples" page 100 paragraph 3 and page 101 paragraph 2, (This was a library book so I couldn't deface it with highlights.) I was at a loss as to what I was thinking when I applied the !!. Whatever idea I had was not durable and oh well gone!

    All this does not suggest that sometimes ideas are lost by delay, but sometimes good ideas need fermentation and sometimes intriguing ideas in one moment become just monkey mind hash on further reflection.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • @GeoEng51 said:
    Good approach - thanks for sharing the image. I would guess that processing your "fleet notes" on the same day would be important, before a night's sleep had time to reset your brain?

    That's actually an interesting question. I've been working from that assumption, and have made it a practice to convert my fleet notes in the evening before going to bed. However, I recently experienced an evening filled with so many fleet notes that I couldn't possibly process them all before going to bed. (I had read a REALLY interesting chapter.) So I came back to them the next day. What I found was that the fleet notes that held juice still held their juice, and the fleet notes that I would have found to be "meh" had I processed them the evening before had practically withered on the vine overnight. It made it pretty easy to cull my notes, not because I had forgotten what prompted me to write them in the first place, but because the morning gave me a bit more distance and clear seeing of what was there.

    If I wait for more than the next morning, I think I'd start to worry about losing track/relevance. Perhaps someone else has experience with longer delays? I'd love to hear!

  • @Phil said:
    And this, right here, is how you've inspired me to make the note-taking part of the reading process.

    >

    @Will said:
    Yes, @jeannelking is an inspiration!

    blushing! 😊

    Notes can be like fine wines requiring a long fermentation. Sometimes ideas are not readily apparent...

    >

    All this does not suggest that sometimes ideas are lost by delay, but sometimes good ideas need fermentation and sometimes intriguing ideas in one moment become just monkey mind hash on further reflection.

    Monkey mind hash served up with a fine wine. The inevitable meal of every researcher right there.

    I appreciate this forum so much!

  • Really useful discussion. Thanks everyone.

  • So you can see the results so far I've included an image of the target area made from the scribble/fleet notes factored into the structure note "202008111718 • The Practice of the Wild". This goes with my prior post.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • Fleeting notes are good but theyre not Literatur notes as i see it. How do work with literature notes?I have to remember difficult texts, whaat do you do to remember the arguments, points, etc of a work? What do you do with the Literatur notes?--how do you structure, are they paper or digital, etc? thank you for the post...

  • @zettelkastenkampf Different people have different version of literature notes. Personally, all of the notes that I take while reading are fleeting notes. I will either turn them into permanent notes, or toss them out. Literature notes, for me, are an executive summary of the book or reading (or video or podcast). A place to write down a short summary of the entire book so it's easy to remind myself what the book was about without having to reconstruct it with all of the permanent notes I made based on it (which have maybe evolved and been edited since I took them).

    My fleeting notes are all sorts of different formats. I sometimes write them physically in a notebook, or on scrap paper, or in the margins of books. If I take digital fleeting notes, they go into Bear Notes, and then I archive them when I'm done with them. My literature notes are stored digitally with my zettelkasten. I tag them with #lit-notes so I can easily filter them out or search them specifically.

    Individual arguments or points of a specific work can become permanent notes. There are different ways to do this. If an argument is self contained, you can make that entire argument into a single note. If an argument contains several different points, then you can make each point of the argument into its own note, and then make a separate note that combines the individual points into the larger argument, linking to the notes you made on each point. The benefit of splitting the different points of the argument into their own individual notes is that you can now engage with each point of the argument separately. You can link to one point of the argument if it's particularly relevant to another note.

  • @prometheanhindsight said:
    @zettelkastenkampf Different people have different version of literature notes. Personally, all of the notes that I take while reading are fleeting notes. I will either turn them into permanent notes, or toss them out. Literature notes, for me, are an executive summary of the book or reading (or video or podcast). A place to write down a short summary of the entire book so it's easy to remind myself what the book was about without having to reconstruct it with all of the permanent notes I made based on it (which have maybe evolved and been edited since I took them).

    I appreciate your input. I think it would be difficult for me to build a summary of a book without having written copious amount of notes throughout my reading, rereading passages several times, of the book. I am amazed at many academics I know who seem to produce arguments from authors extemporaneously. I am slower off the mark than some, so perhaps that's at issue.

  • @zettelkastenkampf said:

    I appreciate your input. I think it would be difficult for me to build a summary of a book without having written copious amount of notes throughout my reading, rereading passages several times, of the book. I am amazed at many academics I know who seem to produce arguments from authors extemporaneously.

    I definitely take lots of notes while reading. I just don't hang on to those notes once I've processed them. The first step for me is taking notes while reading. Any of those notes that I want to incorporate into my zettelkasten are turned into permanent notes. Then, once I've finished processing the notes, I make my Literature Note summary.

    I am slower off the mark than some, so perhaps that's at issue.

    Don't sell yourself short! Everyone has their own process. If you learn best by taking lots of notes and rereading sections of the book several time, then that's what you should do! I think that all that zettelkasten does is add another step to that process. It asks, "What do you do with your notes when you're done reading?" The answer lies in splitting the notes up, linking them into your other notes, and maybe adding some of your own thoughts and commentary.

    Also, remember that practice is a key part of improvement. The more you engage with your zettelkasten and your note taking process, the better you will get at executing that process. At first, it can be hard to figure out what to put into a permanent note. Maybe you will find that your notes are too short or too long, have too many links or too few. The more you work on it, the better you will get. The most recent notes I've added to my zettelkasten are way more useful than the ones I added when I first started. Whenever I stumble across an older note that isn't well written, I try to edit it and improve it to be more in line with my current notes. It's always a work in progress, every new note getting easier and improving over the last note I added.

  • @prometheanhindsight said:

    Also, remember that practice is a key part of improvement. The more you engage with your zettelkasten and your note taking process, the better you will get at executing that process. At first, it can be hard to figure out what to put into a permanent note. Maybe you will find that your notes are too short or too long, have too many links or too few. The more you work on it, the better you will get. The most recent notes I've added to my zettelkasten are way more useful than the ones I added when I first started. Whenever I stumble across an older note that isn't well written, I try to edit it and improve it to be more in line with my current notes. It's always a work in progress, every new note getting easier and improving over the last note I added.

    This is very good advice :)

  • @GeoEng51 said:

    @prometheanhindsight said:

    Also, remember that practice is a key part of improvement. The more you engage with your zettelkasten and your note taking process, the better you will get at executing that process. At first, it can be hard to figure out what to put into a permanent note. Maybe you will find that your notes are too short or too long, have too many links or too few. The more you work on it, the better you will get. The most recent notes I've added to my zettelkasten are way more useful than the ones I added when I first started. Whenever I stumble across an older note that isn't well written, I try to edit it and improve it to be more in line with my current notes. It's always a work in progress, every new note getting easier and improving over the last note I added.

    This is very good advice :)

    In theory as well as in practice, I suppose! Thank you.

  • @jeannelking thanks for sharing your process! I do prefer working with handwritten notes in the beginning as well and will definitely think about improving my process by adapting some of your habits.

    Right now, i do something similar with my fleeting notes and use a big "Z" as a symbol to mark them as digitalized.

    What i don't strictly hold up to is the process from fleeting notes to "Dear Z" notes. It kind of depends on the content. If i read a scientific paper, i barely take any seperate fleeting notes. If i read something easier, a small number of bullet points may be enough because i don't have to be as precise. If i come across a thought and won't need to reference the book/article/ piece of art whatever again or do not even have a reference, i go straight towards the digital-Zettelkasten.

    Thus, i don't have a physical Zettelkasten like you. But it might help me with the barrier of opening your deskto-setup first before being able to work in the morning.

    Do you use this process for literately anything or is it limited to work/ science whatever?

    Greetings and thanks again!

  • In the context of fleeting notes and dedicating time to transform them into permanent notes.

    When I wrote my grad school thesis and before I knew about the ZK, I used to take notes on paper to avoid plagiarism. Then, everything written in my computer coming from the paper notes would be on my words (no paraphrasing). I remember myself spending quite a long time on this transition from paper to the computer so that the sentences were neutral and I could use them in the thesis and future peer-reviewed articles with out having to rework them too much. That step gave me confidence in knowing that everything on my computer was written by me or properly cited.

  • @GeoEng51 said:

    I understand the power of thinking visually, but I don't have the patience to write onto a paper Zettel and then transfer that into The Archive. If the handwriting part was important, I could do that using GoodNotes on my iPad and then having GoodNotes transcribe the handwriting to text, but even that is still too fiddly for me. I type at a modest rate and just like listening / reading / thinking / typing all together - somehow the brain seems to be able to integrate all that.

    However, each of us needs to find a work process and flow that suits us best. I can see the advantages of the process that you describe.

    Like @Will, I love the metaphor of feeding and being fed.

    I'm beginning to think that my reading notes should be mostly typed as well. Short of index cards, I can't come up with a good paper system for this, and index cards just aren't going to happen (I don't think). Besides, the paper will all eventually be digitized for archival purposes, at which point I will be either typing them in manually or scanning and indexing images. It feels like a lot of extra layers of work, and I am wondering if the supposed benefits of handwriting aren't perhaps a bit of a myth...

  • @prometheanhindsight said:

    Also, remember that practice is a key part of improvement. The more you engage with your zettelkasten and your note taking process, the better you will get at executing that process. At first, it can be hard to figure out what to put into a permanent note. Maybe you will find that your notes are too short or too long, have too many links or too few. The more you work on it, the better you will get. The most recent notes I've added to my zettelkasten are way more useful than the ones I added when I first started. Whenever I stumble across an older note that isn't well written, I try to edit it and improve it to be more in line with my current notes. It's always a work in progress, every new note getting easier and improving over the last note I added.

    This right here. :^)

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