Zettelkasten Forum

Getting overrun by permanent notes - please, send help.

Hello. This is my first post in the forum, so, first of all, hello.

Before I start throwing my questions at you guys, I'd like to clarify something: I know that each Zettelkasten system ends up being unique and that I should focus mainly on applying the principles, but I think my problem is precisely with the principles, since I'm not particularly sure if I'm utilizing permanent notes in the most optimal way.

I'm currently working on my master's in philosophy and, trying to organize all the concepts and sub-concepts that I have and how they link to one-another, I have created some sort of mess-monster - but I don't know if this is the mess-monster from which amazinig new connections will arise, or if it's just a mess.

For instance: do you turn concepts and their sub-concepts into permanent notes that you can check later? Or are permanent notes something that should be reserved for my ideas, and not for something that I've read, and I should store notes and concept-definitions in a different way? How do you do it?

Please, send help.


  • edited October 2020

    @M_Adastra It sounds like you are having a problem distinguishing between what should be a note in your Zettelkasten and what is just material that you are reading. If you are simply copying material into your ZK from various sources, you will end up with a mess. On the other hand, if the notes in your ZK contain only your own thoughts (about what you have read, heard, etc.), and if you work at connecting your notes as your create each one, then rather than a mess, you will have a manageable network of information. Using structure notes also helps - a topic you will see discussed frequently on the forum - but I think a focus first on just writing and connecting your ZK notes in a straight forward way and in the suggested way will pay big dividends for you.

    I suggest you start with this article, which makes a distinction between writing notes in your ZK and just collecting information (called the "collectors fallacy"):


    And then read through some of the other links on the "Getting Started" page of the same web site. Maybe you have jumped way ahead, importing a large amount of information, without fully understanding how a ZK is supposed to function? These articles will help.


    If this sounds too simple and like you are already doing this, then I have probably misunderstood your question :)

    Welcome to the forum and to the ZK world, by the way!

  • Welcome! :)

    @GeoEng51 pointed out a very important piece: are these notes your own? Say you're plowing through Aristoteles Nicomachean Ethics: it's one thing to reproduce verbatim quotes of term definitions; it's another if you create Aristoteles definition of arete, Modern virtue ethics focus on a personal aspect of arete only, What it means if a knive has virtue -- all these are """permanent""" notes inasmuch as they're meant to stay in your Zettelkasten proper.

    And having a ton of them is not a problem per se. It may become overwhelming to find your way through the info, though. Especially if you dig deep into a topic and process a lot of sources, you'll collect a ton of details. To see the forest despite all the trees, adding higher-level notes, i.e. structure notes, to group related things together helps. It's not just a grouping as in sorting what is similar (e.g. having a Definitions of arete overview that links to Aristoteles definition of arete and other author's), but also providing a birds-eye perspective on discussions and trends (Virtue changed in medieval times from excellence to a sense of effortlessly doing the right thing with links to Aristoteles and other Greeks on one side, and Thomas Aquinas and Schiller on the other; or Kant's definition of virtue detaches from a 'sense of good' and leaves Schiller and Aquinas behind).

    -- Disclaimer: I'm making the examples up from my sparse notes on the topic in German :) --

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

  • I think that it's important to keep in mind what can be considered "your ideas." As @GeoEng51 says, you shouldn't just copy directly from your readings. But you absolutely can (and should) add knowledge from your readings to your ZK. What you should be doing, at minimum, is writing your notes in your own words. When you find an important definition, don't just copy it into a note verbatim. Describe it in your own words, even if that takes many more sentences than the concise manner that it is presented in whatever you're reading. On its face that doesn't feel like "your idea," but what you've written in your notes is your understanding of the definition as presented by the author you're reading. That makes it your idea. You have taken knowledge out of the context of the reading and placed into the context of your personal knowledge. That makes it yours, and will make it infinitely more useful to you in the future.

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