# How Long a Zettel is Too Long?

Most of my zettels are in the range of 100 to 400 words, including metadata. I like the shorter ones (100 to 200 words); they seem appropriately succinct and pithy. They capture one idea and it is relatively easy to assign tags and make connections to other zettels. But sometimes I need to go a bit longer. If after getting a good draft of a zettel, it’s in the range of 300 to 400 words, I consider that I’m getting a bit wordy.

However, recently I’ve been writing zettels that try to capture a specific memory from some time in my life. There is often a bit of background, for context, then describing my memory of the event or experience, and finally (sometimes) discussing a “lesson learned”. This tends to increase the length of the Zettel; these types have varied in number of words from 500 to 1000 words, with a few upwards of 1500 words. Is this too long? I don’t see any logical way of breaking these personal memories into shorter bits. That is, I could do it, but the breakdown would seem arbitrary and forced. It’s pleasant just to read about the experience as one story, without having to jump from link to link to read all of it.

As a matter of stats, I have around 300 zettels (I know, still in the early stages). About 50 of those are of the “personal memory” type. Of those, around 40 are in the 500 to 1000 word range and 10 are greater than 1000 words.

Can you share your experiences with or thoughts on this?

• edited January 28

I got curious how my word count was distributed:

Most of my notes are 50 words or below. The plot is only up to 150 words and I have 60 notes above that. I suspect some of them are simply left-overs from my pre-ZK days, where I didn't focus so much on single idea per note.

I think your personal memories remind me more of "source material": they give the context and background for an idea, learning, concept, but they are to some degree separate from it. The important question is of course what you want to get from your notes.

• edited January 28

@henrikenggaard can you share your counting code? From the past discussion, I think nothing reusable was produced: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/1426/more-quantitative-zettel-analysis-zettel-with-the-least-and-the-most-words -- but now I'm curious

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

• @ctietze It is for better or worse, written in Mathematica, so if you have that, go ahead:

files = FileNames["*.md"];

wordCounts = Flatten[Map[WordCount[Import[#, "String"]] &, files]];

Histogram[wordCounts, {1}, GridLines -> Automatic, Frame -> True,
FrameLabel -> {"Word count", "Notes"}]

• @henrikenggaard said:
I think your personal memories remind me more of "source material": they give the context and background for an idea, learning, concept, but they are to some degree separate from it. The important question is of course what you want to get from your notes.

Thanks for that feedback and you are correct, the nub of the memory is the idea or learning contained therein. In this case, the background and experiences are all important to the learning and I'm having a difficult time separating the two.

What I have in mind is that I can capture different memories from my life, in a somewhat random manner as they occur to me, in my ZK. They would be structured as I mentioned. At some time in the future, I would pull them together into a personal history.

But I don't want to sit down and write them in a linear fashion, from "I was born on...." to the present time. I feel, without any good reason, that I will do a better job if I let the memories come in an organic and non-organized way, sometimes prompted by current events, experiences or ideas. Over a few years, most of what is important should leak out of my brain, in some manner.

And they fit nicely into a ZK format in that each entry can be linked to other memories and to other, more general zettels.

Some of the memories are from difficult times. The writing has been therapeutic and, after a few re-writes, in a couple of cases changed the way I think about a particular experience.

I want to repeat something I said in an earlier post - there is nothing unique about my life. I started on this path as a means to pass a few ideas on to my children and grandchildren. I'm finding that it has value to me as well. Who would think that it would take an entire life to resolve issues from your childhood?

• @GeoEng51 said:

What I have in mind is that I can capture different memories from my life, in a somewhat random manner as they occur to me, in my ZK. They would be structured as I mentioned. At some time in the future, I would pull them together into a personal history.

But I don't want to sit down and write them in a linear fashion, from "I was born on...." to the present time. I feel, without any good reason, that I will do a better job if I let the memories come in an organic and non-organized way, sometimes prompted by current events, experiences or ideas. Over a few years, most of what is important should leak out of my brain, in some manner.

And they fit nicely into a ZK format in that each entry can be linked to other memories and to other, more general zettels.

Some of the memories are from difficult times. The writing has been therapeutic and, after a few re-writes, in a couple of cases changed the way I think about a particular experience.

I want to repeat something I said in an earlier post - there is nothing unique about my life. I started on this path as a means to pass a few ideas on to my children and grandchildren. I'm finding that it has value to me as well. Who would think that it would take an entire life to resolve issues from your childhood?

What you wrote.....BINGO! I’m 39+ (going on 72). I’m not doing research for my doctorate, or any other degree at this stage of my life. But, like you, I have accumulated memories. And I also have ‘kids’’ and grandkids, who might someday want to rummage through those memories. So in short that’s what I use my Zettelkasten for. Although, I have been using it also as my Second Brain (God bless those links) since the First Brain seems to be less reliable as I go along.

• @henrikenggaard said:
I got curious how my word count was distributed:

Most of my notes are 50 words or below. The plot is only up to 150 words, and I have 60 notes above that. I suspect some of them are simply left-overs from my pre-ZK days, where I didn't focus so much on a single idea per note.

I, too, am curious about the wc distribution in my note archive. I feel long notes are awesome. Especially if I'm the author, some will be refactored, and some not. I agree that they should be treated as source material. But until they are refactored, I'm completely comfortable with them in my note archive. In this interim, between creation and refactoring, they are fodder for linking, which adds magic to the note archive.

Here is mine.
I want to come up with a way to make this more valuable. Maybe limiting the timeframes or trending.

The graph is not very interesting. The data is pre-sorted, and my inexperience at graphing data limits me. With so many notes, the data gets mushy.

Smallest 22 wc
Largest 5792 wc
Mean 125 wc
Avg 198 wc
20 notes over 1000 wc

Rouch and dirty but interesting.

Will Simpson
I'm a futzing, second-guessing, backtracking, compulsive oversharing, ZK-maniac, in other words, your typical zettelnant.
Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing, Cognitive Workload, Python, Data Science
kestrelcreek.com

• @GeoEng51 said:
Who would think that it would take an entire life to resolve issues from your childhood?

Any psychoanalyst would. And though I am not psychoanalytically trained myself, I might as well have been, and I constantly see behaviour that is clearly a response to something inside the person's head, rather than in the situation in front of them.

But as to the question of autobiography and narrative, allow me to recommend some reading.

The American psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote very interestingly on the subject. I would heartily recommend Life as Narrative to anyone dealing with the subject. And also The Narrative Construction of Reality.

Basically, these articles put forward the idea that the stories we tell are not merely descriptions of what happened (records of events) but also mould who we are. I will never forget chatting to the Israeli psychotherapist Nahi Alon, and him saying to me "I beg you to tell yourself a different story about yourself". That stunned me, because I hadn't realised it was possible to do that. And yet it is a powerful tool in therapy, as you have discovered.

I find narrative psychology fascinating, and those who want to know more about it might read Michele Crossley's book, Introducing Narrative Psychology.

• @MartinBB Thanks for the suggestions; I will have a look at the books you recommended. It's an area that I haven't read much in before. Of the three you mentioned, which would you recommend to start on?

And I really like your quote from Nahi Alon. I think he is spot on.

• edited January 28

do we even need to resolve childhood issues? Telling myself a different story about myself seems like a good workaround (and much more relevant, since i cannot change my past). @MartinBB is narrative psychology focusing more on records or on molds? Are your book recommendations appropriate for self help or can it be dangerous without therapist?

Post edited by zk_1000 on

my first Zettel uid: 202008120915

• @GeoEng51 said:
Of the three you mentioned, which would you recommend to start on?

Start with Life as Narrative. It is a fairly short article which you can download as a pdf from that link. I think it is the best for your present purposes. There is some quite philosophical discussion in the first half, but then it moves to looking at four actual narratives, and it is intriguing what they can reveal. Crossley is more for the university student, perhaps, but given the work you are doing at the moment, I think you could potentially get a great deal out of it. There is some technical stuff that you would probably want to skip, but the fact that the subtitle is "self, trauma and the construction of meaning" will give you an idea of the main thrust of the work. There is a section about dealing with terminal illness, for example, and how narrative can play a role in that. It depends a bit on how deeply you feel you want to go into the subject.

Nahi is a remarkable character. Going from paratroop officer to psychotherapist is an unusual journey! I will always be grateful to him for the insight he gave me.

• Some toughts are longer. A memory can be a single thought which would not be understandable if you left details out.

If you are confident that each memory just needs one unique address then go for it.

From experience, I can say that my Zettelkasten works very well with a wide range of note length and purposes. Memories, short stories, diary entries, short arguments, list of arguments etc. all are living happily together in my Zettelkasten.

The Zettelkasten is self-scaling.

I am a Zettler

• @GeoEng51 said:
In this case, the background and experiences are all important to the learning and I'm having a difficult time separating the two.

What I have in mind is that I can capture different memories from my life, in a somewhat random manner as they occur to me, in my ZK. They would be structured as I mentioned. At some time in the future, I would pull them together into a personal history.

I think this is a key point that helps answer the question of how long should your individual zettels be. At some time in the future you would like to pull them together into a personal history.

I find the idea of using a Zettelkasten to create a concise and easily rearrangeable outline for a "first draft" draft of a piece of writing really interesting.

For example, you could have an outline (structured note?) "personal history" and put all of the zettels in there. I would imagine that you want the notes as short as possible, but long enough that they could be arbitrarily moved around as you figure out the structure of the final piece of writing.

For example, maybe you could seperate the general "lesson learned" from the event, because in a final piece of writing (for example, a book chapter) it might in some cases make sense for someone to read the lesson learned before they read about the event.

All just ideas! I'm still at the very early stages of the zettelkasten journey.

• @zk_1000 said:
is narrative psychology focusing more on records or on molds? Are your book recommendations appropriate for self help or can it be dangerous without therapist?

Sorry, I somehow missed your post last time I looked. However, I'm afraid I don't understand the first question. The Wikipedia article on Narrative Psychology is not a bad place to start if you want a fuller understanding of what it is about. But basically, it is concerned with the telling of stories -- how they are told, why they are told, what purpose they serve, and so forth. It can also be used as a component in therapy.

The two articles by Bruner are more about theory than practice. The book by Crossley does have something to say about practice, but is really an overview of the whole subject from an academic point of view. None of them are for "self-help". Which is not to say that they could not be helpful to anybody. As to whether they are dangerous -- well, that depends on the use a person makes of them. And regrettably there is probably nothing more potentially dangerous than a bad or misguided therapist. I'm not really a fan of "self help", because it is too easy for a person to convince themselves they are on the right track when they are actually avoiding problems. Serious problems need another person to coax you into confronting the things you would prefer to avoid. You ask "do we even need to resolve childhood issues?" and the answer to that, in my view, is that if they are causing significant problems in the present, then we absolutely need to deal with them. If a person thinks every boss they ever have is an idiot, and continually argues with them, it is quite likely that it is not the bosses who are stupid, but that the person has unresolved problems that go back to earlier experiences with figures in authority (such as parents or teachers). To modify the old saying, "If it is broken, it is better to fix it".

• @Charles said:
For example, you could have an outline (structured note?) "personal history" and put all of the zettels in there. I would imagine that you want the notes as short as possible, but long enough that they could be arbitrarily moved around as you figure out the structure of the final piece of writing.

Yes, I actually did that. On the structure note, I have designated groups of memories, e.g., "Early Childhood", "University Years", etc. This has in turn reminded me of other memories that I would like to capture. So the structure notes become a way not only of organizing things but also generating new zettels.