Zettelkasten Forum


Commonplace and Zettelkasten

Hello, long-time observer and new poster here.

So, I have been intrigued by the ideas of both Zettelkasten and commonplace books for a while now, and I am trying to find a synthesis that fits my needs. First, I will give some definitions and differences according to my understanding.

A Zettelkasten is a place to not just store thoughts from other people, but to process them in your own words. The key thing here is linking the notes together to make an idea-generating resource. This can be accomplished with tags and with more direct internal links. Another important aspect is that the notes in the Zettelkasten, zettels, are atomic; that is, they are focused on one thing and one thing only. To summarize (at the risk of simplifying): A Zettelkasten is a network of interconnected, atomic ideas in your own words. Most here know this, I am merely getting a working definition to highlight some differences.

The term "commonplace book" has been used to mean a variety of things, but I will use the definition that I am concerned with here (Some context might help: I am interested in poetry and fiction writing, and just beautiful language in general). For me, a commonplace book is a place where you can record the words of other people, as they originally appeared. This is primarily for the function of imitation: You stumble across a phrase or paragraph that you particularly enjoy, and record it for future reference. The goal is to incorporate whatever you found interesting into your own style. Notes are not taken because of their content necessarily, though the ideas expressed in certain quotes may be interesting. This is about style, craft, and art.

So, some differences are immediately obvious. Zettelkastens deal with knowledge and ideas; commonplace books with language and style. Most apparent to me are the deficiencies in the commonplace book approach compared to the Zettelkasten. For one, there is no interconnectedness. How do you organize language? You could try to organize things by figures of speech, but this leads to two problems: 1) there is not a figure named to describe every effect possible with language, and 2) this will not scale -- categories like #zeugma will quickly become bloated with hundreds of entries.

The above is the chief concern for me: how do you create interconnectivity in a commonplace book? I have already found a solution to the "in your own words" part of my dilemma. Whenever I write down a commonplace (the equivalent of a zettel), I will write up a few sentences about what I like. I then will write some imitations. The atomic part can be mirrored to an extent, but the best sentences may contain many different stylistic takeaways. The problem still remains: how will I find and use these in the future?

To summarize: I enjoy the Zettelkasten method for building upon ideas. How can I imitate this when building upon language? Specifically, how can I organize such a word-hoard in a way that is interconnected and context-based, such that I can find what I need in the context that I need it? Stated another way, how can I avoid merely collecting sentences, but make something that will truly last, accrue value, and increase in usefulness the more that I put in?

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Comments

  • At first glance, it looks as if you need, or might benefit from, an application that is capable of handling a lot of metadata for each entry. That leads me to think that Tinderbox might be worth investigating, though it is a program that many people find mystifying or frustrating. In any case, I suspect that you are going to have to work out your own solution -- only you know what truly interests you. My own personal view is that methods don't necessarily have to be followed religiously. For my own use I am happy to adopt certain features of a method that seem useful to me and to leave aside others. I have a notes archive that is not quite a Zettelkasten, and is a bit of a rag-bag of quotations, ideas, historical data, and I don't know what else. Where I find it useful to link items, I do so, but there are many items in the archive that are not (yet) linked, but I know I can find them in there using some form of search based on my own memory of the text. I've never found an ideal solution to the kind of problem you outline, and I've been dabbling with computers since around 1992. In the end I think I've settled for a solution that is good enough, if imperfect. It is a mixture of tagging, UUIDs, text search, my own memory, perseverance, and luck. I'm not really expecting to find or develop anything much better for my needs.

  • @Sev_L

    First - welcome to the forum and your first post! Interesting situation and good question.

    It seems, from the limited information that you have given, that you could fully use a Zettelkasten to handle the situation about which you are asking. There have been posts on the forum from people who study paintings, sculpture and other works of art, and how they are developing their ZK to store and access information in those areas.

    As you were describing what you had in mind, I thought you were 80% of the way there already. You seem to be stuck on "how do I find things later?". That is a question that every Zettelkaster has to answer - and they all find personalized ways of doing so.

    But the basic tools are there for everyone - it is a question of how much you focus on one or another. Here are ways that have been discussed here by others:

    1. Direct links between zettels - this is the most "organic" way of connecting things.
    2. Tags - I like them, but they have to be used judiciously, otherwise some will get overused.
    3. Structure notes - these are individual notes that deal with some topic and contain a list of zettels that are relevant. The zettels might be grouped by sub-topic on the structure note.
    4. Index - this is like a normal book index - an alphabetical list of topics. In a book, there would be a reference to a page number. In a ZK, each entry in the index would refer to a few (not too many) zettels. Clicking on one zettle would take you to a point an interconnected network of relevant zettels (created as described in point 1). If you are tempted to add too many zettels to an entry in an index, it might be better to create a structure note for that entry.

    In terms of your actual zettel, I see nothing wrong with creating it in just the manner you described - start with a "quote", which is the item you want to capture from some poem or book, then add your own, "short" comment and/or imitation.

    So, putting it together, if you want to access something in your ZK - you go to a zettel you remember and follow the links to see where it will take you, or you search on a tag or combination of tags, or you start from a structure note and look at various zettels, or you start from your index. They all work. Part of the magic of your ZK is that as you are reading one zettel and following links to others, you will "discover" (or perhaps re-discover) connections you had forgotten. And the process of reading connected zettels may cause you to have other ideas or think of other connections.

    An important practice you will need to develop is that of maintaining your ZK. By that, I mean that you need to regularly review and update links, and there will be times when you want to update or improve zettels. There are techniques for doing that as well, which I'd by happy to discuss with you.

  • @Sev_L said:
    A Zettelkasten is a place to not just store thoughts from other people, but to process them in your own words. The key thing here is linking the notes together to make an idea-generating resource. This can be accomplished with tags and with more direct internal links. Another important aspect is that the notes in the Zettelkasten, zettels, are atomic; that is, they are focused on one thing and one thing only. To summarize (at the risk of simplifying): A Zettelkasten is a network of interconnected, atomic ideas in your own words. Most here know this, I am merely getting a working definition to highlight some differences.

    Most zettels are atomic, yes, but one can add organizing zettels. You could well have a zettel titled "Rhetorical Devices"---a broad topic, to be sure---but which delegates its semantic load to many other zettels it links to.

    What tools do you use? If you use The Archive, you can also create "virtual zettels" by means of tags: if you add the tag #zeugma to all your commonplaces that feature a zeugma, you can quickly find these. Other tools probably can do the same.

    I bring this up since you seeming to be thinking at the "leaf level", at the level of the tiniest zettels and individual commonplaces. But tags offer an emergent organization: adding a tag #zeugma does not preclude your adding the tag #catachresis or even #Shakespeare. You are not committing to a rigid taxonomic organization that you then have to suffer through: you can try things on for size and discard if they don't pull their weight.

    In particular, an organizing zettel can house the discussion about a particular tag. Thus, you can have an organizing zettel called "Rhetorical Questions" where you can discuss the many flavors (rogatio, erotima, what have you).

    The term "commonplace book" has been used to mean a variety of things, but I will use the definition that I am concerned with here (Some context might help: I am interested in poetry and fiction writing, and just beautiful language in general). For me, a commonplace book is a place where you can record the words of other people, as they originally appeared. This is primarily for the function of imitation: You stumble across a phrase or paragraph that you particularly enjoy, and record it for future reference. The goal is to incorporate whatever you found interesting into your own style. Notes are not taken because of their content necessarily, though the ideas expressed in certain quotes may be interesting. This is about style, craft, and art.

    So, some differences are immediately obvious. Zettelkastens deal with knowledge and ideas; commonplace books with language and style. Most apparent to me are the deficiencies in the commonplace book approach compared to the Zettelkasten. For one, there is no interconnectedness. How do you organize language? You could try to organize things by figures of speech, but this leads to two problems: 1) there is not a figure named to describe every effect possible with language, and 2) this will not scale -- categories like #zeugma will quickly become bloated with hundreds of entries.

    Yes, #zeugma will have hundreds of entries. Are there patterns among them? Common themes you culled and polished that you can attach a (possibly made-up) name to? On the zettel for Zeugma, you can list these flavors. Again, since you can attach multiple labels, this suborganization is not a lifelong commitment.

    The above is the chief concern for me: how do you create interconnectivity in a commonplace book? I have already found a solution to the "in your own words" part of my dilemma. Whenever I write down a commonplace (the equivalent of a zettel), I will write up a few sentences about what I like. I then will write some imitations. The atomic part can be mirrored to an extent, but the best sentences may contain many different stylistic takeaways. The problem still remains: how will I find and use these in the future?

    I know I am repeating myself when I say "you are taking the word 'atomic' too literally". A finger is "atomic" and so is a "hand" which includes multiple fingers. Atomic just means "can you see it as one entity if you squint just so", although it may appear highly non-atomic in a different light or from a different viewpoint.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this.

    And thank you for articulating the question so well!

  • Thanks for all the tips, @amahabal ! I am aware of organizing notes/structure notes, but I excluded them from my discussion for simplicity. I would group them together with linking (just a different, maybe weaker kind). Perhaps this was a mistake on my part, and it would do good to focus on them as a means for tackling the specific challenges of a commonplace Zettelkasten.

    I do not think I am too caught up on atomicity, though I could have been clearer on that. I think I have (and can refine) some solutions to that. I brought it up to show that there are three basic facets of a Zettelkasten -- atomizing, rephrasing, and linking -- and that I have a grasp on how to integrate two of them into a commonplace book. I really am struggling mostly with the third facet: linking. Your post showed my the power that simple structure notes might have. I still am a bit wary with tags, though. What would you say are some best practices when approaching them so as to not make them meaninglessly specific or general?

    Oh, and I am currently using Zettlr. It's the best solution I found for what I want: free and open source software that can run on a Linux machine (Artix, in this case).

    This brings me to your reply, @GeoEng51 . Yes, I am stuck on the question of how I will find things later. Specifically, how I can find things serendipitously later. And, consequently, I am most concerned with direct internal links (however, there are some other questions I have which I will address later in this post). I am not sure how I might form them. The challenge here, as well as with structure notes that are not concerned with rhetorical figures (more on this later), is that in a commonplace book there are no topics in the same way that there are in a Zettelkasten. This is because it is simply not concerned with semantic meaning in and of itself, only as it relates to the language itself (granted, one may want to look at how different masters of language have treated a particular semantic category at some point). The question then is: on what basis would one create a link between two commonplaces? I am not sure on this point. I will experiment with different approaches, but I am curious to hear your ideas.

    Now, about other organizing structures. Structure notes not focused around something objective like rhetorical figures run into the same issue as direct links: there are not topics to group around in the same sense. I suspect here that I am falling prey to tunnel vision; I cannot see another way around this. Maybe those who read this can help. What other objective categories can you construct around language? I am not only interested in figures of speech, but in many aspects of good language, such as imagery, pacing, symbolism, etc., but those are too nebulous to serve as categories per se. Can you create structure notes for commonplaces around more abstract (having to do with actual ideas, or something else I'm missing), concrete (such as a literal object that features in a commonplace), and/or subjective categories in a meaningful way?

    Again, about tags, I do not think I have mastered them. I am not sure what the best ways to form them are. I am open to suggestions, particularly as concerns my goals here.

    And, to close, I would be very interested to hear you speak more to the practice of maintaining a Zettelkasten, @GeoEng51 .

    Thanks all again for engaging.

  • edited June 12

    @Sev_L . Welcome to the most helpful place on the internet (at least that's my experience).

    For what it's worth, much like @MartinBB, my ZK also includes a miscellany of quotations, ideas, definitions, historical data, vocabulary words, examples of beautiful language, as well as plenty of 'true' atomic Zettels containing my own ideas about the things I'm interested in. I use #tags and special characters (¢, §, ¶ etc) to identify notes that contain different types of information. All of these are interconnected.

    The key is finding a system you can live with and that works for your purposes.

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

  • edited June 13

    This wonderful thread is an excuse to mention Philosophy A Commonplace Book, Edited by Gerald Dworkin. My inclination is to tag such Zettels with #commonplacebook (not to mention hashtags for rhetorical terms, pardon the #paralipsis). As for linking, whenever I can't decide, I pick a Zettel at random. The reason is that if I already know what I should link to, I am less likely to be surprised. Expecting to learn something new from a connection you know in advance is a bit like Moore's Paradox of Analysis.

    ZK implemented with Zettlr+Pandoc+MikTeX+Zotero+BetterBibTex.

    What follows is a piece of empirical sociology. It concerns me and someone else, namely my slip box ... That slip boxes can be recommended as partners of communication ... But what about the slip box? How must it be conceived that he will acquire the corresponding communicative competence? — Niklas Luhmann. Communicating with Slip Boxes

  • @Sev_L said:
    I still am a bit wary with tags, though. What would you say are some best practices when approaching them so as to not make them meaninglessly specific or general?

    I think it is difficult to predict what will be useful and what will not. And worrying about it can slow down one's work unnecessarily. Time will reveal which tags are really useful. A tag like #zeugma might seem too general, but it might well turn out to be useful in a search that combines terms, such as "#zeugma AND #Keats AND #something".

    I also find it useful to think of Twitter (God help us) as a paradigm. It can be helpful to use intratextual tags, so I sometimes type something along the lines of "This is an example of #Freud's use of the concept of #defence_mechanisms." Still very readable, not too difficult to type, and it might be some help in finding material in the future. And if it is not all that helpful I don't mind leaving it in the text. I use tags quite liberally, on the grounds that they might be useful, and there is not much way of knowing in advance.

    Over the decades I have tried all sorts of methods for organising my material, and some of those I was sure would be good turned out not to be. The thing that never seems to go away is using tags, smart searches, and linking. I think that is why a lot of people gravitate towards something like the Zettelkasten method, even if they don't call it that, or even know that it exists. There is something very basic or fundamental about having a UUID for a single concept, idea, fragment of text, etc., and being able to link to it precisely, while also being able to find a collection of items that deal with much the same topic. It seems to work.

  • edited June 13

    @ZettelDistraction said:
    …As for linking, whenever I can't decide, I pick a Zettel at random. The reason is that if I already know what I should link to, I am less likely to be surprised. Expecting to learn something new from a connection you know in advance is a bit like Moore's Paradox of Analysis.

    What does “you know in advance” really mean? If I understand you correctly, you might be missing out some of the value in linking zettels, because this phrase could limit your thinking about what you are doing.

    Some context for the way I think about linking. I find linking is a powerful way of:

    1. Finding things in my Zettelkasten - that happened just this morning. I was looking for a quote, quickly found one zettel related to it by searching on a tag, and then followed a link to find the zettel with the quote.
    2. Remembering lines of thought that have become fuzzy in my brain (that happens a lot as you age). In the process of re-familiarizing myself with that line of thought, I may make adjustments to it or to individual zettels, because my thinking on that particular subject has changed. Thus your Zettelkasten grows as you grow.
    3. As an aside, It might even be of interest to examine different versions of your Zettelkasten to see how it has grown - I say that theoretically, as a suggestion for young-ish people, as it’s not something I would give priority to. I’m happy to just wake up alive every morning.
    4. Discovering new connections. For example, I’ve just written a zettel and I’m thinking about what it might logically connect to. I remember a zettel on a related topic and somehow it “makes sense” to me to connect the new zettel to it. But when I look at the “old” zettel, to which I’m connecting, I find several other links, one of which is relevant to the new zettel, perhaps in an unusual or enlightening way, but I wouldn’t have thought of that connection on my own. That’s the organic nature of your Zettelkasten working for you, and you wouldn’t have found that new relationship without first establishing the previous ones.

    All of the above are useful, but the last one particularly so.

    I spend a fair amount of time making connections between zettels. I’ve never tracked my time when Zettelkasting, but I would estimate it is about 40% writing zettels, 40% connecting zettels, and 20% doing other Zettelkasten maintenance (updating tags, creating structure notes, finishing half-baked zettels, etc.).

    One important idea is how and why you make connections between zettels - which is getting to your comment about “what you know in advance”. My connections aren’t based simply on topic or proximity of source, although those might both have some impact. They are not really even strictly based on “what I know”, although again that might contribute to the decision to make a link. I connect zettels because the link “feels” right, because in my brain it seems sensible (and what makes sense to me will not make sense to someone else, so they might connect the items in my Zettelkasten in an entirely different way; this also applies to my “future self”). The link represents whatever creative process is going on in my brain at that moment, with new connections that my brain is struggling to form and explore.

    I’m being vague because the process is a bit vague at times. But I don’t mean to suggest that is is somehow mystical, just that I’m not always conscious of exactly why it “makes sense”.

    So our Zettelkasten becomes a wonderful representation of how we think and connect things, at least at a particular point in time. Reviewing those connections at some later time can clarify what we were realizing at the time we made them, and provide further insights that could lead to new connections.

    You see what you would be missing if you forwent linking zettels because you “already knew” that connection?

  • edited June 13

    @GeoEng51 said:
    What does “you know in advance” really mean?

    I don't know what I mean. Presumably linking Zettels in the [digital] Zettelkasten ideally would reveal surprising, interesting and worthwhile connections between ideas. However, to the extent that one understands the connection to begin with, the element of surprise would seem to me diminished.

    Now none of that really implies that I'm not linking Zettels that might otherwise be linked, or that I have stunted my metacognition, or my meta-metacognition, to say nothing of the cognition or whatever behavior that comes of it. I see nothing wrong with adding a random link on occasion. No doubt one could link Zettels that shouldn't be linked.

    You see what you would be missing of you forwent linking zettels because you "already knew" that connection?

    No, I don't see because I haven't been linking them. Just kidding. Thanks for setting me straight.

    Assuming the Zettelkasten somehow represents a snapshot of "how we think and connect things," recent neurological findings suggest that the process of linking and unlinking Zettels in a Zettelkasten more or less "faithful" to one's own brain over time would be never-ending: Neuroscientists Have Discovered a Phenomenon That They Can’t Explain. Perhaps this is obvious.

    ZK implemented with Zettlr+Pandoc+MikTeX+Zotero+BetterBibTex.

    What follows is a piece of empirical sociology. It concerns me and someone else, namely my slip box ... That slip boxes can be recommended as partners of communication ... But what about the slip box? How must it be conceived that he will acquire the corresponding communicative competence? — Niklas Luhmann. Communicating with Slip Boxes

  • @ZettelDistraction said:

    Assuming the Zettelkasten somehow represents a snapshot of "how we think and connect things," recent neurological findings suggest that the process of linking and unlinking Zettels in a Zettelkasten more or less "faithful" to one's own brain over time would be never-ending: Neuroscientists Have Discovered a Phenomenon That They Can’t Explain. Perhaps this is obvious.

    The idea of never ending changes in ones brain sounds correct to me. It’s one of the reasons going through your Zettelkasten regularly might be a voyage of discovery (and in some cases embarrassment).

    I wasn’t intending to be critical of your earlier post, by the way. Your comment about “what you know in advance” just got my brain racing down some new track.

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