# How can I write zettel notes in my own words?

Hello fellow Zettelkasteners. I have heard that zettel notes should be written in one's own words. But I have never understood what it means to write notes in your own words. Most of the time I just copy a passage with minor changes or I translate an English passage as if I copied it.
So let's say that I read "Research methods and statistics" by Sherri Jackson and see a passage which states that "When empirically solvable problems are studied, they are always open
to the principle of falsifiability—the idea that a scientific theory must be stated in such a way that it is possible to refute or disconfirm it. In other words, the theory must predict not only what will happen but also what will not happen. A theory is not scientific if it is irrefutable". How can I write it as a note in my own words? Should I write it in my own words to begin with?

I thought about different strategies. I could first read a paragraph, then close the book, then rewrite some ideas from memory without looking at the text. Or I could simply read the text and not bother with the information within and just write my thoughts that could come into my mind. Or I could write the note as if I explained it to my mom.
But the problem is that I could easily forget some piece of information while writing from memory, or I wouldn't get a lot of thoughts while reading, or I would explain what I had read without really understanding the text.

Note that I write my zettel notes in Romanian so when I read a text in English I translate it in Romanian. Not that it helps.

Am I missing something? Can you tell me how can I write a zettel note without copying from the text or write it in my own words?

• @Helen_Shepherd said:

Am I missing something? Can you tell me how can I write a zettel note without copying from the text or write it in my own words?

This is a really good question and one with which I think most of us struggle at one point or another. I find that if I try to read a paragraph and then somehow summarize or restate it in my own words, the result is very unsatisfying.

My approach has evolved over time and is still evolving. But I try to read a full article or a few chapters in a book, taking very short bullet point notes as I go along (those can be hand-written or typed). Then I let things sit for a day or two. When I come back to it, I read through my notes and select a few that I want to incorporate into a zettel, and write that zettel without reference to the original material. I'm forcing myself to remember what I read, to think about it, and then to write my own version of the idea. In doing so, I may even introduce some of my own thoughts into the zettel

I'm not sure if this will work for you, but I believe you need some way to distance yourself from the original text, so that you don't use it as a crutch when attempting to write down the thought that originally caught your attention.

This approach for written material (described above) evolved from a practice, over many years at university, of taking lecture notes. There, I had no access to an original of the professor's lecture, so I had to listen carefully, capture what I thought was important, and then afterwards review my own notes and highlight what I thought was critical to my learning. I used a sort of Cornell notes approach/format, although I didn't know about that actual technique at the time. I didn't realize at the time that what I was forced to do was actually aiding my comprehension and my ability to think about and write ideas in my "own way".

• @GeoEng51 said:

My approach has evolved over time and is still evolving. But I try to read a full article or a few chapters in a book, taking very short bullet point notes as I go along (those can be hand-written or typed). Then I let things sit for a day or two. When I come back to it, I read through my notes and select a few that I want to incorporate into a zettel, and write that zettel without reference to the original material. I'm forcing myself to remember what I read, to think about it, and then to write my own version of the idea. In doing so, I may even introduce some of my own thoughts into the zettel

I do this, as well.

I also try to imagine that I'm trying to tell/teach a friend what I learned from a reference. I won't be able to remember the specific quotes or phrasing, so I have to put it into my own terms.

• Great question!

First, the phrase we use "writing in my own words" is an unfortunate one, because it suggests to people that we are simply trying to rewrite a passage from a book using different words. I saw this all the time as a writing tutor, students basically rewriting the quote, but changing a few words here and there. This is not what we're looking to do.

To "rewrite in your own words" is to take the quote and first examine it in the context of your own thoughts on the subject. Do you agree with it completely? Yes? Great! You can just quote the person in your writing. There's no rule saying that you have to change what a person wrote. If they said it best, and you have literally nothing to add, quote them directly.

Truth is, you probably do have something to add. And, this is where the work happens. Try thinking of it as expanding on the ideas presented in the quote. Try challenging the quote. Try explaining the quote to a friend (mentioned above). Then try putting those practices into words. When you do, you'll more than likely have something that's both you and the quote.

(Also, side note, ALWAYS cite your sources. Writing a quote in your own words does not make the idea your own. It is someone else's in your own words. Citations are for ideas, not just a string of words put together. I mention it, cuz I see a lot of people in the ZK world "disregarding" the original quote after they rewrite is, as if the ideas are their own. They ain't.)

• You picked a good quote to think about; copied again so nobody has to scroll up:

When empirically solvable problems are studied, they are always open to the principle of falsifiability—the idea that a scientific theory must be stated in such a way that it is possible to refute or disconfirm it. In other words, the theory must predict not only what will happen but also what will not happen. A theory is not scientific if it is irrefutable. ("Research methods and statistics" by Sherri Jackson)

As a programmer, I might think of application of this idea to programming, and take note of the association:

# 202110041256 Good tests show what we think is false

Good tests must exercise the happy path of code to verify it does what you want it to do in the best case scenario.

They must also cover as many negative or unwanted cases as possible to show that invalid input does indeed abort or fail, and not accidentally pass.

## Example

Given this function to test if a number is even:

function isEven(number) {
return true
}


These are tests for the happy path only: we don't test 3, 5, 11 and never find out that isEven doesn't actually do what it says on the tin when we pass uneven numbers. These tests all pass:

assert(isEven(2) == true)    // ✓
assert(isEven(4) == true)    // ✓
assert(isEven(100) == true)  // ✓


When we test the "failure case" we discover that our assumptions (theories about the behavior of the function) were wrong:

assert(isEven(3) == false)   // ✗
assert(isEven(5) == false)   // ✗
assert(isEven(11) == false)  // ✗


We can then improve the function to solve the problem:

function isEven(number) {
return number % 2 == 0  // % for modulo operator
}


Note that an actual minimal implementation to make the tests pass would be to either return false for the known negative cases (3, 5, 11) or only return true for the known positive cases (2, 4, 100), which we should notice and in turn adapt the tests to cover a wider base:

function isEven(number) {
return [2, 4, 100].contains(number)
}


See Uncle Bob's Transformation Priority Premise[[201309171230]] for further escalations from a list of known valid values to more complex algorithms through focused testing.

Now if your quoted passage was the first and only source on falsification I had, I might add: "This sounds like it's related to the principle of falsificability[[insert link]] in empirical sciences." where a reference to your quoted passage is included, with a definition of "falsificability"; over the years I might then discover Karl Popper and find out that it's called "falsifiability", not "falsificability", and then have to update all my references and also leave a breadcrumb for the old but wrong word

Hope that's kind of a surprise answer that also helps with understanding the scope of processing notes (for a dumb programmer)

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

• @Helen_Shepherd

A P.S. to my last comment - I find the longer I let an idea (or rather, group of ideas) stew, the more they distill to what I really want to capture and save in my ZK. "Stewing" in this case involves not just time, but thinking about it (usually while walking) and talking to friends about it (including a wife who likes interesting and challenging discussions, some very bright children, and business associates and general friends). So when I finally sit down to write, the thought is truly atomic and clearly defined.

On first reading a book or listening to a lecture, I find there are tens or hundreds of ideas that capture my interest. If I let myself loose with a pdf and a highlighter, I might highlight 50% or more of an article. So any method that encourages me to be a bit more selective at first, and then pare down even more over time, is welcome.

Most of those initially exciting and interesting things appeal because they are shiny and new, but not necessarily because they are deep or profound or just simply worthy. Sorting that out takes some time.

• @Helen_Shepherd

An example may be useful:

# body_of_a_zettel #--public

Zettels created from reading notes should be written using your own words, but the phrase isn't as straightforward as it may seem.

To create Zettels from reading notes using your own words doesn't mean to paraphrase what the authors said without adding anything to the ideas.[1] It means to add more to their statements based on your purpose for reading the source.[1]

There's no need to paraphrase.[1] You can just quote.[1] If they made a great description and you have nothing to add, quote away.[1] But chances are that you do have something to say.[1] After all, there was a reason you read the text.

This implies that when reading, you could transcribe the interesting pieces into reading notes. E.g.: Author says X, and you jot down X. But, I'd recommend to paraphrase instead. It improves recall of the ideas, which will be helpful later on.

You could employ the following method:

1. Read the text fully or partially while taking sparse notes on the interesting ideas.[2] Alternatively, do a one-paragraph summary after reading a major section. The choice depends on your preferences and on the text.
2. Let the ideas stew for one or two days.[2]
3. Pick reading notes worthy of a Zettel.[2] Then, think about the appropiate form for what you will describe.[[202106010852]] Afterwards, write while looking away from the source.[2] This includes your reading notes. Also, write as if teaching someone else.[3]
5. Look at your reading notes to make sure that you didn't forget to include anything relevant.
6. Cite the ideas that came from the source.[1]

The intention of this method is three-fold. Firstly, to distance yourself from the source so you don't rely on it to explain the ideas.[2] Secondly, to write your own version of the ideas from memory after thinking about them.[2] And lastly, to ensure that you don't miss ideas crucial for your understanding of the big idea. Knowledge gaps can be deadly and [[202109301230]] and you don't want to miss the ideas you deemed important.

The method described by user @GeoEng51 [2] developed from several years of taking notes on lectures in college. Since they lacked access to a transcript of the lecture, they had to capture what felt important, then stand out the ideas that appeared essential for their understanding.[2]

Now to clarify the method.

Whether to read a text in its entirety or parts of it before processing is dependent on the text.[[202109101539]]

Stew means to let time pass, and think and talk about the ideas.[4] When it's time to write, you'll find that you know what you want to write Zettels about.[4]

Why are you picking only a few reading notes? Because the truth is that not all of the ideas presented in the source are relevant to you.[4] Some of them caught your attention because they were interesting and new, but it doesn't mean that they're important.[4] It's like going to a game shop. You'll be caught by all the good-looking games on the shelves, but only a few will really grab you.

Never skip the last step.[1] If you quote or paraphrase, you didn't come up with the idea.[1] If you don't cite, you're implying that you came up with the ideas.[1] And that can have serious consequences.

How you cite will depend on your citation style of choice. In my case, I use the IEEE style, so I add in-text citations [[202106100917]], then include a bibliography [[202106100849]] in the references of my Zettels.

Actually, the in-text citations are citekeys. If I ever produce text, I'll turn them into unique numbers and connect them to their corresponding references. E.g.: [some citekey]: A reference -> [1] A reference.

Additionally, don't mistake the point of a citation. A citation connects to an idea, not to sentences.[[202107150757]]

References:

[1]: taurusnoises, “Re: how can I write zettel notes in my own words?,” Zettelkasten Forum, Oct. 04, 2021. https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/comment/13146/#Comment_13146 (accessed Oct. 06, 2021).

[2]: GeoEng51, “Re: how can I write zettel notes in my own words?,” Zettelkasten Forum, Oct. 03, 2021. https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/comment/13136/#Comment_13136 (accessed Oct. 06, 2021).

[3]: prometheanhindsight, “Re: how can I write zettel notes in my own words?,” Zettelkasten Forum, Oct. 04, 2021. https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/comment/13140/#Comment_13140 (accessed Oct. 06, 2021).

[4]: GeoEng51, “Re: how can I write zettel notes in my own words?,” Zettelkasten Forum, Oct. 04, 2021. https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/comment/13156/#Comment_13156 (accessed Oct. 06, 2021).

• Like the mountains in the fall, your description outlines a supportive environment for capturing ideas. Your eloquence in expounding on the principles is only surpassed by interest in the details. Your #public zettel is a powerful tool. It is bracketed by a statement summarizing the body, "Zettels created from reading notes should be written using your own words, but the phrase isn't as straightforward as it may seem" and the penultimate capped, "Additionally, don't mistake the point of a citation. A citation connects to an idea, not to sentences." As well as citations, this parting advice applies to zettel, which are proxies for ideas. When making links of any type, you are connecting ideas, not notes.

This is a first-class outline of Note Creation 101. I wonder why #--public instead of #public? You have 755 words. I have only 22 zettel this size or larger—less than 1%. There are a least three ideas here that could warrant atomization. Atomization is also a tool for capturing ideas in "your own words." Writing short, encapsulating a more extensive idea in a few sentences helps with the thinking process necessary for ideation.

1. The Method
2. "Stewing"
3. Citation Management

Will Simpson
I'm a zettelnant.
Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
kestrelcreek.com

• edited October 7

This quote:

When empirically solvable problems are studied, they are always open to the principle of falsifiability—the idea that a scientific theory must be stated in such a way that it is possible to refute or disconfirm it. In other words, the theory must predict not only what will happen but also what will not happen. A theory is not scientific if it is irrefutable.

is utterly garbage. Sentence by sentence (written as if I am addressing the author):

When empirically solvable problems are studied, they are always open

to the principle of falsifiability

Wrong.

1. They sometimes aren't. They should.
2. Which is the "they" referring to? The empirically solvable problems? Problems are not open to the principle of falsiability. You falsify hypethesis (for example).

the idea that a scientific theory must be stated in such a way that it is possible to refute or disconfirm it.

This is non-controversial. But the idea in is not articulated in the first sentence.

In other words, the theory must predict not only what will happen but also what will not happen.

Not in the least does this follow from what is written before.

A theory is not scientific if it is irrefutable.

Yes, but where are your arguments, mate?

If you try to re-write this couple sentences in your own words you have to reformulate the ideas the author is trying (and failing) to convey.

I am a Zettler

• This is excellent. At the moment I don't have a reference—I can find several remarks on this in Letier Reports: a philosophy blog, but falsifiability of hypotheses is not a requirement for scientific validity. There is also the related demarcation problem: there is no clear boundary between science and pseudoscience. (I am not an aficionado of pseudoscience.)

Put that in your Zettelkasten and process it! ZK implemented with Zettlr+Pandoc+MikTeX+Zotero+BetterBibTex. Erdös #2.

• @Will said:
Like the mountains in the fall, your description outlines a supportive environment for capturing ideas. Your eloquence in expounding on the principles is only surpassed by interest in the details. Your #public zettel is a powerful tool. It is bracketed by a statement summarizing the body, "Zettels created from reading notes should be written using your own words, but the phrase isn't as straightforward as it may seem" and the penultimate capped, "Additionally, don't mistake the point of a citation. A citation connects to an idea, not to sentences." As well as citations, this parting advice applies to zettel, which are proxies for ideas. When making links of any type, you are connecting ideas, not notes.

This is a first-class outline of Note Creation 101. I wonder why #--public instead of #public? You have 755 words. I have only 22 zettel this size or larger—less than 1%. There are a least three ideas here that could warrant atomization. Atomization is also a tool for capturing ideas in "your own words." Writing short, encapsulating a more extensive idea in a few sentences helps with the thinking process necessary for ideation.

1. The Method
2. "Stewing"
3. Citation Management

To be clear... I was referring to @Dilan_Zelsky, advice.

Will Simpson
I'm a zettelnant.
Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
kestrelcreek.com

• but falsifiability of hypotheses is not a requirement for scientific validity.

Is it not? I'd be surprised.

I am a Zettler

• edited October 7

@sfast said:

but falsifiability of hypotheses is not a requirement for scientific validity.

Is it not? I'd be surprised.

Popper's falsifiability criterion has come under scrutiny by philosophers of science. A quote from the blog post titled Is Economics a "Science"? at Leiter Reports:

... lots of paradigmatic scientific propositions ("there are black holes," "there are quantum singularities") wouldn't be "scientific", because they aren't falsifiable (I owe the examples to Larry Laudan). Some philosophers of science go further, and argue that no claims are falsifiable (on evidentiary or logical grounds) because of the underdetermination of theory by evidence (the "Duhem-Quine" thesis as it is known) (Laudan has interesting arguments against this point--a nice presentation is in the so-titled chapter on undeterdetermination in his Science and Relativism [Chicago, 1990], which is still the best introduction to the subject I've read.)

Put that in your Zettelkasten and process it! ZK implemented with Zettlr+Pandoc+MikTeX+Zotero+BetterBibTex. Erdös #2.

• Ah, the underdetermination-thing.

Then I need to un-underdeterminate my position: This was actually my point when I sat in a seminar on the philosophy of science. I didn't call it that underdetermination but this was my point. Theories come back in strange disguises and I was confirmed when Lamarckism had its comeback due to the emergence of epigenetics (yes, some hereditable traits can be aquired or modified by the life you are living. So, be very healthy to pass those awesome and by you controllable epigens to your offspring).

But the scientific method in practice is not scientific. We have to be able to tolerate this underdetermination by allowing to be apply falsification even to the hypothesis that XY is not properly falsified. Ok, my wording is off. I will re-phrase it: Falsification is a local phenomenon, underdetermination is a global one.

Falsification (and verification) are part of the scientific method as single and local steps. But if you progress to the bigger picture other methods are needed.

It is similar to the process of understanding the brain (and a familiar entity the mind): The methods to understand individual connections between neurons are way different from the methods needed to understand the brains architecture. And what is true locally might be false globally. Still, for a complete picture you need to apply both methods.

@Helen_Shepherd

This might be the way you need to go for a bit:

"Idea" is an umbrella term.

A more specific type of idea is "argument".

The argument is complete if you gathered the conclusion and formulated it in your own word, gathered all the necessary (at least available) premises and, lastly, put them into the correct relationship (argument structure).

So, what is the method?

• Understand the type of idea.
• Process the specific idea according to the structure of its type.

If you can call it a method. I think 95% of the notes (vast majority) I say that were deemed problematic for the reason that is implied above: The note-taker didn't understand the type of the idea.

Some types of ideas:

Mythologem

Model

Definition

Hypothesis

Receipt

Evidence (historical)


I am a Zettler

• edited October 8

@Will

Your eloquence in expounding on the principles is only surpassed by interest in the details.

Could you share some of your wisdom in restraining oneself from the details? I'm a detail-psycho.

"Additionally, don't mistake the point of a citation. A citation connects to an idea, not to sentences." As well as citations, this parting advice applies to zettel, which are proxies for ideas. When making links of any type, you are connecting ideas, not notes.

Didn't see that connection. Thanks for pointing it out!

I wonder why #--public instead of #public?

I reserve # without -- for object tags.

I use another kind of tags: Organizational tags. I use two: #--public and #--proofread.

If I use #public and #proofread instead, there's conflict between the two kinds of tags. That's why I use --.

I also appreciate that you mention the other means to write using one's own words. Writing simple Zettels and following the Principle of Atomicity are key here too.

@sfast

@sfast said:
This might be the way you need to go for a bit:

"Idea" is an umbrella term.

A more specific type of idea is "argument".

The argument is complete if you gathered the conclusion and formulated it in your own word, gathered all the necessary (at least available) premises and, lastly, put them into the correct relationship (argument structure).

So, what is the method?

• Understand the type of idea.
• Process the specific idea according to the structure of its type.

If you can call it a method. I think 95% of the notes (vast majority) I say that were deemed problematic for the reason that is implied above: The note-taker didn't understand the type of the idea.

Enlightening. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

• Wow! @Helen_Shepherd, your question brought out the forum's heavy hitters with some great responses. I have two base questions I like to ask depending on the type of quote I captured. First, What are the main ideas? I list these ideas, which are essentially titles to Zettel notes. If I have an existing note, I determine if what I read changes what I have already written. My Zettel notes are nonlinear and flow from note to note, so if the current message is new, I'll review the thought string to determine the best place to insert it into the thread. Second, if all else fails, I ask, Why did I capture this quote? The summary following this question often turns into a surprising overview of the message itself and in my own words.

• @Dilan_Zelsky Oh I see, the double-dash is nice! In my stupid programmer mind I was considering tags that looked like computer-focused metadata, like #state:ideation or #state:editing, but the prefix is nice and looks wonky enough to stand out as something special.

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

• @ctietze Yes, it's nice and I'm happy with it! I took some bad hits when using double dashes. So, using something to separate both types of tags really came in handy.

I actually took some inspiration on your arguments about conventions with referencing glyphs in "You only find what you have identified”. I owe the inspiration to you.

• I struggle with this issue in my work (in academic research) every day. One method that I ultimately turn to is using diagrams. Diagrams help me understand the internal logic of what the original writer is saying and gives me room to add my own logical take. I refer to this diagram to explain the concept. I use this method for particularly difficult concepts. This method was taught to me in a lecture in interpreting between Japanese and English. The interpreter does not actually write out a complete diagram, there is not enough time. But idea is that the interpreter explains the meaning and story of what the speaker is talking about which makes the interpretation much easier to understand.