Zettelkasten Forum

John McPhee's knowledge processing

I would recommend John McPhee's essay "Structure" to any writers and knowledge processors here, particularly the section where he describes his process for organizing his notes (starting about half-way through the essay, in the paragraph beginning "Each of those ancient structures").

Briefly, McPhee gathers his notes for a particular story, in their various forms---on loose pieces paper, in notebooks, on tape recordings, wherever---and he types them up onto neat pages, without giving any thought to ordering them (at least not yet). He then reads through all the typed notes (maybe even a few times) and only then begins to think of a structure in which to organize them.

In other words---and this seems to be the crucial point, and the connection I saw to the Zettelkasten method---he lets the notes themselves determine the categories into which they will be organized. He then codes the individual notes according to the categories that emerged from them, and organizes them into separate folders. Typing up a first draft, then, is just a matter of working through one folder at a time.

He started out doing all this with a typewriter, paper, and scissors; then in the 1980s he started using a computer and a piece of text editing software (called Kedit) that essentially did the same thing, but electronically---ie, more efficiently and with less mess.

But the technology is not as important as the process. And it seems to me that some similar processes are encouraged by the Zettelkasten method---namely, coding (that is, tagging) notes free from the limitations imposed by preconceived categories and hierarchies, and structuring larger pieces---blog posts, articles, books---based on the categories that develop from the notes themselves.

One benefit of the Zettelkasten system, compared to McPhee's system, is that every Zettel in a ZK archive could potentially "know about" (ie, be connected to) every other Zettel. For McPhee, each project is separate, so he would have to rely on his own memory if he were interested in connecting information or insights from one project to another. He couldn't allow the system to reveal those connections to him, the way a ZK does. But, then, I guess his system has worked out for him pretty well, anyway. ;)

Anyone familiar with his work/process? I'd be interested to hear what you think.

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