Zettelkasten Forum

How to Make Notes and Write, a handbook by Dan Allosso and S.F. Allosso

As there aren't many modern manuals on zettelkasten-style note making, its always interesting to see new ones pop up in the space.

Dan Allosso has finished a major rewrite on his and S.F. Allosso’s earlier edition of A Short Handbook for writing essays in the Humanities and Social Sciences. This expanded edition has several new chapters on note making (notice that this is dramatically different than note taking) using a zettelkasten-based (or card index or fichier boîte if you prefer) approach similar to that practiced by Beatrice Webb, Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Hans Blumenberg, Mortimer J. Adler, and Walter Benjamin among many others.

The focus of the book is on note making for actively producing tangible outputs (essays, papers, theses, monographs, books, etc.). The first half discusses note making practice while the second half focuses more on writing, style, clarity, etc. While ostensibly focused on the humanities and social sciences in terms of examples, the methods broadly apply to all fields.

His presentation of zettelkasten method is briefer and potentially a bit clearer than that in Ahrens' text. Allosso also provides a somewhat different, but useful framing (source notes, point notes) and set of definitions to Ahrens (fleeting notes, literature notes, permanent notes) and others. Allosso’s version may be more easily realized by new practitioners.

There’s more detail in Dr. Allosso’s announcement video:


How to Make Notes and Write is available at Minnesota State’s Pressbooks site for reading online, or download as a .pdf or .epub. If you’d like a physical copy, they’re also available for purchase on Amazon.

Dr. Allosso has also been making a series of YouTube videos of himself reading the book aloud for those who'd prefer to watch/listen to the book.

(Chapter 2 is on Vimeo)

For those in the educational spaces, Dr. Allosso has given the book a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0), so that people can use it as an Open Educational Resource (OER) in their classes and work.

For teachers who are using social annotation with tools like Hypothes.is in their classrooms, Allosso’s book is an excellent resource for what students can actively do with all those annotations once they’ve made them.

website | digital slipbox 🗃️🖋️

No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them. —Umberto Eco


  • edited August 2022

    He goes on a bit. I was waiting to hear the definitions. The terms Source Note and Point Note are well chosen. Source Note, for citations with or without annotations, is clearer than the Literature Note of Ahrens. Literature Notes and Source Notes tend to become absorbed into digital reference managers as citations. There is some utility in retaining Source Notes in a digital Zettelkasten, even with a reference manager. The term Point Note is a reminder that a Point Note (what we would call a Zettel) should make a point, which gets to the point without the detour through "atomicity." The term Zettel doesn't make this point, nor does the not-explicitly-defined Smart Note of Ahrens, which one discovers is a Permanent Note that isn't a Literature Note--except when Ahrens seems to use the term Smart Note for every type of note he describes. There are five of them. Ahrens doesn't provide a term for the most important notes of his system.

    Going back to paper simplifies the method. The numbering system he uses is sensible--a bit like mine in that he chooses a set of categories of interest to him to identify subject matter, and then assigns a card number after a separator.

    It's easier to skip the personal remarks in the PDF, which is (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) and freely downloadable. The remarks on misconceptions are valuable.

    One nice feature of the system is that it would work with both digital and physical notes simultaneously.

    We have yet to see a pamphlet on Zettelkasten. A stripped-down version of the book would be useful, though for a more limited audience interested in Zettelkasten. As it stands, "How to Write Notes and Write," is head and shoulders above the others I have read on the subject.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    GitHub. Erdős #2. CC BY-SA 4.0.

  • I read the book based on your enthusiasm, Chris, and while I learned something from the chapters on making notes, I was very disappointed in the second half, on writing. He is so wrong on the passive I find it hard to believe he ever actually researched it. But no matter, he is in good company on that. I just hope not too many people think they will truly understand the passive after reading this book.

  • edited August 2022

    @Jeremy Do you follow Geoffrey K. Pullum on the passive? I agree, the second half of the book is misleading and unsophisticated on the passive. It was after reading Pullum's comments on Strunk and White at the Language Log and elsewhere that I was compelled to purchase that descriptivist doorstop, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. A far more competent source than Allosso on writing is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph P. Williams and Joseph Bizup.

    Since How to Make Notes and Write is published under (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0), it's possible to cut the fluff (including the author's tendency to overexplain the inclusion of various epigraphs), remove the second half, refer the reader to better sources of instruction for writing, and distribute for free a derivative version under the same license (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) with the necessary credits.

    Post edited by ZettelDistraction on

    GitHub. Erdős #2. CC BY-SA 4.0.

  • I read it and found it enjoyable. I think Dan's simplicity may be helpful for many (Source and Point Notes). Of course, the best part of the book was seeing his analog notecards 🗃🏴‍☠️

    Scott P. Scheper
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  • @Jeremy I certainly take your point on that score. I had read through a previous edition of just the writing portion which was originally written by S.J. Allosso from a prior generation, so I didn't read through all of the second half of this edition of the book. I haven't compared them, so I'm not sure how much revision, if any, has happened in the writing advice part of the text. I was definitely more interested in his take on note making in the first half.

    website | digital slipbox 🗃️🖋️

    No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them. —Umberto Eco

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