Zettelkasten Forum


Hypothesis: Non-editability of Analog Zettelkasten is a feature, not a bug

The following are taken from my notes and slightly paraphrased.

The temporal and accreting nature of analog Zettelkasten as its main benefits

Why does analog Zettelkasten work so well?

In [1] I discussed how analog Zettelkasten cures my perfectionist tendencies, as opposed to digital systems, by making editing cumbersome. I also believe that a key benefit of an analog system is being able to trace the development of my thoughts over time.

This idea goes against the views of many digital Zettelkasten aficionados, who believe that their Zettelkasten should reflect their current view of each idea.
Given any topic, the way I think about it will depend heavily on when I’m writing about it -- all papers that I wrote went through numerous iterations.
It’s not that my thoughts at any point are wrong per se, but rather all versions of my thoughts are required to gain a holistic understanding of my view on a topic.

Of course, Wikipedia can afford to commit massive manpower to update all pages and keep them evergreen. However, not only do I lack said manpower, the purpose of personal note-taking is not to present an up-to-date view of all topics; the evolution of my thoughts is the primary objective, and the notes simply its nice byproduct.

Furthermore, I posit that writing for an audience with background similar to mine is a valuable exercise. This insight comes from my recent experience of writing short reports to communicate findings for research projects. I found that these reports forced me to clarify my thoughts and became a staple of my research strategy.

Developing an alternative

The key question then, is how can we harness the benefits of analog Zettelkasten, without its obvious downsides of hand cramps and lack of portability?
I propose writing short reports to myself, drawing from Edward Tufte's alternative to PowerPoint in [2] (see also: Amazon 6-pagers).
The rules are as follows.

  1. Write short reports, spanning no more than several pages.
  2. Use natural language and full sentences.
  3. Write about a single thesis, and make it complete.
  4. Cross-reference previous reports as needed.
  5. Assume an audience of my future self.
  6. Finalize and "publish" the report within a deadline of no more than a week.

Concrete implementation

In analog systems, there is no difference between an editing view and a published view.
In the digital medium, we can export source file written in some markup language into an immutable format, such as PDF.

Markdown with pandoc is a popular choice, and is suitable for technical writing that I do.
One downside of this workflow is its inability to handle image positioning very well, and the lack of good markup for algorithms.

I believe that Typst may be a good alternative: the markup language is easy to write, compared to LaTeX, while producing better PDFs than markdown-pandoc.

Once exported into PDFs, the reports can be stored chronologically in a single folder or repository for later reference. Some of them can even be hosted online or shared with my colleagues as needed.

[1] On the similarities between analog Zettelkasten and outliners.

[2] The cognitive style of PowerPoint

---end of my note to self---

Further comments

My current system can be described as borrowing elements from various influences, such as analog and digital Zettelkasten, the way scientists used to correspond letters (I send them to my future self), commonplace books, and academic literature.

Each note is rather short, and about an atomic idea at a certain point in time.

Notes are interlinked, but only in the sense that future notes cite past notes, much like academic literature.

Notes, once written, are not editable. But I can respond to a previous note with a new note. This is similar to index-card based Zettelkasten but very distinct from the typical digital implementation using Obsidian or The Archive.

Most notes are written in the tone of "dear future self, here is the derivation for a theorem you must have forgotten..." or "dear future self, this is why I think X about Y..."

Of course, there are many notes in the tone of "dear past self, you were an idiot."

This thesis hinges on the assumption that writing and responding is more productive than excessive editing and janitorial managing. This may depend on the field that you're in, as well as your susceptibility to "productive" procrastination.

Comments

  • Also worth noting is that, since writing the quoted report, I changed the default page size of my Typst template from A4 to A5 to further mimic working off of small index cards.

  • @jiwonac said:

    the purpose of personal note-taking is not to present an up-to-date view of all topics; the evolution of my thoughts is the primary objective, and the notes simply its nice byproduct. [...] Notes, once written, are not editable. But I can respond to a previous note with a new note.

    This is approximately how I work too, with the help of a discourse schema (or what Joel Chan calls a discourse graph), as I mentioned previously here, for example. The way you described writing to yourself sounds like the "Blumenbergian" type of Zettelkasten described in the recent "Kommunikationspartner" discussion.

    This thesis hinges on the assumption that writing and responding is more productive than excessive editing and janitorial managing. This may depend on the field that you're in, as well as your susceptibility to "productive" procrastination.

    A few years ago I quoted a passage from Sheldon Richmond's 1979 article "When to begin writing", which emphasizes the usefulness of dialogical writing for writing now and preventing procrastination:

    I suggest that beginners write immediately, treating every version as drafts for future improvement. This advice encounters three problems. First, how to write right away; second, how to overcome the defects of writing now—sloppiness, repetition, confusion, and superficiality; and third, how, as teachers, to convey this advice. The solutions for the second and third problems are simply applications of the solution to the first problem, which is to write as if engaged in a dialogue: focus upon a question, state alternative and competing answers, and have a critical discussion of the answers. One can improve upon flaws in one's writing by using the dialogue-framework to assimilate and accommodate comments on drafts, and this is the solution to our problem of overcoming the defects of writing now.
  • edited June 10

    My thought derived paraphrasing and combining some of my notes about the topic (it's not a single zettel, it's an output using them).

    I recognize the validity of the properties of an immutable Zettelkasten, they are quite solid and I am convinced that they can make the system effective.
    In my system, being digital, I theoretically have both the options, making an immutable system or a mutable system.

    I've faced the issue of how to make my system reflecting on benefits and drawbacks of both models (there was already a discussion in the forum, https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/2756/question-evolving-ideas-contradictions-how-to-manage-non-truth-in-a-zettelkasten), they both have them, therefore there is no definitive solution, it remained for me an open question.

    When I have a case like this, an open question, I try to use my personal principle of simplicity: in case of unresolved doubts, adopt simplest strategies by default, use complex ones only when necessary.

    Therefore, finding the management of an immutable system more onerous and more complex than that of a mutable/plastic one, I've decided to maintain a mutable system by default, and to take immutability into consideration only when I feel it is appropriate, when I feel that I need to have stratification.
    In my system I therefore prefer to

    • store instant knowledge by default
    • layered knowledge only when I feel the need.

    I believe, anyway, that both models can work well if the principles of atomicity and concept orientation are adopted, they both contribute to solving the difficulties encountered managing the evolution over time in both models, helping to make "solid" and stable notes.

    If I used an immutable system, moreover, I would struggle to use it, it goes against the attitudes that I feel I have developed, I am very inclined towards refactoring.
    I particularly think that using immutability in too immature knowledge domains, is problematic: in this case the contents and ideas are not stable enough to consider them "on stone". It makes more sense to consider immutability for a pretty stable domain. So, I tend to avoid immutability in early stages of learning a new knowledge domain.

    Post edited by andang76 on
  • edited June 10

    I like the idea of writing short reports for ourselves.
    They take a consolidate "snapshot" of our knowledge. Just like you and I we have made with our posts in this discussion.

    I think it is a need for a time-versioned zettelkasten having points that "fix" the knowledge at a given time. Just like a full backup after many incremental backups, they form a reference point.

    Benefits of reports are very relevant. They constitute the outputs that very often we have no reason to create.

    Writing an output gives us the opportunity to test if we have obtained a good knowledge of the domain we are working. Creating an output is an important part of an effective Zettelkasten: https://forum.zettelkasten.de/discussion/2662/upgrade-atomic-thinking-to-holistic-thinking

    Writing short output, moreover, is effective because create fast and short feedback loops that are important to test if our process is going fine or if there is need to improve.

    Taking a conversation like this is exactly what I use to test if what I've learned about a zettelkasten aspect is mature enough.
    If I've done well, I can easily write about here. If I can't, I need to learn more.

  • edited June 10

    Your conversation-with-yourself model is what I'm trying these days in my journaling notes.

    It's a good thing.

    It is another tool in the toolbox, but at the moment is a complement, not the structure of my entire Zettelkasten. I still need to think how to combine well them.

    Post edited by andang76 on
  • @Andy Yes, I am very much on the Blumenbergian camp, so to speak. While I achieve this discourse by having some rules about immutability of notes once "published", discourse schemas could probably achieve the same thing. The dialogue format combined with small pages and short timeline helps me push out more writing, which improves my understandings much more than if I allowed myself too much freedom.

    @andang76 Speaking of freedom, if the flexibility works for you, then all the more power to it. Even within my constrained framework, I have the ability to make some grammar edits or append to a note and re-compile the PDF, just like how even on index cards one could use whiteouts, if needed, to make changes. In general, however, I found in life that constraints are useful and too much freedom counterproductive for my personality---impulsive, prone to procrastinations, hate finishing large projects.

  • @jiwonac said:

    Furthermore, I posit that writing for an audience with a background similar to mine is a valuable exercise. This insight comes from my recent experience of writing short reports to communicate findings for research projects. I found that these reports forced me to clarify my thoughts and became a staple of my research strategy.

    Developing an alternative
    ... I propose writing short reports to myself, drawing from Edward Tufte's alternative to PowerPoint in [2] (see also: Amazon 6-pagers).
    The rules are as follows.

    1. Write short reports, spanning no more than several pages.
    2. Use natural language and full sentences.
    3. Write about a single thesis, and make it complete.
    4. Cross-reference previous reports as needed.
    5. Assume an audience of my future self.
    6. Finalize and "publish" the report within a deadline of no more than a week.

    There are super ideas here. Writing for an audience with similar backgrounds is a great way to clarify knowledge. The forum is filled with people with diverse backgrounds who are unified in their desire to capture and grow knowledge. By writing here, we are writing for people who don't have the same background as us but do have the same goal.

    Writing short reports to communicate understanding of my ideas clarifies my knowledge and aligns with Richard Feynman's principle: if you can't explain something, you don't understand it well enough.

    The weekly post Share with us what is happening in your ZK serves this purpose. It is an opportunity to give a short report on the status of your current projects surrounding knowledge management practices and everything else to an audience of people with similar goals.

    Will Simpson
    My zettelkasten is for my ideas, not the ideas of others. I will try to remember this. I must keep doing my best even though I'm a failure. My peak cognition is behind me. One day soon, I will read my last book, write my last note, eat my last meal, and kiss my sweetie for the last time.
    kestrelcreek.com

  • edited June 12

    @jiwonac said:
    @Andy Yes, I am very much on the Blumenbergian camp, so to speak. While I achieve this discourse by having some rules about immutability of notes once "published", discourse schemas could probably achieve the same thing. The dialogue format combined with small pages and short timeline helps me push out more writing, which improves my understandings much more than if I allowed myself too much freedom.

    @andang76 Speaking of freedom, if the flexibility works for you, then all the more power to it. Even within my constrained framework, I have the ability to make some grammar edits or append to a note and re-compile the PDF, just like how even on index cards one could use whiteouts, if needed, to make changes. In general, however, I found in life that constraints are useful and too much freedom counterproductive for my personality---impulsive, prone to procrastinations, hate finishing large projects.

    Just a point to clarify, even in a mutable system (like mine) there is need to be disciplined and aware of what you are doing.
    I need to find and build my constraints, it is not a system with more freedom.
    Using the wrong approach leads to a mess rather than an easier life :smiley:

    Just an example, if you arbitrary change the meaning of a note involved in a network of relations, you potentially destroy all the involved network section

  • I am back to re-emphasize, in my opinion, the accreting part of analog workflows.

    Accreting means there is a stronger emphasis on writing and adding onto the system rather than going back to a note and rewriting it. This is a natural consequence of editing being a PITA when writing with pen on a small piece of paper.

    A good technique, in digital systems, for nudging an accreting workflow is to use a simple auto-incrementing UID (e.g. 0001, 0002...) and very short (soft) page lower limits and upper limits. Lower limit means just a few sentences count as a zettel. Upper limit means my zettels generally span only 1-2 A5 papers.

    Thus, whenever I gain a new "unit of progress" or "unit of insight", then there is very little decision that needs to be made; I simply create a new note with a new UID, then write it down. I typically also link to one or more "most similar prior note." (It's like folgezettel, but supports multiple parents.) Then I move to writing the next thing.

    I tried the "densely interlinked atomic notes in Obsidian/TA" style of note-taking before. I was spending way more time doing busywork than actual work! I was only able to make digital systems productive when I identified temporal and accreting nature of analog ZK as their main strengths, and ported those over.

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