Zettelkasten Forum

Writing with deadlines and abstracts

Does anybody have any advice about writing in/with a zettelkasten while keeping up with deadlines and submissions?

As I write with a zettelkasten I follow the Luhrmann dictum of "doing what comes easy," making notes as I read, connecting them, and working on multiple manuscripts simultaneously. This writing is not bound like other approaches to writing where you must come up with your thesis/hypothesis and outline structure first. When I write with my zettelkasten the theses and outlines emerge later, almost automatically, as I do the necessary reading and note taking. I have to plumb the depths first and then arguments emerge. But this kind of writing cannot be easily scheduled. I can schedule the work (the reading and notetaking) but not the insights or connections/contradictions.

How do I square this zettelkasten approach, which I much prefer and find superior, to the academic demand to submit early abstracts for what my paper is about before I write it?

It is also difficult to figure out how/when to cut off the process of exploration in order to meet a deadline- whether for an abstract, conference paper, term paper, etc.

Do I have to accept that in my zettelkasten approach, I need to have more of the research and paper written before pushing those ideas out into the world? Sure.
But this delay leads me to feel at a disadvantage to my peers who can just slap a guess on an abstract and then churn out something- hoping for the best. Maybe I just haven't reached the critical mass yet to start publishing like Luhrmann did, but I have been working with zettelkasten notes for quite some time now. I feel stalled.

Is this a necessary cost of zettelkasten? I think maybe.
I also wonder how any other academics or students negotiate using their zettelkasten in academia, where the systems schedules and expectations run in many ways counter to the more beneficial workflow of the zettelkasten.

Sorry lots of questions there. Maybe I need to divide them up.


  • To add context for the "critical mass" comment, my zettelkasten is currently around 7,000 notes

  • I imagine that most writers have a fraught relationship with deadlines, since writing an essay or a chapter often just takes as long as it takes.

    Can I ask what is your process for putting together a manuscript from your Zettelkasten?

    I am finding that "writing" becomes more manageable (and more schedule-able) when I break it down into many distinct stages—most of which do not involve actually writing (by which I mean crafting good grammatical sentences that flow together).

    For me, it is during an earlier stage—when I am mining my ZK for pieces to build an outline out of, and then when I am moving around the pieces of the outline to find the structure of an essay, and thus, the argument—that the primary "insights" tend to happen, by virtue of the accidents of coming across certain pieces in the ZK or finding that two pieces that end up next to each other in the outline really sing.

    In that case, it sort of becomes possible to "schedule" insights, since you can schedule time to play around with (sort, re-sort, juxtapose, etc.) the materials you have gathered during your reading and note-taking.

    Of course, some days will lead to more insights than others, but that's just how it goes. Nothing about academic writing is quick, and blowing past deadlines sometimes just seems to be a part of it.

    Also—7,000 notes! Wow! :astonished:

  • Thanks for the response. You are echoing some of my main concerns and also methods which is reassuring to read.

    I too think of writing as a long process that happens way before I start drafting sentences.

    After much of my own experimentation I’ve found a synthesis of what @Sascha and @ctietze have taught on the blog to work best for me. This means that as I read I make zetteln and put them in my #inbox. Later I refine them and make connections both to other individual zetteln and also to at least one unorganized list under a theme or a question. Im calling them Reservoirs. I draw from these reservoirs to make outlines (in a different folder) which are like the reservoirs, only structured. This is the point of decision or hesitation that I am stuck at. I know there is no right answer to when an outline is “ready” or too small or too big. Nobody is going to visit my apartment and tell me, “Youve done enough research. It’s time.” Nevertheless this is the point where i feel the most dread and the least comfort: the point of transitioning an outline structure into some kind of draft.

    The zettelkasten is so useful for structuring things and themes that interest me so I can make broad and interesting connections. I work through an idea and follow its many interesting connections and rabbit holes. I think my zettelkasten will definitely be a comfort to me come book writing season. My trouble is marrying this open and eclectic knowledge workflow with the kind of narrow and specific work that an article demands. Many of the kinds of connections I am currently making in my zk are more thematic than logical (ie tied to an argument structure). For example, I could easily generate a 60 page description of Hellenistic philosophy with interesting questions and conversations, but a 20 page article that makes a unique and specific intervention is harder for me to generate with my zk.

    Maybe this is a flaw in my own reading selection.

    It might also be my dependence on my zetteln rather than confidence to expand upon the significance of two interesting zetteln in the drafting process like you mentioned above.

  • You're talking about a very familiar point in the writing process—the transition from research to writing. But, I don't think there has to be such a strict boundary between the two. When I start outlining and drafting, I know that there are areas where I will have some more research to do, and I know that some unexpected research gaps will appear (or become clearer) during the writing stage. So the process becomes iterative—I shift back and forth, between writing and research, at least up to a point. This fluidity helps ease some of the dread (with which I am very familiar) involved in determining that one part of the process is "finished" in order to start another. In reality, all writing is provisional. A published article is just the latest draft. It will get revised in the book stage. And then that chapter will only be the latest draft. Never finished, only abandoned. I choose to take some comfort in that.

    You're also talking about the problem of developing an original argument, which is a different barrel of monkeys. If you have included in your ZK reviews of others' work in your fields or area of interest, do you find patterns emerging, or areas where there is no work being done, or points where you disagree with others' positions? Those are usually where interventions begin, and it seems that a ZK could help one see such fissures in the current conversation—as long as one has created a lot of notes on the current conversation first.

  • I’m taking two really helpful points from this:

    In reality, all writing is provisional.

    Yes. This. I need to reorient around this idea.

    If you have included in your ZK reviews of others' work in your fields...

    I do have notes like this, but your comment made me realize my focus has been on primary sources. Even when I am reading secondary material, a lot of the time I’m just looking for what primary sources they are using. In some ways this habit was me leaning on my own creativity. I want to make my own argument and my own observations BUT I still need to be able to enter academic conversations- hence my above professional anxieties about conferences and abstracts. I need to be more attentive to the secondary layer of the discourse as well.

  • edited December 2018

    When the Zettelkasten work is bottom-up, letting structures emerge, submitting abstracts and writing for a deadline can be thought of as a top-down approach. You cannot go deep and do the actual research just yet, but have to know enough to come up with an initial abstract.

    One thing I tried once with @Sascha's help was brainstorming an outline for a philosophy term paper (which I never actually wrote :)). I did know enough of the authors involved to come up with a somewhat interesting-sounding topic and a basic outline: which terms need to be defined first, my actual proposition and usage of the terms, and something-something conclusion. From there, it's not that hard anymore to survey material and come up with enough detail to write an abstract -- at least not as hard as doing the actual research. I think of it as a first smoke test: What info do I need to make a plausible claim? The details then follow later, with the outline being the stick to measure progress against. That helped limit myself: I wouldn't follow every interesting tidbit but could stay on track.

    That's not how I work and write, though, so take all of this with a ton of salt.

    The gist is: you need to create limitations in the beginning and then gather key information quickly to come up with some superficial description of the project, aka the abstract. Only ever go beneath the surface once the structure is basically set to prevent your work from meandering all over the place and taking years for a paper that should be done in a couple of weeks.

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

  • I may add an anecdote:

    I had a client who was depressed and postponed his thesis for one year. So, we took an approach similar to behavioural therapy.

    1. He was forbidden to check his progress.
    2. He should aim to write 10 notes per day from his lecture.
    3. He every note should be incorporated into one structure note.

    He overshot the amount of necessary pages by 100% (80 instead of 40) in a matter of two months. The rest of his time he was busy deleting and editing which was way easier than producing.


    1. The ZKM doesn't deliver texts because it has no boundaries. But it gives you a framework of high productivity.
    2. If need to have experience on the amount of rather undirected work necessary to achieve your goal. (I knew how much my client had to produce on a daily basis to reach the critical mass)
    3. The ZKM should not become a fundamentalist dogma. If you produced a rough draft and time is pressing take the draft and concentrate on it while putting your archive on the back burner. (You can still feed your archive parenthetically).

    I am a Zettler

  • edited December 2018

    @ctietze said:
    I did know enough of the authors involved to come up with a somewhat interesting-sounding topic and a basic outline: which terms need to be defined first, my actual proposition and usage of the terms, and something-something conclusion.
    The details then follow later, with the outline being the stick to measure progress against.

    Abstracts for academic papers are almost always aspirational—they describe a paper that you hope will exist, once you finally get around to writing it. Christian's description of the fundamental bases of an abstract totally ring true to me. Broad strokes, general terms, and a possible conclusion. In the end, no one compares the final product to the abstract that preceded it. Your abstract can make a lot of lofty and interesting-sounding promises that the eventual paper can try to fulfill. But it's possible that the details you uncover in the process will lead you to a different, and possibly more interesting place. Writing abstracts is an exercise in intellectual creative writing. It should be at least somewhat fun. (Depending on what level academic nerd you are :blush:)

    @Sascha said:
    The ZKM doesn't deliver texts because it has no boundaries. But it gives you a framework of high productivity.

    The ZK method seemed to me at first like a foolproof bullet train toward high productivity. But I have found, as you say here, that it doesnt just "deliver" something to me, once I've written enough notes on a subject. I still have to work quite hard to pull things out of the ZK. After all, it is a conversation partner, which implies that I have to do half or more of the work whenever I go to have a conversation with it. It doesn't just start talking to me on its own. ;)

    The ZKM should not become a fundamentalist dogma.

    Yes, this, 1000%. The ZK method is mostly a long-term tool for me, in that I have found it most useful for synthesizing research done over months and years, on topics that are too diffuse to keep in my head all at once. I have found that it is not always expedient to use the method to write shorter articles or reviews. I can still insert my notes for shorter projects into the ZK archive, but they are not out of my sight long enough to get lost and then reemerge unexpectedly (one of the hallmarks of the ZK method as I understand it).

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