Zettelkasten Forum


Interesting Review of How to take Smart Notes

I read an interesting review of Sonke Ahrens "How to take Smart Notes", that was actually more critical than many other reviews I've seen of it before now. I had to agree with some of its criticisms, especially around the book seeming to do more to try to convince you the system is good that describe the system in clear detail, or with many examples. I keep looking for a "practical guide to the care and feeding of Zettelkasten systems", and I see a lot of questions here and elsewhere asking to see examples, to see how systems work and why they work that way. Between those, and the hype around the videos showing off how people are using Roam.reseach these days, it seems to be an area that people want to see, even if they ultimately need the deeper understanding to make their system "their system".

Anyway, here's the review for others to go through as well:

https://jonathanlorimer.dev/posts/smart-notes-review.html

Comments

  • Am I right that your main critique is that there is not enough direct advice on how to actually do things with your Zettelkasten?

    From a reader's perspective, how would you modify the book?

    I am a Zettler

  • @sfast if I were to recreate the book It'd be along these lines. The "Or:" are sub headlines.

    Part 1: Introduction

    • History of the Slip-box - Or: How one professor became so prolific

    Part 2: The Slip-box Process

    • Starting with a Physical Slip-box - Or: how luhmann worked
    • Step 1: Make Fleeting Notes - Or: Write down every idea
    • Step 2: Make Literature Notes - Or: how to read a book the right way
    • Step 3: Make Permanent Notes - Or: the psychology of understanding
    • Step 4: Adding Permanent Notes to the Slip-box - Or: Importance of Connections
    • Step 5: Cultivating your Ideas - Or: Pursuing your interests
    • Step 6: Once an idea reaches Critical Mass - Or: Deciding on a topic
    • Step 7: Writing outside the Slip-box - Or: writing an academic paper
    • Moving to a Digital Slip-box - Or: upgrading your slip-box

    Part 3: Why the Slip-box Works

    • Structure and Process - Or: the slip-box secret sauce
    • Slip-box vs. Other Note Taking Systems - Or: how other note systems fail
    • Principles of the Slip-box - Or: rules to keep in mind
  • @mleo2003 Thank you for sharing that blog post.

    I enjoyed reading his review. He made some interesting points. I especially liked this statement:

    The zettelkasten, acting as an interlocutor, is supposed to elucidate 'the other side of the argument'.

    I noticed that review was his only post on his site or at least the only public one. So perhaps it is a new site. I really like the format, very interesting. I would invite Jonathan to join the forum. I suspect any insights he contributes would be interesting.

    I have to admit I too was unclear on how to start and keep a healthy Zettelkasten going and read Taking Smart Notes to gain some traction and ended up with more questions than answers. Which was good, because it encouraged me to keep searching for the secret, the answer.

    In the YouTube recording of the interview, Tiago Forte interviews Sönke Ahrens (author of How To Take Smart Notes), Sönke covers the lack of step by step (at minute marker 15:30) and the need for that but says since he hadn't settled on the application to use and once he does he would attempt to do that.

    He also said something that resonated with me between the 14:05 and 15:01 minute marks. When asked what surprised him about Luhmann's method, he says, "There is no hidden secret."

    Once you begin the method and work through it and all the questions and struggles it begins to click. It is not the method, process, or the steps that click. I don't think if I had had a guide and follow step 1,2,3, with examples, etc, that poof it would have clicked sooner. You get it and it clicks when how you make notes, zettels, the mechanics of making zettels and thinking become one. They reflect and mirror each other. That is the ah-ha moment. The mechanics become thought muscle memory.

    He goes on to say just take notes and keep working through it.

    When it does click you realize that yeah maybe the mechanics of making notes changed or maybe not. That isn't really the point or goal. Getting your thinking and your mechanics in tune takes time and practice and is hard work like any sort of discipline or training.

    @Will said:
    Relax. Iterate don't ruminate. My first 500 notes where crap but they got me to where I am now. For that I'm grateful.

    Maybe a guide, step by step, examples, would reduce this number. Don't think will or would for me.

    I think the online course and the 2nd edition of @sfast's book (if they ever finish ;) ) will go a long way towards giving folks what they want.

    mleo2003 Thanks again for sharing!

  • Hey everyone, it's the author here.

    This is my first blog post on my new site, so any feedback on the review would be appreciated. I am still trying to refine my writing style and voice.

    First off, I should say, the review is a bit critical but I think that it is incredibly difficult to write about the zettelkasten because it is such a mercurial topic. I don't think that the author is dumb or a bad writer, in fact I think the author's writing was clear and the book was well cited. The content just didn't really do it for me.

    Just to weigh in on the discussion. I think that the zettelkasten is so difficult to characterize because it is so permissive; we usually define constructs in terms of what is allowed and what isn't and the zettelkasten doesn't provide many of this. Instead the zettelkasten optimizes for flexibility and depends on the author having a clear understanding of what they want to achieve.

    A great example of this kind of ambiguity are cycles in the linking graph. In a functional programming forum that has a thread on zettelkasten we began discussing whether cycles should be allowed. Clearly cycles of links are not desirable, but are they disallowed? No.

    So the user of the zettelkasten needs to have a really clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve to understand how to use a zettelkasten. For example I really struggled with the idea of entrypoint notes that cover a topic, I feel as though these aren't discussed that much, mainly because the author of the zettelkasten is responsible for ensuring that it is easy to navigate.

  • @sfast said:
    Am I right that your main critique is that there is not enough direct advice on how to actually do things with your Zettelkasten?

    From a reader's perspective, how would you modify the book?

    Pretty much. As the blog pointed out, of 14 chapters in the book, the first 2 are devoted to actually "How to" take smart notes, with chapters 3 & 4 with a little bit about tools and tips. Then the next 10 chapters feels like a peek into Sonke's own Zettelkasten, showing all the reasons why this system will work. I love seeing that, and love having it, but as for a "How to" book, it feels like that ratio should be flipped, or at least closer to even, between showing how to do it vs telling why it works.

    As for how I would change it, I think with more examples/samples. The core ideas of Zettelkasten are simple, but as the old saying goes, "The devil is in the details". I've played Trumpet for many years now, and have children who want to learn music. Teaching the basics of how to play an instrument can be done relatively quickly, aside from memorizing finger positions and all the mechanics. Learning to play well, though, takes a lot of time, and helps to have samples of music to practice, with examples of how it should sound (and maybe the guidance of someone else, like a live coach).

  • @jonathanlorimer said:
    Hey everyone, it's the author here.

    This is my first blog post on my new site, so any feedback on the review would be appreciated. I am still trying to refine my writing style and voice.

    First off, I should say, the review is a bit critical but I think that it is incredibly difficult to write about the zettelkasten because it is such a mercurial topic. I don't think that the author is dumb or a bad writer, in fact I think the author's writing was clear and the book was well cited. The content just didn't really do it for me.

    I didn't think you were critical. You raised good points.

    Just to weigh in on the discussion. I think that the zettelkasten is so difficult to characterize because it is so permissive; we usually define constructs in terms of what is allowed and what isn't and the zettelkasten doesn't provide many of this. Instead the zettelkasten optimizes for flexibility and depends on the author having a clear understanding of what they want to achieve.

    I think you nailed it here. All that freedom and permissiveness is disorienting, unsettling, and takes one out of their comfort zone. Having clarity is hard work.

    A great example of this kind of ambiguity are cycles in the linking graph. In a functional programming forum that has a thread on zettelkasten we began discussing whether cycles should be allowed. Clearly cycles of links are not desirable, but are they disallowed? No.

    I see the ambiguity in a graph but could it represents an undeveloped or underdeveloped network or link structure, perhaps valuable in bringing it to the user's attention as needing additional work?

    So the user of the zettelkasten needs to have a really clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve to understand how to use a zettelkasten. For example I really struggled with the idea of entrypoint notes that cover a topic, I feel as though these aren't discussed that much, mainly because the author of the zettelkasten is responsible for ensuring that it is easy to navigate.

    The concept of a structured note is used and discussed a lot here on the forum and the blog. I suggest you search around and see what has been said. Perhaps starting here:

    https://zettelkasten.de/posts/three-layers-structure-zettelkasten/

    Structured notes serve as entry points.

    I see your point about the book not making this clear.

    Thanks for joining the forum. I look forward to your other comments.

  • @jonathanlorimer wrote:

    A great example of this kind of ambiguity are cycles in the linking graph. In a functional programming forum that has a thread on zettelkasten we began discussing whether cycles should be allowed. Clearly cycles of links are not desirable, but are they disallowed? No

    Why is it clear that cycles of links are not desirable? My impression was that the power of the ZK was not quickly locating non-redundant content, but rather encouraging serendipitous connections of ostensibly distant ideas.

    Also, from your review:

    Entrypoints are just notes, but act as a summary of a topic by linking to other pertinent notes. Therefore it would be a common pattern for the index to link to an entrypoint, and then the rest of the topic can be navigated from there, through straightforward note to note links.

    I have seen a few different ways of describing what you are calling entrypoint notes, which I think are similar to what this forum often calls structure notes. One way to think of them is as a concept outline that links to all notes relevant to a topic. When you say that these notes act as a summary of a topic, it suggests this use to me. However, another way to think of entry point notes is literally as an entry point to a network of linked concepts, but with no sense that the note captures all relevant notes. It acts as one entry point to the network and the ZK user, once in the network, then moves from point-to-point. The second sentence in the review quote above suggests this notion. Maybe you can clarify what you meant?

  • @cobblepot I guess what I was trying to say about cycles in links is that they don't really serve a purpose; they could make navigating the ZK harder. However, they aren't disallowed precisely because of the point you made, the cycle might be incidental or represent a reflexive idea. Basically there is no right or wrong, some may prefer excluding cycles some may see them as useful.

  • @jonathanlorimer enjoyed your review, at the end you recommend reading a collection of articles instead of the book, but you didn't link which articles you felt most helpful!

  • @Nick said:
    @jonathanlorimer enjoyed your review, at the end you recommend reading a collection of articles instead of the book, but you didn't link which articles you felt most helpful!

    Would be nice!

    I am a Zettler

  • @jonathanlorimer

    So the user of the zettelkasten needs to have a really clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve to understand how to use a zettelkasten.

    I have never quoted before so my apologies if I did it wrong. This sentence struck a chord in me. I am not sure if I am taking away the full meaning of what you are trying to convey though to me it provided some insight. I was lead to the Zettelkasten method due to my frustration in not being able to recall what I was reading. I read on a broad spectrum of topics, non-fiction. I felt that this would be a great system for that. I still question myself on this. I felt that this system provides re- visitation of your notes so therefore it would help with better retention. I was supposed to start my Zettelkasten a while ago and seem to be procrastinating which leads me to your point. Having a clear use of the Zettelkasten. I definitely see it being useful for those who intend to produce something with it. I do not want mine to become another graveyard for notes. I really want to try this and just need to start!!!! Thanks for the quote.

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