I’m not sure if I can explain the Zettelkasten method any better than I did in the article. But maybe a different way of seeing it may help.

Think of a Zettelkasten as being your own personal Wikipedia that contains only ideas distilled from your own personal reading. Your personal Wikipedia (your Zettelkasten) doesn’t contain any rough notes. It only contains ideas you have read or heard about, digested, and then explained in a way that is super easy for you to understand. At the same time, it shows you the relationships to all other related ideas you’ve ever read about in the past.

So everything you’re doing right now, you could think of just being a first step. Continue to add margin notes to printed out material, books, etc. Also continue to write in a notebook and to use highlighters while reading. You can also continue to save articles in Evernote and do everything else you do.

But once you’ve done all that, if you’re using the Zettelkasten method, you wouldn’t yet start writing your own to-be-published article. Instead, you would add an intermediate step between taking rough notes and writing your to-be-published article. That intermediate step would be to first populate your Zettelkasten with the core ideas distilled from your rough notes and then finding connections between these new core ideas and any other ideas you had distilled in the past (perhaps even years ago). Once you’ve done that, you will probably have stumbbled upon old but related ideas that will now help you write an article that’s much more insightful and original.

Luhmann did the same. He didn’t put notes directly into his Zettelkasten. He took rough notes first, but then didn’t use those notes to immediately produce a book or article. Instead, he used those rough notes to distill core ideas and their relationships and then stored those core ideas and relationships in his Zettelkasten. From this article:

The notes resulting from [Luhmann’s] readings are not simply excerpts; what mattered to him was “what could be utilized in which way for the cards that had already been written. Hence, when reading, I always have the question in mind of how the books can be integrated into the filing system.” As a consequence he normally did not put the notes made during reading directly into the collection, nor did he file them in exactly the same way that he had taken them while reading; in fact in the evening he transferred the often only rudimentary records he made during the day into new notes according to his special filing technique.

Again, if you want to adopt the Zettelkasten method, you wouldn’t necessarily change anything that you are doing right now. You would just add a new in-between step before writing up an article.

Another way of thinking of it is that putting notes into your Zettelkasten is already part of producing the article you want to write, just like an outline might be a first step towards writing.

You may think that adding this extra step is a waste of time, but Luhmann would disagree. If he knew about Wikipedia, he might have said that this extra step helps you build a comprehensive and high quality personal hyperlinked encyclopedia of ideas and their relationships, which is a super useful tool to have if you want to write a lot and you want that writing to be novel and full of insights no one has had before.

In any case, if your system works well for you and you’re happy with it, maybe it’s not worth for you to try anything different.

But maybe you’re not entirely happy and that’s why you’re reading about the Zettelkasten method. If that’s so, I’d suggest that you just give the method a try. Perhaps start with a simple paper-based implementation. Maybe you’re just a hands-on learner.

Good luck!

Science fan, cartoonist, PhD, eukaryote. Doesn't eat cats, dogs, nor other animals.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store