Zettelkasten is a buzzword you’ve probably seen a few times by now. On the surface, it’s just a note-taking system. Dig deeper and you’ll discover it’s a great way to take your creativity and your work to the next level.
It’s also often misused.
We’re going to discuss what a zettelkasten really is, what it’s really intended for, and how you can get the most out of using one.
What is a zettelkasten?
Zettelkasten was coined by Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist who employed this note-taking system to great effect throughout his life and career, having more than 70 books and 400 scholarly articles published across a vast array of subjects, from law, to love, to art.
The German word zettelkasten translates to “slip box”. The “slip box” refers to a box containing slips or index cards with notes on them.
As Luhmann conducted his research, he would write his notes on these index cards along with the appropriate reference citations. He’d then file these notes away into his slip box. Not only would Luhmann reference bibliographic sources on these notes, but he would also reference other notes within his slip box.
By referencing or “linking“ notes together like this, Luhmann had effectively invented his own personal wiki, à la Wikipedia. A single note could be linked and referenced many times over the years. Constantly revisiting and linking notes like this gives rise to unique insights and helps commit the information to memory.
By breaking up his research into self-contained citation-complete pieces of information, Luhmann was effectively writing complete works one small note at a time.
But a lot of people lose sight of the very purpose a zettelkasten is intended for.
How the zettelkasten is misused
Many who use a zettelkasten mistake it as a general productivity tool. Now, it is a productivity tool, but it’s a tool for producing a particular thing: written expositions.
Expository writing, essays, are not just for academics and students. A well-written exposition is a powerful means for self-expression and learning that everyone can benefit from.
Neil Postman has this to say about the subject:
“Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.”
– Neil Postman from his book Amusing Ourselves to Death 
So if you’re using a zettelkasten but not ultimately creating some kind of exposition from your notes, then you’re wasting your time. You’re missing out on the most important benefit of keeping a zettelkasten. That is, you’re missing out on an incredibly effective tool for learning, creativity, and expression.
If you are already using a zettelkasten for taking notes but aren't using those notes to produce some greater work, it could be you’re using the system for the wrong reasons. Maybe you’re using one because if feels like you’re accomplishing some work. It feels like learning when you record some information. It feels productive to link and categorize and organize a bunch of notes. In such a case, you might be knee-deep in the productivity tar pit. Get out of the tar pit and take back your precious time.
So again, everyone can benefit, both personally and professionally, from the creative insights and knowledge gleaned from a zettelkasten – when it’s used properly.
Why you should keep a zettelkasten
Let’s emphasize what a zettelkasten is for: the purpose of keeping a zettelkasten is to produce written expositions.
The benefits of a zettelkasten and expository writing are not limited to 4.0’s and tenure. Those benefits include:
- Remember what you learn – When you go through the steps of: (1) writing notes (2) meditating on how those notes connect (3) forming a coherent whole composition from those connections – that entire process of working and thinking through a topic, it’s one of the best ways to truly understand and commit something to memory.
- Creative insight – What does a drought in the year 1540 have to do with a violin owned by King Louis XVI? Maybe nothing. But maybe something. And as you take notes throughout your life and collect them in your slip box, the notes may cross paths with topically very different notes and give rise to brilliantly creative ideas you may not have had without a zettelkasten.
- Clarity of thought – One of the best ways to check if you understand something is to write it out. Write it out as if you’re explaining it to a child or layman. A complete coherent piece. If you can’t do that, then you may not understand it well enough yourself. Go back through your notes, your references, and keep working toward clear understanding.
Who benefits from a zettelkasten?
If keeping a zettelkasten is about garnering creative insights and learning new things, then this system can obviously benefit anyone, not just academics.
Here are a few examples of people who can also benefit from a zettelkasten:
- Product creators – Creating a new product? Gather all your research into a zettelkasten to more easily connect it all together. Write up a 6-pager  to better clarify your product both for yourself and for your audience.
- Self-directed learners – As a self-directed learner or autodidact, you likely have a broad set of interests. Keep your notes for everything in a single zettelkasten so that you can take advantage of the serendipitous connections that may occur. Use your notes and references to write about what you’ve learned in order to clarify your own understanding.
- Gardeners – Yes, gardeners! Log your gardening endeavors. Take pictures, videos, write down your observations, what flourished, what faltered – keep it all in a zettelkasten. Cultivate your own horticultural knowledge sanctuary. At season’s end, review everything to gain insights and help you plan for next year.
How to use a zettelkasten
Before we get into how to use a modern zettelkasten, let’s once more emphasize the purpose of keeping one: to help the writer produce well-articulated, well-cited, insightful expositions. The written work in turn serves as a powerful piece of communication, whether it be intended for some audience or for the writer’s own clarity of thought.
Like any productivity system, a zettelkasten has to be simple to use. If there’s too much friction, either it will sap away your time or it simply won’t get used at all.
There are a variety of apps that can be adapted to implement a zettelkasten – you could even use just index cards as Luhmann did. But an app is the obvious modern choice as it will save you time and make it easier to create notes, link & cite them, and organize them.
Our discussion will assume Thoughtbook as the app of choice. Thoughtbook is tailor-made for the zettelkasten system and the expository writing process that may accompany it. Everything from creating notes, adding references, linking & citing, organizing – it’s all made especially easy using Thoughtbook. If you prefer a free alternative, try Zim wiki.
Now, there isn’t much in the way of “how-to” for a zettelkasten. Again, the process is simple: (1) encounter useful information (2) add it as a note to your zettelkasten. But there are some things to keep in mind as you create and link notes. We want to aim for quality notes.
What constitutes a quality note?
- A single focus – if the topic of the note is some aspect of peasant life in France, don’t also write about peasant life in England. Similarly, focus on that one particular aspect of French peasant life and no other aspects. This keeps your notes focused and simple, making them quick to scan, understand, and incorporate into your larger writing projects.
- Source references – it’s vital to know where you got some piece of information from. Without source references, the information and your claims cannot be corroborated, and are thus weakened.
- Tags – three category tags per note is the ideal amount to help you stay organized. For example, a note may have these three tags: (1) England (2) Middle Ages (3) peasants. This will make it easy to narrow down searches for notes within these categories.
- Useful links – do not link gratuitously. Don’t just link your French peasant life note with your English peasant life note because they both have peasant in the text. Don’t treat links cheaply. If you just start linking every note that’s even only slightly related to something, it creates too much clutter and cheapens your links. Only link notes when it’s useful to do so. What makes a link useful? When each note in the link is part of the same project thesis, if you’ve garnered some useful wisdom by these notes crossing paths, etc. Link only when it’s contextually relevant and insightful to you.
These four simple things will ensure your notes are high quality and useful.
Getting the most out of your notes
So you’ve got a bunch of notes. Now what?
Use your notes.
Don’t just let them sit in your zettelkasten. Don’t just add them to some rote memorization spaced repetition app. Write something. Something fun. Something interesting to you. Something that you really want to learn more about.
If your notes are well-written, much of an exposition’s work is already done – you can basically just copy and paste these notes into your manuscript one by one. By using a zettelkasten, you’re basically already writing essays one note at a time.
Now, obviously not every single note will be immediately useful to you. Many will never be used or linked to at all, and that’s okay. The point here is to keep in mind, as you take notes, that the note and the linking aren’t the end-goal. Always have in mind the more important and fruitful end – expository writing.
Remember, a zettelkasten isn’t just a note-taking system. It’s not just a productivity system. It’s a powerful support system for producing written expositions.
Whether your writing is destined to be shared or kept private, everyone can benefit from the creative insights and learning that emerges from the process of expository writing.
Ready to implement a proper zettelkasten?Try Thoughtbook free
- ^ Postman 2006, p. 63
- ^ Freeman 2020
- Freeman, Jesse. 2020. “The Anatomy of an Amazon 6-Pager.” The Writing Cooperative. July 16, 2020. https://writingcooperative.com/the-anatomy-of-an-amazon-6-pager-fc79f31a41c9.
- Postman, Neil. 2006. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books.
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