Become a Writer Today

The Zettelkasten Method - My Exact Process

February 28, 2022 Bryan Collins
Become a Writer Today
The Zettelkasten Method - My Exact Process
Show Notes Transcript

If you've not heard of it before, the Zettelkasten Method is a way that will help you collect and organize your research, thoughts, and ideas, and any information you come across in a structured manner or a single system.

It has its origins in the mid part of the 20th century. The German scholar Niklas Luhmann is the man behind it, and he used the Zettelkasten Method to write over 70 books and more than 400 different articles.

His Zettelkasten method was a paper-based system. When Niklas read or came across an interesting piece of research, he wrote a single idea down on an index card and filed it in a cabinet. He also referenced where he found the idea on the index card and interlinked each index card using a numbering system.

Today, you can replicate much of what Niklas Luhmann did using digital tools and software. But you don't necessarily need to have fancy software to build your version of the Zettelkasten Method.

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Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Sascha: The Zettelkasten is basically a tool to organize this process of notetaking and that means it should improve thinking, writing, and organizing text later on.

Bryan: That’s Sascha Fast speaking about the Zettelkasten method. My interview with him about the Zettelkasten method was one of the most popular episodes on this podcast. Now, when I interviewed Sascha, I was just getting to grips with the Zettelkasten method and I was beginning to use it for my writing and research. Since then, I’ve refined my system and used it quite a bit more.

I’ve also interviewed or spoken to several other non-fiction authors who use the Zettelkasten method for their research and their writing. In fact, I recently interviewed David Kadavy, who has written a book on the topic called The Digital Zettelkasten. Here’s what he said about his process.

David: One of the wonderful things about the Zettelkasten is that it gives some of the most interesting things that you’ve ever read a fighting chance against, “Oh, I’ve got a few minutes left, let’s scroll through social media,” which can be super fun but the alternative is that you can just go through your notes of all the most interesting things you’ve read and fidget around with little things here and there and it all adds up to something in the end. It’s really amazing.

Bryan: If you’re unfamiliar with it, the Zettelkasten method is a way that will help you collect and organize your research, thoughts, and ideas and any information you come across in a structured way or in a single system. It’s not one of these crazy internet phenomena either. The Zettelkasten method has its origins in the mid part of the 20th century. The German scholar Niklas Luhmann is the man behind it and he used the Zettelkasten method to write over 70 books and more than 400 different articles.

His Zettelkasten method was a paper-based system. Basically, when Niklas read or came across an interesting piece of research, he wrote a single idea down on an index card and filed it in a cabinet, but he also referenced where he found the idea on the index card and he interlinked each of these index cards using a numbering system.

If all that sounds very analog, you can replicate much of what Niklas Luhmann did using digital tools and software today, but I tell you this so you can understand that you don’t necessarily need to have fancy software to build your own version of the Zettelkasten method.

Also known as the slip box, the Zettelkasten method is fantastic if you struggle to organize your research, particularly for nonfiction. Before I came across the Zettelkasten method, I tried a couple of other processes, some of which you may be familiar with.

The first thing I did was I became a heavy Evernote user. Now, Evernote is a nice piece of software, and I did what many people do, I’d read an interesting article online or come across something, an email that I wanted to save, and I’d clip it into Evernote and I’d say to myself, “That’s my research complete for this particular topic.”

Then, when I needed to find a piece of research, I go into Evernote and try and find it. The only problem with this was I was essentially filing away information without actually reacting to or engaging with it. The Zettelkasten method challenges you to summarize an idea that you come across in a book or in an article and also write your own reaction to it, and I’m gonna go through how I do that in a moment. 

The next system that I tried is one that I heard about from Ryan Holiday and it’s a system that he learned from the author, Robert Greene. It involves creating a commonplace book. A commonplace book involves writing down quotes and information that you read in journals, in books, and as part of your research, and I’d write these quotes down on index cards and I filed them away in an index card box that I kept on my desk.

I created a collection of several hundred different index cards full of quotes, statistics, and research and I used some of this to write an old book and also to research some articles I was writing for Forbes at the time. To be honest, I found the analog system quite cumbersome, even though Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene swear by using pen and paper. I found that I wasn’t going through my notes often enough and I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Also, perhaps because I’ve got bad handwriting, but sometimes some of my scrawls didn’t make that much sense. For me, at least, I knew I needed some type of digital system. 

Now, I’ll go through various pieces of software that you could use to build your own version of the Zettelkasten method later on in this episode, but here’s how my system works.

I’ll read a book on Kindle normally and when I find an interesting quote in the zook or a piece of research that I want to refer to, I’ll highlight it on Kindle. Then, when I finish reading all of the book, I’ll click the Export Notes function and that will send all of the notes to my email. Then, I’ll copy all of the notes from my email and put them into my Zettelkasten software of choice, and I’ll explain what that is in a moment. 

The other thing that I’ll do is when I come across an interesting article online, I’ll save it into Pocket, and then I’ll read it later on my phone. Pocket is a bit like Instapaper, it’s an app for clipping articles and reading them on the go. Again, I’ll highlight interesting bits in the article and I’ll save it into the Pocket archive. If I’m on the go, I’ll sometimes write notes into Apple Notes or, alternatively, I’ll use pen and paper or a Moleskine notebook if I don’t have access to a computer or a digital device.

Now, the software that I use for my version of the Zettelkasten method is Day One. If you like to journal, you may have heard of Day One. It’s an app dedicated towards journaling. I use Day One app not because it’s purpose-built for the Zettelkasten method but because it’s an app I’m already using to write. Basically, I start most mornings by writing a short 150- to 300-word journal entry so it’s quite easy for me to switch from writing a journal entry to writing up an entry into Zettelkasten.

Here’s how this works in practice. So, Day One enables you to create multiple journals within the app. So, I have one journal in Day One app called Personal Journal and that’s where I write up what I did yesterday or what I’m working on in my business. And then I have another journal in Day One called Zettelkasten and that’s where all of my notes go. 

But before that, they go to a bit of a filtering process. I have a third journal in Day One called — TK simply stands for “to come” and all of those notes that I have in Apple Notes, in Pocket, in Kindle, and in my email all go into TK for processing, and what I’ll do is I’ll read through all of these notes before filing them into the Zettelkasten. 

Day One also has apps for your mobile and for Mac so I can sometimes clip stuff directly into the TK journal as I go. Now, when I open up the TK journal in Day One, I can see quotes, I can see hyperlinks, I can see sometimes images, and I can also see a couple of words that I might have written on the topic about a particular idea. Before I put them into the Zettelkasten, I’ll tidy them up.

So, for example, I’ve recently been researching NFTs or non-fungible tokens. I saved a series of Twitter threads and articles about NFTs or non-fungible tokens into TK, then I spent half an hour going through the threads, extracting the key points, and summarizing them in my own language. I also included a source or the original hyperlink so I could reference the Twitter thread or the article or whatever it is in a future piece of work.

Then, what I’ll do is move over to the Zettelkasten Journal and I’ll summarize the note or the highlight in my own words. So I’m looking at a note at the moment that says, “On Web 3.0 and NFTs,” and this is based on a Twitter thread I read online about Web 3.0, and, basically, I summarized what the author of that Twitter thread was saying in my own language and this helps me understand their ideas a bit better. 

The next thing I’ll do is I’ll tag the Evernote with a relevant hashtag. So, in this case, I’d use the hashtag “#NFTs.” Finally, I will try and interlink several of the notes so I can build an ongoing conversation, I suppose, with myself inside of Day One and potentially I’ll have the outline of an article for future use. I’ll also occasionally upload or attach some images or media so it’s more memorable to look at later on.

A key part of the Zettelkasten method involves reviewing your notes and rewriting them, and this was the mistake I was making with old note taking systems. So, when I’m writing a new entry in the Zettelkasten, I link it to an old note and then I’ll read the old note and see if I can summarize that using more concise language or if I’ve changed my thinking or if I need to write a third reactionary note, and this enables me to trace how my thinking evolves on a particular topic over time or if I’ve found more information which supports or takes away from an argument.

And the advantage with this is that you can string together a series of notes on a particular topic and then you can potentially export them all and you’ll have the bare-bones outline of an article or a chapter for your book, and that may explain why Niklas Luhmann was able to write 70-plus books using this particular method. 

I also like to link the notes to apparently unrelated topics. So, if you return to the NFT note that I described, I’ve interlinked that note to another note about the NFT artist Beeple and that particular note links to a series of other notes which have quotes from famous artists like Picasso and Salvador Dali and my thoughts on those particular quotes and how I could use them to write an article about the creative process. 

And that’s where the beauty of the Zettelkasten kicks in because it enables you to connect seemingly unrelated ideas, and it also forces you to engage with information, to summarize it in your own words, and then to unearth threads that other people may have missed.

The final part of the Zettelkasten method involves taking your research and your notes and turning them into a type of permanent note. Now, some authors, like David Kadavy, like to keep the permanent notes within the Zettelkasten for future reference. This is something that I’ve experimented with but, lately, I’ve been considering the permanence note as the final article that I would publish on my personal site, bryancollins.com, or on Twitter as a thread.

Basically, the permanent note represents your thinking on the topic in a way that’s summarized and accessible for other types of readers and for people who are unfamiliar with the topic.

If all this sounds quite granular and time-consuming, it’s important to emphasize that I don’t spend more than an hour a day on the Zettelkasten, and I only work on it several days a week. So, I’ll spend 15 or 20 minutes writing a short journal entry in the morning and that serves as a way of warming up for morning’s writing, and then I may spend another 20 to 25 minutes going through some notes that are in the TK journal, refining and reviewing them, archiving them, and then saving them into the Zettelkasten journal.

So, I’m working on about two to three notes per day. But much like writing several hundred words per day, if you do that for four or five days, you’ll quickly build up dozens and dozens of notes over the course of a month, which you can refer to and use in your writing.

If you’re going to use the Zettelkasten method, it’s also key that you’re able to reference where you found an idea in the first place. That way, you’re able to cite writers correctly, you’re able to retrace your research, and you’re also able to find old ideas. In my case, I simply paste the hyperlink into the Zettelkasten note itself, which is also known as the Zettel, and if I’m using Amazon Kindle, that’s even easier because it will automatically give me the book details if I copy a quote from it.

Now, some dedicated Zettelkasten method followers use dedicated bibliography software but I haven’t quite gone to that step yet because I like to keep it simple.

If you’re listening to this, my key takeaway for you is to have a system for your research that fits in with how you’re already writing. In my case, I was already journaling consistently so I simply added on the habit of writing short notes about my research onto my journaling habit. I didn’t overcomplicate it by using unnecessary software or other tools that didn’t fit into my writing workflow, and I’ll get to different types of software options you can use in a moment.

You also don’t need to spend too much time on your research and your research system doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s better to have some sort of system for your research than to have nothing because you haven’t quite tweaked or ironed out all the wrinkles in your process. 

Secondly, the key benefit of a system like this is it forces you to review old notes. Now, I have approximately 2,500 notes in my Zettelkasten. Each note is also known as a Zettel and I’m always surprised when I go back to old notes from 18 or 24 months ago. It’s amazing how much I’ve forgotten. So, if I look back on some of the older notes in my Zettelkasten, they have headlines like, “The 4 U’s of a Great Headline,” “How to Use the 4 U’s for Subheads,” and, “What Great Headlines Do.” At the time, I was taking a copywriting course and I was summarizing ideas on this particular copywriting course as individual notes inside of my Zettelkasten.

I’d also recommend that you think outside of books and courses. So I recently listened to an excellent interview about Tim Ferriss about how he scaled his podcasts to millions of downloads. As a podcaster, I got a lot from this interview. Before the Zettelkasten method, I’d simply listen to an interview like this while out for a run and say to myself, “Oh, those are some pretty good ideas, I should really put them into practice.”

Now, what I did is listen to the interview as normal and then, the following morning, I opened up the transcript which was on his website and I extracted several key points which are relevant to me and how I could apply them to my particular podcast. I have no plans to turn that into an article or to do anything with it, it was simply extracting key ideas which I could use to improve the quality of this podcast.

So, ask yourself what shows do you listen to, what documentaries do you like to engage with, and what people do you have interesting conversations with? Can you summarize their key ideas as individual notes in your Zettelkasten? Can you interlink these ideas with a common theme? And, finally, can you turn the results into a finished piece of work that you’re ready to publish? Even if you can’t, don’t forget to review the ideas because you may be surprised about how you’re thinking changes on a topic. 

Day One app is the software I use for my version of the Zettelkasten Method. I use it simply because it’s ideal for journaling and it’s the software I’m already familiar with, but there are lots of other great options, some of which I’ve tried, which can help you with your version of the Zettelkasten Method.

You can use Evernote. Evernote is relatively good because it enables you to save and clip articles and you can also interlink them quite easily. You can also use alternatives to Evernote. Bear is one example that I recently came across. Again, I considered using both Evernote and Bear but I found myself coming back to Day One because it’s simply an app I use more.

You can also use DEVONthink which is a popular form of research software for academics. Personally, I found it overkill and it was quite a steep learning curve, which put me off, but I know it’s popular with some upholders of the Zettelkasten Method. 

Notion is another popular writing tool and it’s also a project management tool and it’s also a tool for wikis and documentation. It’s a tool for lots of things and that’s why I didn’t use it for the Zettelkasten method because I wanted something that was dedicated towards writing. That said, many people love Notion and sell templates and there’s a long Reddit thread that I came across while researching this podcast episode about people who are using Notion for their version of this system. 

You can also use nvALT. You could potentially use Apple Notes. I didn’t use these because I wanted something that’s a bit more secure. Day One enables me to set a password and enable facial recognition.

There is some dedicated Zettelkasten software. The best example that I’ve come across is called Roam Research. It’s popular in the startup community and it’s a web-based piece of software which is purpose-built for this type of research and note-taking. Basically, it enables asynchronous links between your notes. In other words, if I wrote copywriting on a Zettel note within Roam Research, it will automatically search for other notes about copywriting and suggest relevant internal links. In other words, it enables you to build a web of interlinking notes much easier and faster.

Now, again, there’s a slight learning curve to Roam and I didn’t use it not because of the learning curve but because I couldn’t quite figure out how to get Roam Research to integrate with my journaling habits because Day One really does excel at journaling. But that said, many followers of the Zettelkasten method love Roam Research simply because it’s purpose-built for that type of asynchronous interlinking which is key to this system. 

If you want to learn more about the Zettelkasten method itself, there’s a couple of books I’d recommend you check out. Look for Taking Smart Notes on Amazon. I’d also recommend you visit Sascha’s website and that website is zettelkasten.de. I’ll also include links to my interview with Sascha where you can hear directly from him and from David Kadavy. David Kadavy’s book, The Digital Zettelkasten, is perfect if you want to create this system.

Now, his approach to the Zettelkasten is a little bit more granular and thought-through than my system but he does visualize it with some helpful graphics in the book which may help you get to grips with your version of this method to this system that I’ve missed in the interview.

Finally, there’s a dedicated subreddit on Reddit to the Zettelkasten method. Simply Google “Reddit thread zettelkasten” and it’ll take you straight there and it’ll give you lots of resources and lots of nerdy different approaches you can use for the Zettelkasten method.

But in summary, have a system for your research, summarize your research in your own words, store all of this in one place, interlink your ideas, review your notes regularly, turn the results into a finished piece of work. That system will help you become a better nonfiction writer. 

Now, if you enjoyed this week’s episode, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes store. If you’d also like more episodes like this, please reach out to me. I’m on Twitter, @bryanjcollins. I’d love to hear from you. And, finally, if you’d like a discount on Grammarly, visit becomeawritertoday.com/try-Grammarly-today. Grammarly is writing software that I use regularly to check my own articles and also to vet articles by freelance writers. I like it because it’s easy to use because it helps me find and fix errors fast, and if you use that link, which I’ll also include in the show notes, you can get yourself a lifetime 25 percent discount.

Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books and discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.