As a nonfiction author, retaining what I read is my job. Through the process of writing three books, I’ve experimented with different ways of reading, remembering what I read, and using that knowledge to develop my own thoughts. I’ll share today my note-taking system. I hope it serves as a good example of a digital “Zettelkasten” or slip box.
Listen to My Zettelkasten: An Author’s Digital Slip-Box
What is a Zettelkasten?
I talked about Zettelkasten in my How to Take Smart Notes book summary on episode 249, but here’s a quick review. Zettelkasten is German for “slip box.” In the analog form, a Zettelkasten is a box filled with slips of paper. On each slip is an idea, notes about which other slips that idea is related to, and keywords used for organizing the slips.
Wikipedia: Kai Schreiber
The Zettelkasten method originated in analog, but is being adapted to digital
Much of the original Zettelkasten techniques were developed to adapt the limitations of physical paper to non-hierarchical organization, like today’s internet. Now, writers are adapting the Zettelkasten method to digital software.
“Zettelkasten” is a “slip box” and “note-taking system.” A “slip” is a “note”
A note about terminology for this article: I’ll be using the terms Zettelkasten, note-taking system, and slip box interchangeably. They all mean the same thing. The same goes for “slip” and “note.” They’re the same thing.
What do I use a Zettelkasten for?
The Zettelkasten method is most commonly used by academic writers. That use case has its own unique demands. I, however, am a blogger and nonfiction (self-help) author. Here’s what I aim to do with my Zettelkasten:
Retain what I read: I want to be able to put interesting things I read into my own words. Access my knowledge: I want to be able to quickly access quotes, facts, figures, and story details, when I don’t remember them perfectly. Direct my curiosity: I want to have options for things I can read that will drive my knowledge more-or-less toward learning something useful. I call it strategic curiosity, which I talked about on episode 184. Develop my ideas: I want to guide ideas through the four stages of creativity, which I talked about on episode 218. Ship writing: I want to mix my knowledge and ideas into shipped tweets, weekly newsletters, articles, and books.
Four misconceptions about note-taking
Like many things I’ve come to love, I was resistant to the idea of note-taking at first. Some misconceptions I had:
1. Note-taking does not take the pleasure away from reading
Note-taking doesn’t have to take more mental effort than reading. It can be broken into low-effort activities that build into something great.
Additionally, you can still read “for pleasure.” Not all my reading goes through my note-taking process.
2. Note-taking is not mindlessly writing down everything you read
Note-taking connects your consumption of knowledge with your creation of knowledge. If you mindlessly write down everything, there’s no room for creativity. Only take notes on the parts of your reading that interest you, or that you otherwise want to retain.
3. Note-taking is not boring
Some parts of note-taking look boring. For example, looking at a highlight you’ve made, then writing it in your own words, looks boring. But it’s fun. It’s just enough of a challenge to keep you engaged.
4. Google is not a substitute for notes
Your notes are not simple records of facts and figures. You would not get the same results by Googling anything you’d like to reference. Inherent in the system is your own thoughts.
My Zettelkasten notes are plain-text Markdown files
I have a lot of notes in Evernote, but those notes are distinct from notes in my Zettelkasten. Evernote is mostly for project-related or