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The zettelkasten method for fiction writing.
- Apr 18th, 2022
Zettelkasten Method for Fiction by Sascha Fast
The zettelkasten method for literary studies, the archive for fiction writing, sources from the outside.
The Zettelkasten Method will support your goals relating to both consuming and producing fiction texts. The Zettelkasten Method is designed to create a thinking machine out of your notes you are already making that supports all of your thinking .
The Zettelkasten Method is commonly associated with non-fiction texts. However, the Zettelkasten Method is not tied to any goal within the realm of knowledge.
This four-part series is designed to get you started. You can learn about specific techniques on analysing and writing fiction. Read this series as an inspiration what you can do, not what you should do.
The first part, “Knowledge is Knowledge” , is based on the claim that you can treat fiction as non-fiction if you like. This approach is one way to get you going and to process fiction you read. It is somewhat controversial since I commit a literary sin: I divorce the quote from the source and process not with any obligation to the text. @dgbecher highlighted this issues with this approach with a very justified critique. So, you might read the text within the context of this and this comment.
The second part, “Collecting and Processing Building Blocks of Story” , aims to provide you with a framework on how stories work. I provide you with a framework of building blocks of stories. I base this frame work on “story practicians” like Coyne 1 or Truby. 2 The second part makes use of the assumption that Reading is Searching that I used for non-fiction text already.
The third part, “Create a toolbox to analyse stories that lives in your Zettelkasten” , serves as a bridge between analysing stories and creating stories. Tools can be used to both assemble and disassemble stories. Working with those tools is both an opportunity to understand or create stories and sharpen the tools along with your skill to use it.
The fourth part, “Creating Stories” , is geared towards producing stories. There are many ways to skin this cat. I present some ways that you can use within the framework of the Zettelkasten Method. If you have a Zettelkasten, why not harness its power to support this endeavour of yours?
The Zettelkasten Method stays the same whether you apply it to writing fiction or non-fiction. The reason is that the Zettelkasten Method entails very general principles. The word “general” essentially means “non-changing”. This unchanging nature is the difference between “general” and “specific”.
Note: I attended a couple of classes in literary studies at University. When I started to learn about stories I was struck by the difference of people who teach to write stories and and my experience in literary studies. Later, when I read authors like Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Pageau and Christopher Booker on how they analyse stories, I came to the conclusion that their approach to stories is much closer to the “story practicians” (Truby, Coyne and the like) than the “story theoreticians” (mostly academics). So, my approach to story is very blue-collar and non-academic.
If you have an interesting question on how to use the Zettelkasten Method for Fiction you can drop it in the forum . If the question is interesting enough and it fits into my time schedule I’ll write a blog post and add it to this section.
Next to be published: Giving Objective and Subjective Context - Understanding Sympathy for Character.
Do you want to greatly improve your learning curve? I assist you in learning Zettelkasten Method for Fiction and offer 1-on-1 coaching .
The Zettelkasten Method provides a framework for your personal thinking . It aims to generate a thinking machine out of your notes that supports all of your thinking . Most of the material on this page is geared towards becoming a “story practician”. See the discussion between @sfast (me) and @dgbeecher starting from this post to understand the difference. I am fully aware that the approach I present is not in line with, even heretical to, the conventional approaches in the field of literary studies.
However, when I finish outlining the general scope of the Zettelkasten Method, I will dedicate some time to specific applications like The Zettelkasten Method for Historians or The Zettelkasten Method for Theologians . The Zettelkasten Method for Literary Studies is sprouting in my Zettelkasten already. In the mid- to long-term, I will be able to ship this specific application of the Method.
A good environment for thinking and writing is distraction-free .
As a simple rule of thumb: The more it disappears from you perception the better it is. This is the reason why distraction free editors became so popular. The Archive is designed in the spirit of being distraction-free. Our user feedback is quite consistent in this point: The Archive delivers a very calm and clean experience with minimal distractions.
While the Zettelkasten Method is software-agnostic, it can be implemented with any software and even without software and just index cards, applying it to Fiction Writing benefits a lot from a low distraction writing environment. App features shouldn’t feel intrusive to your thinking and writing.
So, consider The Archive (macOS) as your distraction-free Zettelkasten and note-taking App to benefit from a low-distraction writing environment.
Lionel Davoust explains in this YouTube video how he uses a digital Zettelkasten to write science fiction.
Shawn Coyne (2015): The Story Grid. What Good Editors Know, USA: Black Irish Entertainment LLC. ↩
John Truby (2008): The Anatomy of Story, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ↩
The Zettelkasten Method: Using Smart Note-Taking to Streamline Your Writing and Research
The Zettelkästen Method of note-taking can transform your workflow as a writer.
Productive writers all tend to have one thing in common: they know how to take good notes. If you are the type of person who did not enjoy taking notes in high school and disregarded them altogether in college, then it may be time to re-learn the skill. The Zettelkästen Method , also called a slipbox, may be a way to do it.
The word “Zettelkästen ” is a German word. Literally translated it means “note box.” This method came from sociologist Niklas Luhmann who used a literal zettelkästen to take, organize and keep notes throughout his lifetime.
With that zettelkästen, Luhmann was able to publish 70 books and 500 articles over 30 years. That is a tremendous amount of writing, and all of his writing was on research-heavy topics. Here is a closer look at the Zettelkästen Method and how you can use it to help you categorize and link ideas.
What Is the Zettelkästen Method?
Linking ideas within the zettelkästen , references and cross-references, note card types in the zettelkästen method, the modern zettelkästen system, apps that make the zettelkästen system work for the modern writer, the final word on the zettelkästen method, what is the best way to organize notecards in the zettelkästen method, what is a smart note.
What made Luhmann’s note-taking method unique was not the fact that he wrote over 90,000 notecards , though that number is impressive. Rather, it is the way he categorized those notecards. Many have come to call this system the “atomic notecard” system because of the way it powerfully organizes knowledge to create a research workflow.
When Luhmann came across a new idea in his reading and research that he wanted to add to his database, he would write it on a physical notecard. If that idea was a completely new one, it would get its own number or letter category to enter into the slip box . As he researched further and found additional ideas to add to his notecards, he would add notes, linking them to the notes they connect to using more letters and numbers, such as:
- 1/1 : Card with the original topic
- 1/1a : Card connected to an idea on the original topic
- 1/1b : Additional thoughts on 1/1a
- 1/1b1 : More notes connecting to 1/1b1
This system can continue indefinitely, connecting ideas and adding new sub-ideas under the original ideas.
One feature that made Luhmann’s note-taking system unique was his ability to link ideas. Not only did he number the note cards to show how they related to the note cards before them, but he also added references, or links, to the note cards that connected them to other parts of the file system.
Thus, when researching a particular idea, the note card he would pull would have links to other cards within the zettelkästen that have related research. He could constantly add new notes to the cards to link to various areas of his system, keeping his research organized at all times.
Many historians credit Luhmann’s linking system with the development of the modern hyperlink. Today, researchers don’t have to use note cards in a file box, but instead they can link their ideas electronically, but the basic idea of this process comes from Luhmann’s work.
A key to a successful Zettelkästen is references and cross-references. Not only do you need to work references into your note-taking method to connect your ideas back to the original source, but cross-references through links will also help when you use your own zettelkästen for research. It becomes more than just individual notes, but rather an interconnecting lattice of ideas that help with knowledge management.
In addition to the linking and filing method used, Luhmann developed a unique notecard-taking method. He had three types of note cards in his system. These include:
- Literature notes : Literature notes are the notes you grab while reading or researching. When you come across an idea that is of potential interest, write an index card that indicates where the idea was found. Write the note in your own words.
- Fleeting notes : Fleeting notes are the notes you jot down when an idea comes to you. Keep paper and pencil on hand at all times, or use an app like Evernote, so your ideas are never lost.
- Permanent note : The permanent note takes the literature notes and fleeting notes and adds them to the filing system, with the links and references in place.
Each note card needs to include a note that you will understand both now and in the future, written in your own words and properly connected to reference material.
So how can the filing system of a German sociologist from the 1950s help the modern writer and researcher? Technology gives you the ability to make a zettelkästen of your own, without the cumbersome notecard making and filing process.
Where in Luhmann’s zettelkästen note cards were linked using a somewhat complex numbered and lettered system, in the modern zettelkästen you can use hyperlinks and keywords to link ideas. Each note card still gets a unique identifier, often a number, and a link to the reference, but the internal linking system is much more intuitive.
In many ways, Wikipedia can be viewed as a giant zettelkästen. Each Wikipedia page is its own Zettel “notecard,” and the links within the pages connect that Zettel to other ideas. Annotations at the end of each page link to the original reference.
If the Zettelkästen Method is intriguing to you, consider investing in an app to create your own digital zettelkasten. Some that work well include:
- Obsidian Notes : Obsidian organizes your notes into a knowledge graph, linking ideas and keeping you organized.
- TiddlyWiki : This wiki model app is a free and open-source option to let you create your own Zettel.
- RemNote : This app is described as a thinking and learning workspace that helps you organize your ideas through bullet point notes and graphic organizers.
- The Archive : The Archive provides a note-taking program that organizes your notes into a zettel-style archive.
- Roam Research : This note-taking tool organizes your thoughts into a networked database.
Today, the Zettelkästen Method is still in use, but it exchanges notecards and slips of paper for hashtags and apps, but it still remains a great tool to organize information. For many people, it becomes like a second brain, helping them keep their research and ideas straight until they are ready to write.
Though an analog Zettelkästen may be too cumbersome for the modern writer, a digital one can help organize ideas so they are easily found again. By carefully taking notes and plugging in the backlinks to other notes, you can have a workable filing system that will make your research and writing processes easier .
FAQs About the Zettelkästen Method
The best organizational structure is one that makes sense to the person using the Zettelkästen, but it is often not a pure alphabetic filing system. Keywords, hashtags and tags can help connect linked ideas to each other and across the system to create an interconnected web.
Smart notes are notes designed to fit into a Zettelkästen system, with hyperlinks and related notes connected to the original piece of information.
- Day One
Listen to our podcast about the Zettelkasten method .
Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.
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Writing With a Zettelkasten: Cohort 4
REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN!
Click to register, what you will learn.
- The skills to create their own zettelkasten
- Knowledge on how to turn their zettelkasten into a “writing machine”
- A comprehensive understanding of note types, terminology, theory, and practices
- A workflow to continuously generate new content
- Familiarity with the major written sources on zettelkasten
- Writers or people wanting to write more
- Students who have a familiarity with either Obsidian, Roam, Notion, or any other comparable digital platform or paper-based system
- Students who have at least a general sense of what they write about or would like to write about
- Students who are comfortable asking questions and getting feedback
- An in-depth look at how to use specific digital platforms. (Students must come with either a digital or paper-based platform they’re familiar with and would like to use)
- An editorial session
- A writing workshop
Bonuses for Cohort 4
Click to Sign Up
- How Niklas Luhmann set up his zettelkasten
- The main components of the zettelkasten (aka “a container comprised of multiple compartments”)
- How to capture content
- How to set up and layout reference (aka literature) notes
- How to leverage marginalia
- How these notes directly enhance your writing
- How to determine what content might be relevant to you
- Where to store your different notes
- When to circumvent the zettelkasten and just get writing!
- How main notes become the seeds for longer works
- How to turn fleeting and reference notes into main notes
- How to break down and repurpose your own written work into new main notes
- What goes into making useful, "sticky," highly linkable main notes
- How to design and layout main notes that will be a joy to engage with
- How and why we work with “atomicity”
- How to turn a long note into two or more atomic, main notes
- The power of titles
- How main notes lead to endless writing projects (AKA never have writer’s block again)
- How linking directly contributes to writing longer works
- The importance of contextual linking
- How to create strong, inspiring, unforeseen, and, most importantly, useful links between ideas
- The relationship between atomicity and linking
- How to create structure notes to help you organize your ideas
- How to follow links to create both long- and short-form written works
- How to use chance to create content you never knew you’d create
- How to establish links so your future self will never be lost
- How both folgezettel and structure notes help locate our ideas
- How to outline short works based on your main notes
- How to structure longer projects using your zettelkasten
- How to repurpose your own published content for new content
- How to recognize bad practices in your zettelkasten workflow
- How the entire zettelkasten method leads to producing content
- LIVE LECTURES: Tuesdays: 9/5, 9/12, 9/19, 9/26 from 11am–1pm EST
- LIVE OPEN STUDIO: Thursdays: 9/7, 9/14, 9/21, 9/28 from 11am–12pm EST
- WHERE: Via Zoom.
- REGISTRATION: Within 48 hours of registering, you will receive a welcome email with more instructions and how to prepare. A week before the class begins, you will recieve the Zoom link.
+ ABOUT THE INSTRUCTOR +
Zettelkasten, Emacs, and Creative Thinking
Creativity is connections. The more things you can associate together the more creatively you can solve problems. Writing is thinking. The more clear your writing, the more clear your thinking. It's the combination of creativity and clear thinking that leads to good results and I'm contantly looking for ways to invest in both.
Several months ago I started a Zettelkasten note taking practice. If you are not familiar, there are two key concepts 1) each note contains a single idea and 2) notes link to other related notes frequently. Over time this produces a tapestry of interlinked ideas that can lead to new connections and ideas.
The form factor of writing each note to contain a single idea has a few immediate benefits. First, by constraining the content to a single idea or concept, the note tends to be short. There's less pressure to write a note about a single thing compared to an essay about an entire topic and so you are more likely to do it. Second, writing it down in your own voice forces you to understand better than copying and pasting verbatim from the source or highlight it in a book. Clarity in writing is clarity in thought.
Much has been said about the value of bi-directional linking, but associations between ideas and concepts is where creativity lives. The more things you know, the more connections you can make between them, but it helps to make deliberate effort to find connections especially when it is top of mind. The more connections you make the more you can draw from to creatively solve new problems you encounter.
What follows describes how I implement my note taking practice using Emacs , org-roam , hugo , Working Copy , and GitHub Actions .
In order to get this new habit started and sustain it, I like to keep in mind the framework from Atomic Habits—make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy, make it satisfying.
Every day, first thing in the morning, I open up Emacs and start a journal entry using org-roam .
It's not hard to remember or even conjure up the necessary will power—I wake up early enough that there is nothing else competing for my attention and it's always the first thing I do.
I start off thinking I don't have much to say, but invariably, I end up writing a fair amount. I don't have any set prompts or template, but I usually touch on how I'm doing, reflections from the day before, and interesting things I've come across or learned.
More often than not, journaling leads to a few notes and connections being added to the collection. Next I review a list of ideas/thoughts/facts I've captured previously (more on this later). I find a few to turn into a note or two and look for related notes in my collection to link to.
Each time I add a note to the collection I anticipate how I might use it again and the potential to apply it in some way. I often find myself citing something from my notes during conversations daily which feels validating.
Throughout the day, when I come across some interesting idea or fact, I capture it using Beorg (although any bare bones note taking app will do). These quick notes are things I want to come back to because they are interesting and I want to remember or investigate further. Separating out writing the note from quickly capturing the idea makes it very easy to do, which is important because any delay and I'll likely forget.
Using org-roam and my familiar Emacs writing environment is simple and easy. Notes are text files in a single directory. No hierarchy, no pre-planning, just C-c n c to add a new note or C-c n i to insert a link, C-c n f to find a note, and C-c n l to see backlinks.
I made it prettier and removed distrations while writing notes by using writeroom-mode only when using org-roam . It looks nearly as nice as the super minimalist writing apps like Ulysses or iA Writer.
All files are version controlled using git and hosted in a GitHub repository which let's me sync across devices. Using the amazing Working Copy iOS app, I can write and publish notes from any of my devices. A Scriptable script makes it even easier by generating all the boilerplate that would be a pain to type out with my thumbs (e.g. file names, frontmatter).
Using this process I add anywhere between 2 - 5 notes per day. However, the most satisfying part, the stuff that keeps me going, is rendering those notes into a website and browsing around.
Browsing notes and backlinks with org-roam is all well and good, but I get more enjoyment by perusing my notes on a snappy static website. I can browse notes from anywhere and it's a publc, visible reminder that knowledge is accumulating every day.
As knock-on effect, I find that working out in the open forces me to improve my understanding of what I'm writing. Maybe for the fear of putting something out in the public that isn't objectively good.
I wrote a pre-processor to ox-hugo which outputs org-roam notes exactly how I want. I use a private tag to exclude notes from being published (like journal entries). On export, I query the org-roam database to include a list of backlinks along with a short preview at the end of each note.
Because of the extra hop of exporting to hugo flavored markdown, I ended up with two repos—one for the org-mode notes and one for the exported markdown notes which gets automatically deployed by Netlify. This was painful because I always needed to deploy from my main Emacs workstation and had to commit and push to two different repos anytime I wanted to pubish.
To automate it, I wrote a GitHub Actions job which pulls down my Emacs config, exports to markdown, and commits the results to the hugo repo hooked up to Netlify. The result is publishing notes requires a push to one repo, no other steps required. Using Working Copy means I can also run my full workflow from any iOS device.
You can see the results for yourself at notes.alexkehayias.com .
Scriptable script to reduce note boilerplate
Note: you need to create a folder 'bookmark' by going to Scriptable settings and creating a new bookmark. If the file path to your notes is different you will need to change the part that says fs.bookmarkedPath .
GitHub Actions powered publishing
The World's Best Book Summaries
Why the Zettelkasten Method of Note-Taking Is the Best
This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Take Smart Notes" by Sönke Ahrens. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here .
What is the Zettelkasten method of note-taking? How does Zettelkasten compare to the traditional methods of note-taking?
An important part of your education or your job might be taking notes. The Zettelkasten method can not only help you remember important ideas but also helps you to organize your notes to move your research forward.
In this article, we’ll dive into five specific features of the slip-box system that make it superior to traditional methods.
#1: The Zettelkasten System Requires You to Write at Every Stage of the Creative Process
The Zettelkasten method of note-taking encourages you to write anywhere at any time. People who use the traditional note-taking process are intimidated by the blank screen because that’s the first time they think critically about their argument. Traditional note-taking methods focus on capturing others’ ideas instead of thinking extensively about them. So even if you’ve taken lots of notes by the time you sit down to write, you still haven’t thought about or developed your argument. You only do that when you sit in front of your blank screen—and that’s what intimidates you, not the writing itself.
(Shortform note: As one writer points out, the blank screen may also terrify you because you’re afraid your writing will be terrible —in other words, that you’ll fail. However, in The Magic of Thinking Big , David J. Schwartz contends that you can destroy this fear by acting —in other words, by writing anyway.)
In contrast, Ahrens argues that by making you write at every stage, the Zettelkasten system moves this thinking work far earlier in the process —so by the time you face the blank screen, you’ve already thought extensively about what you’re going to say and no longer feel intimidated by it.
#2: The Zettelkasten Method Follows a Bottom-Up Approach
Ahrens contends that most writers use a top-down method when working with their manuscripts. Normally, you read a little, come up with an original thesis, do further research on your thesis, then write your paper. In other words, you create ideas to support your existing thesis rather than developing a thesis that encompasses your original ideas.
(Shortform note: The top-down method that Ahrens contends most writers use may be culturally influenced. In The Culture Map , cultural communications expert Erin Meyer explains that some Western cultures think theoretically , or top-down: They’ll first formulate a general hypothesis from which they deduce a conclusion. Writers in these cultures might be more prone to the top-down approach Ahrens advises against than writers from cultures that encourage looking at the data first before concluding.)
This top-down method works in theory. But in practice, Ahrens argues, it has three main issues—all of which you can avoid by using the bottom-up approach of the Zettelkasten system:
- You’ll struggle to find source material
- You’ll fall victim to confirmation bias
- You’ll grow bored with your work.
#3: The Zettelkasten System Breaks Down Your Writing Workflow
Another reason the Zettelkasten note-taking method is superior is that it improves your overall workflow. Ahrens contends that traditionally, people collect a mishmash of reading and note-taking methods to help with their writing. But since these tools are designed to improve one step of the writing process and not the overall workflow, they slow you down. For example, you might use highlighting as a method to mark a useful idea in a book—but without a reference management method, you won’t be able to remember where that idea is in the book when you want to use it in your paper.
In contrast, Ahrens notes, the Zettelkasten method breaks down your entire writing workflow, from researching to writing a paper, into the clear, logical steps we discussed previously. Since you use only one system throughout, using it speeds up your writing process. For example, you never have to remember where you highlighted an idea; you just review your literature notes.
#4: The Zettelkasten System Provides Regular Feedback
Ahrens argues that another benefit of breaking down your writing workflow is that doing so provides regular feedback. Ahrens contends that in traditional academic writing methods, you don’t gain regular feedback . For example, you might jot down an idea you’ve learned from a book—but you don’t learn whether it’s useful until you try to include it in your paper several steps later.
In contrast, Ahrens argues that when you use the zettelkasten system, you gain regular, immediate feedback at each stage of the process. For example, by filing evergreen notes in your slip-box, you immediately learn whether a note is valuable: A note you can logically file behind another note and that connects to several other notes within the zettelkasten is probably a better idea than a note you find only a few connections to.
#5: The Zettelkasten Method of Note-Taking Mimics Your Brain
Ahrens contends that the Zettelkasten note-taking method fosters creative insights by mimicking how your brain works. Ahrens explains that learning in the brain involves connecting new information to information you already know.
In contrast, creativity involves connecting various pieces of information in original ways. Ahrens adds that most creative insights result from thinking a lot about a particular topic, then connecting those ideas to something new in an original way.
How does using the Zettelkasten system mimic this structure? As Ahrens notes, the process of filing your notes in the Zettelkasten encourages both learning and creativity. You must think deeply about how your note connects to other notes in standard ways, which fosters learning, and in unique ways, which fosters creativity.
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Here's what you'll find in our full How to Take Smart Notes summary :
- Why traditional, prewriting note-taking methods don’t work
- How to use the slip-box system method of note-taking
- How to organize and file your notes
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Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.
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