A Zettelkasten makes writing texts easy. It encourages you to prepare research and the most of your writing before you compile your first draft. This way you can focus on one task at a time and needn’t sweat about getting through. This works excruciatingly well with longer texts but it’s proven indispensable for any of my shorter writing projects, too.
When you start a writing project, expect your first draft to be imperfect. It will require work and polishing anyway, so it’s only reasonable to complete the first draft quickly: the sooner you finish, the sooner you’ll know what’s left to do. When you’re done researching, you will find everything in your Zettelkasten to compile a draft based on the notes you took. It stores fragments of the text you’re working on, based on the research you completed and fed into its archive. You can deeply focus on either research or compiling a draft instead of switching gears between the two tasks all the time. Separating these tasks makes you more productive at both. All the while, instead of interfering with each other, these tasks mutually enhance one another when your research notes find their way into the draft and the draft’s outline drives future research.
Prepare Research First, Compile a Draft Second
A Zettelkasten helps you focus on your research. It also helps you focus on writing. Both tasks should be separated in order to deeply focus on each of them.
You should do research and writing separately because it’s too costly if you don’t. To get into a writing flow takes time. It’s cost-inefficient to constantly interrupt your writing just because you find your research foundation to be lacking. Doing research requires another mode of attention which, too, takes time to get into. Switching between these procedures or a regular basis is an uncomfortable waste of energy and, ultimately, a waste of your precious time.
A Zettelkasten is a save haven for your research. Whatever you put in can be used at any later time. You won’t ever produce any waste during your research but instead expand your knowledge base without even trying to do so. Connections you couldn’t possible anticipate while taking note may arise way in the future, surprising you when you look for something totally different, leading you to new insights.
With time, your Zettelkasten will become your trusted note archive, giving you the comfort to store and process whatever you stumble upon. Thereby, it will lessen the burden of figuring out whether a discovery is of any use to your current project. Since immediate re-use is not an issue, you’re able to keep track of every important information.
The task of writing a text can be deferred until you’re well-equipped with notes on the topic. It’s easy to connect the parts when it’s time to write the piece itself since you already prepared phrasing their relationships when you linked notes with each other. You prepare your text in manageable parts this way and afterwards get to a complete first draft in no time. Let me explain how drafting a text works according to this method.
How to Get the First Draft Out Quickly
This is the process which will help you write a complete first draft in no time:
- Get an overview of your knowledge.
- Create a first outline to plan the writing project.
- Attach notes from your archive to the outline’s items.
- Fill in the gaps with more research. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’re satisfied.
- Copy and paste note contents into a document according to the outline.
- Re-write the manuscript.
The majority of the writing is done in advance and it’s done in manageable parts. You won’t get stuck second-guessing your writing progress since you don’t actually write a lot. Your task is to plan the text as an outline instead.
When you query your Zettelkasten to find out what you’ve collected on a given topic, it will give you a birds-eye view of your archived knowledge. At the same time, you’re able to dig deeper and follow the trails of interconnected notes. Opposed to less elaborate note-taking techniques, a Zettelkasten provides a more useful overview since it also serves links between items in the archive.
After you select what you want to use for your writing project, you should order the material in an outline as a wireframe for your text. Outlines will prove beneficial because you’ve thought about the structure before you get your hands dirty crafting paragraphs.1
To see with clarity if your research backs up your text’s structure sufficiently, the next step is to assign notes from your Zettelkasten to the items of your outline. When an item of your outline seems to be neglected because you don’t have enough notes that fit, you can continue your research, focusing on the missing pieces. As soon as you’re confident you got enough coverage for a start, you string the notes’s contents together according to the outline. Thus you create the very first draft. That’s all it takes to move from a plan to outline to manuscript. Then you begin to re-write, organize the material and start to make the text coherent.
All first drafts suck, so get over with it.
Get the first draft finished as quickly as possible. For the sake of your sanity, you should defer editing to the point when you completed a full draft: switching between the modes of writing creatively and editing sentences will exhaust you quickly and get in your way. Recently, author Jeff Goins wrote about Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” advice (PDF) and condensed it to: it will suck, get over with it. The sooner you’re done with the first draft, the earlier you’ll be relieved that you’re through.
A well-fed Zettelkasten takes you there quickly since you mostly compile notes to finish a first draft.
There’s no magic involved in writing texts with the help of a well-fed Zettelkasten. To compile a first draft you put the contents of selected notes at the appropriate places in the outline, putting meat on the bones of your text’s skeleton. That’s how a Zettelkasten helps you complete your first draft.
Taking notes while you do your research will keep you in shape as a writer. You can focus on research since you know there’s a trustworthy archive which will store your knowledge in the shape of notes. Remember that processing your reading notes implies you create connections between them and older notes in your archive. You need links between notes to create an extension to your mind.
Therefore you should take notes as often as possible. The more you put in, the bigger the chance you find something useful. With time your growing note archive will turn up gems more often. The more you put in, the faster it grows; that’s why you have to write take notes a lot.
I wonder how you handled writing and researching in the past. Please leave a comment and tell me more about your experience!
John R. Hayes (2006): New Directions in Writing Theory, New York and London: The Guilford Press, pp. 33–35. ↩