Field Report #4: I spent six months using a Zettelkasten to write my thesis. Here's what I learned

This is a guest post by Caleb Winebrenner (@Sociopoetic on our forums) where he shares his practical insights. Enjoy!

We users of a Zettelkasten strive for a set of ideals: that we don’t only collect knowledge but integrate it and use it in the service of our own knowledge work; that use of a Zettelkasten generates new connections and insights for us in that work (as Luhmann said, as a conversation partner); that our organization of notes allows for clear thinking and organized ideas.

At least those are the ideals I had in mind when I commenced my thesis research. Truthfully, I adopted the Zettelkasten method precisely because I wanted to take good notes as I returned to academia. I was entering a new field (cartography) and believed that the Zettelkasten could be an important part of my success. As a preliminary point, my grades were excellent – and I’m convinced that my zettels were the reason why, especially since so many of our exams and projects were open-note. Ideas did seem to stick better in my mind when I had carefully-crafted notes. To zettel, or as I thought of it to feed my Zettelkasten and to play in my Zettelkasten were the majority of my study process. Any reading I did was done with The Archive open and any writing of reports had my Zettelkasten at hand for material.

I felt prepared to write my thesis. I was – and remain – confident in the method and in (most of) my notes. Writing and adding to my Zettelkasten is still part of my daily life of the mind.

Writing my thesis was not the same.

The thesis-writing process revealed three dictums that I’m carrying forward:

  1. A good piece of writing probably won’t be verbatim Zettels At first I tried having verbatim Zettel integrated into my thesis.1 I discovered that when I did this, my resulting drafts did not have the sense of coherence required for my arguments. Atomic notes make for a useful Zettelkasten, but not good chapter sections. (Perhaps this is why some people criticize Luhmann’s own writing as tangled or obtuse.) To be clear, my Zettels made for good outlines or working first drafts, but not something I’d submit to my advisor. I absolutely relied on my Zettelkasten to get me started, but it only carried me so far. The task of writing was still mine to do, not the Zettelkasten’s. The exception was with descriptions of specific methodological details or some other technical aspect. A good formulation of an idea in a Zettel (if it was my own words) might still be used. The other notable exception would be direct quotations from other scholars that I had in my Zettelkasten. However, any interpretation of the quote in the original note was eventually discarded in favor of explication that was more directly related to the arguments in my thesis.

  2. A good Zettel requires good metadata Sometimes, I knew I had a Zettel for something and it took a while to find it, or I found it only when looking for something else. Part of my research and writing process was to edit the metadata of my Zettels. My tags became more specific. Titles of notes were rewritten in order to show up with searches. For example, I started using the names of certain scholars as tags. A Zettel that may not include a quote from the scholar but resonated strongly with their ideas got the tag. In this way, I could track how some of my arguments were taking shape (again with the caveat that making Zettel was not the same as drafting a chapter)

  3. Material from a thesis draft should feed back into the Zettelkasten As my thesis writing dominated my schedule, I began to work primarily in that document2. One thing I found myself doing, however, was to put Zettel UIDs as comments3 in the draft. This led to the discovery that some material in my thesis writing was not in my Zettelkasten and should be, especially quotes or figures from scholars I was in dialogue with. I’ve not completed this step yet, but I intend to. Even as the thesis is a finished product, it is still a product that can feed my Zettelkasten. In doing so, it will make my future scholarship more robust. Relatedly, some expressions of key ideas that I finally seemed to get right in the final draft of my thesis are probably deserving of inclusion as separate (atomic) notes for use in other projects – with the caveat that I will still end up rewriting in order to meet the goals of the project at hand.

All of this served as a reminder that my Zettelkasten is not static. A finished thesis, however, has to be in some sense. Continuing to add to and edit my Zettelkasten is essential (be like the bee). Again, I trust the Zettelkasten Method; it really worked for me. For the part of the scholarly process it’s designed for (collecting, organizing, and analyzing ideas), it’s spectacularly good. For other part of the process (some synthesis, writing), it’s best in a supporting role.

Sascha’s Comment

Practical experience is extremely valuable. Thank you @sociopoetic for this report!

A good piece of writing probably won’t be verbatim Zettels

This is consistent with my experience during the beta phase for the second edition of The Zettelkasten Method: Not only did I have to reword a lot to make the work during the writing process. Even having done this, a regular criticism from beta readers was that something was not sufficiently contextualised: either it could be deleted, or it needed to be clarified to make sense for the book. So, exactly the criticism one hears in regards to Luhmann’s writing style.

The context of thoughts and knowledge is different when it is in your Zettelkasten compared to being in a text. A good note in your Zettelkasten not only records thoughts clearly and precisely. It should also be understandable on its own. But in a text, the thought shouldn’t be interpreted in isolation, but in the context of the respective train of thought of the written piece. This makes it necessary to reformulate the thought in order to transfer it from one context to another.

The question for me at this point is: Can this friction be reduced to make the notebook a better writing tool without harming its quality as a thinking tool?

A good Zettel requires good metadata

I would generalise this lesson: Feeding the Zettelkasten and using it requires different but compatible conventions. The question is if writing the master’s thesis has produced production-specific problems and solutions to @sociopoetic, or if writing the thesis has produced fundamental improvements to the Zettelkasten that translate to a variety of activities.

In any case, I know the problem not only from writing texts. I make such adjustments all the time. The question is whether I work differently with my Zettelkasten or whether my way ensures an ongoing improvement, even without requiring to produce a text. Or: Because I already am producing texts with my Zettelkasten, I am already trained to make this change even without currently having a writing project.

Material from a thesis draft should feed back into the Zettelkasten

This is exactly my experience. During writing, new thoughts emerge and old ones are improved. This means that these new thoughts should be fed back into the Zettelkasten so that they are available for other thinking and writing with the Zettelkasten.

  1. So much so I found a LaTeX package to import markdown files. It’s a useful package for some writing goals (a short essay, perhaps), but not for a complex academic text. 

  2. Technically, a folder of documents. 

  3. I wrote the thesis in LaTeX, so commenting was easy.