Let’s go really basic:
What is a Zettel?
A Zettel is a note that is part of the archive of your Zettelkasten. You create it to contain knowledge for later use. The answer to “How do I compose a Zettel?” is simple:
You form a Zettel in a manner that allows you the most efficient use even if another person would have to use it.
You will have the following use cases:
- You browse your archive with a very broad idea of what you need.
- You browse your archive with a specific idea of what you need.
- You want to use that Zettel as a text on its own.
- You want to use that Zettel as a part of a text.
Let’s go through these different use cases:
Just searching for something
It happens a lot. You read about something or write about something and you just want to know what is in your archive on this topic in general.
That means that you will profit from Zettel notes which give you the chance to have a good idea of their contents by just looking at them for a few seconds.
The first trait for this demand is a good title.
The best titles are just straight forward. If it is about a definition, then name it “definition XY”. Is it not about a thing but about two things make sure that you write “thing a and thing b”.
Another possibility is to write the conclusion of the Zettel in the title.
The second trait is a small abstract if the Zettel contains more than 2 paragraphs. You don’t have to highlight it as a paragraph. Just make sure that you write a line or two as a short overview about the content of this Zettel.
These two traits are all what you need to get an idea what is inside a Zettel very fast.
Take home message: Have a super easy to digest title and an abstract right at first in the content of your Zettel.
Searching for something specific
This is a little bit more tricky.
First of all: It is tremendously useful if you have a good title and a small abstract already. This helps a lot with memorizing a specific note.
To get to it you should be able to narrow down your search significantly, fast. This is something you’ll be able to do with a habit of assigning keywords very generously.
I write as many keywords as I can come up with.
In my experience with my Zettelkasten, it is much more time consuming not to find a specific note you’re looking for than to have a Zettel or two too much in your results.
It helps a lot if you have preformed structures in your archive: I write overview notes for a specific topic and link to existing notes to always have a next step prepared.
Example 1: I have multiple Zettels about the concept of metabolic flexibility. To give me a quick overview I wrote a Zettel with the following subsections:
- Concepts (Flexibility; inflexibility; function of)
- Mechanisms (the inner structure of the concept)
- Practical applications
Example 2: I make a list of arguments for that topic if I have collected some.
Example 3: Sometimes, I write a lot on a particular person’s biography. I make a list of Zettels and put it in a chronological order with headings serving to distinguish mile stones of his life.
If I decide to write about anything, I have the structure of that particular topic prepared already.
Take home message: Write as many keywords as you can come up with and form substructures through links and overview notes.
A Zettel as a text
Sometimes, I expand a single Zettel to the size of a blogpost.
It is easier for me to expand a Zettel if it has a preformed structure with an abstract, a part forming the evidence of the conclusion, and a part discussion.
In fact, the best Zettel notes for this purpose are the ones which are written to be real texts and not just scribbles. I use notes in general as building blocks for texts anyhow, so it almost never makes sense to just scribble something down for me.
Take home message: Write short, cohesive texts and not scribbles.
A Zettel as part of a text
For this use case, the former one is a prerequisite. You should be able to pull short texts for your writing project out of your note archive and not scribbles of ideas. So, you should write as you write a part in a book.
I write Zettel and book manuscripts in Markdown. To append the full bibliography to a Zettel is a big time saver. Originally, I did this to have redundancy in my system to increase its robustness in case of any technical issues. But now, I enjoy just having to copy the notes into a manuscript without touching my reference manager.
Take home message: Write everything in the Zettel to be able to just do a “copypasta” later.
Do you see any other use cases?
How to compose a Zettel is really dependent on what you use it for. I highly recommend to consider every use case because you never know.