💬"The note you just took has yet to realize its potential." - Bob Doto, A System for Writing

A System for Writing by Bob Doto

“The note you just took has yet to realize its potential.” - Bob Doto

Another ‘Zettelkasten primer’ won’t be needed for some time, since this one is direct, concise, thorough and strongly practical.

📚A System for Writing by Bob Doto is out!

the book cover of A System for Writing by Bob Doto. In the out-of-focus background are book spines in a bookcase

If you’ve become confused or cynical watching those endless videos in which an influencer who discovered the Zettelkasten five minutes ago is suddenly the expert; or if you’ve read Sönke Ahrens' book, How to Take Smart Notes and thought “now I know why I should make notes but I still don’t really know how”, well here’s the antidote: the only Zettelkasten book you’ll ever need.

My paperback copy of A System for Writing arrived just in time for weekend reading. It’s a deliberately useful book, with a clear three-part structure. It gets to the point quickly and stays there: how to write notes, how to connect them and how to use this system to produce finished written work.

Things I especially appreciate in A System for Writing:

  • Plenty of clear and specific examples of notes of all sorts. People often ask ‘but what should a note look like?’ Here’s the answer, visually.
  • Many helpful workflow diagrams. People also ask ‘how does the system operate as a whole?’ This book shows exactly how the Zettelkasten process works, and in what order.
  • Clear references both to Niklas Luhmann’s process and to other relevant predecessors. If you want to refer back to the sources, there is a wealth of pointers here.
  • At the end of each chapter, a checklist of specific activities to try, to implement the ideas just covered: what to do, what to remember and what to watch out for. If you’re wondering exactly what to do next with your notes, this book shows you (also, what not to do, especially in ch. 7).
  • Helpful writing advice, which shows how to use your Zettelkasten to produce four different kinds of material: short-short items (i.e. social media posts), blog posts, articles and books.
  • Overall, a clear, step-by-step, repeatable writing process to follow, from capturing your thoughts (ch. 1) right through to managing your writing workflow (ch. 9).

Will anyone be disappointed? Well, if you’re only looking for a manual on a particular piece of software, this book won’t satisfy you. It tells almost nothing about whatever the popular app-of-the-day is. You are not going to be told here whether Obsidian is better than Obshmidian. Software comes and goes, while the underlying principles of the Zettelkasten approach, as presented here, can be applied in many different contexts.

What about those who aren’t all that interested in actually publishing anything, who instead just want their notes to help them remember stuff, perhaps for tests? Well, although this book focuses without apology on writing, it will still be really useful for anyone making notes as a ‘second memory’ (Luhmann’s term) because by reading this (especially the first two parts) they’ll soon be making clearer, more concise and more accessible notes, whatever they intend to use them for.

And what of those who have absolutely no interest in obscure terms like ‘Zettelkasten’, who recoil from any kind of dubious productivity fetish, and just want to get things written? This is where the book excels and where it really comes good on the promise of its title. Yes, this is a system for writing. The author, who has himself written several books, shows from his direct experience how an effective note-making practice can lead to a more natural, unforced, effective and consistent writing practice. The Zettelkasten as presented here is an approach to note-making that will simply aid writing, without wasting time or effort.

a workflow from the book A System for Writing, by Bob Doto, showing how short notes can become finished writing

This has certainly been my experience. Before I implemented my own Zettelkasten approach I was struggling both with organising my notes and with producing coherent writing. Since then, it’s been a different story. But until now there hasn’t been a Zettelkasten guidebook I’d wholeheartedly recommend to others. Now there certainly is.

So if you want to learn quickly how to capture your ideas effectively and write productively, stress-free, then get hold of A System for Writing right now.

More about Bob Doto.

Read about the illusion of integrated thought, which is cited in chapter 7 of the book.

My take on starting a Zettelkasten: How to make a Zettelkasten from your existing deep experience.

Here’s why Puss in Boots is my hero: he made something from nothing, and so can we.

an engraving of Puss in Boots meeting the ogre

This article was part of the June 2024 IndieWeb Carnival: DIY - Something from (almost) nothing, hosted by Andrei. There’s a great roundup of the submissions.

Why not take part in the Carnival? July’s theme is Tools

Something from nothing is no fairy tale

As an adult, one of my favourite fairy tales is Puss in Boots.

I have immense respect for this talking cat. He has nothing going for him - not even a decent pair of shoes. And to make matters worse he finds himself lumbered with a pretty mediocre human owner.

Folklore academics have a way of classifying the tales they study. It’s called the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index (ATU). And in this index, Puss in Boots is Type 545: the cat as helper.

That’s completely wrong.

Read it for yourself. This story is not about the frankly lacklustre youngest son of the mill. No, it’s about the cat, a cat who has almost no help, who has to do practically everything himself, and who never gives up until finally he gets what he needs.

Puss in Boots by Gustave Doré

The great writer Angela Carter would have agreed with this. She observed the cat was “the servant so much the master already“. But this is hardly controversial. Perrault’s version of the story actually has the title “The Master Cat“.

So as you probably remember, the tale begins when the cat experiences an unexpected disaster. The old miller dies, leaving the mill to his eldest son.

But the mill’s cat he leaves to the youngest son.

Not only is the cat suddenly homeless, but to make things even worse his fate is now shackled to a penniless human without prospects.

So what’s a homeless cat to do?

Read More →

Why not let your reading be a smorgasbord of serendipity?

Yes indeed, why not let your reading be a smorgasbord of serendipity?

Here’s Anna Funder, author of Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life, on working at the University of Melbourne English Department library as a student:

“It sounds prehistoric now, but I sat at the front desk, typing out index cards for new acquisitions or requests from staff for books or journals — anything from the latest novel, to psychoanalysis, poetry or medieval studies. I read things that had nothing to do with my studies: a smorgasbord of serendipity. Despite my time there, I have never understood the Dewey decimal system: how can numbers tell you what a book is, to a decimal point?” - Every book you could want and many more

My take on this?

an open index card drawer in a large wooden catalogue

HEAJ:Mundaneum by Marc Wathieu is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A minimal approach to making notes

I want a minimal approach to making notes.

I don’t want anything fancy, just enough structure to be useful.

When I see people’s souped-up Obsidian note-taking vaults my head spins (OK, I’m jealous). I also wonder, though, what extra result is achieved with a fantastically complex system. Having said that, I’m keen on people creating a working environment that works for them, and I do admire people’s creativity in this area.

I just can’t be bothered to do it myself.

When discussing the Zettelkasten approach to making notes, it seems there are a lot of different note types to consider, which confuses people. The extensive discussion about different types of notes caused by reading Sonke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes makes me think this multiple-note-types approach is just too complicated for me. So what do I do instead?

Read More →

Five useful articles about writing

Here are five links with worthwhile writing advice. 🖋️

Handwritten note cards spread on a wooden table. There's a black pen beside them.

Finished reading: Days at the Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa 📚

This made me want to visit Kanda Jimbochu, the second-hand bookstore quarter of Tokyo, where the novel is set. Perhaps it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but hey, books!

The story is a little thin, but then just yesterday I heard an amazing true story about a book shop, that would sound unbelievable if it was ever put in a novel - so maybe this experience has set the bar a little high.

Image: Kenichiro MATOHARA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A forest of evergreen notes

Jon M Sterling, a computer scientist at Cambridge University, has created his own ‘mathematical Zettelkasten’, which he also calls ‘a forest of evergreen notes’.

He maintains a very interesting website, built using a tool he created, named, appropriately enough, Forester.

The roots of a fig tree in Sydney Botanic Gardens

The implementation of his ideas raises all sorts of ideas and questions for me, almost all enthusiastic. Here are a few in no order at all:

Read More →

“let’s look at all the apps that live under our thumbs, and interrogate the choices they’re making, and then imagine what they would look like if we demanded that our tools don’t tie our hands.” - Anil Dash 💬

My take: Don’t let your technology dictate your aesthetic experience. We can make choices!

Make your notes a creative working environment

“Do you have an ideal creative environment? Also do you believe the physical space influences your creativity?”

This is a question Manuel Moreale regularly asks his guests on the People and Blogs newsletter. The answers are always fascinating and well worth a read.
This got me thinking about my own working environment and maybe I overthought it. It looks like I’ve totally ignored Barry Hess’s reminder that you’re a blogger not an essayist. Anyway, here goes.

Note: This post is part of the Indieweb Carnival on creative environments.

A painting by Pierre Bonnard entitled Young Woman Writing. It shows a young woman leaning over a large table with a red cloth, on which are spread several small paper notes.

Read More →

Being human is a trend now.

According to the Mintel Global Consumer Trends Report for 2024:

“Today’s rapidly advancing AI-powered technologies seem to be on track to outpace human output. While consumers and businesses learn to balance the use of this emerging technology, consumers will begin to appreciate what makes humans so unique. A new ‘human-as-premium’ label will emerge, giving greater influence to artisans who can take on the creative spirit that exists outside of an algorithm. As the collective memory of a pre-tech world grows more distant, nostalgia will appeal, even to younger generations that only know the conveniences of a digitised world. From this will rise services that teach human skills like self-expression and focus on how to connect with fellow humans.”


🐙 Octopus intelligence is intriguing. Having read Ray Naylor’s The Mountain in the Sea 📚, I now want to try Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith. I’d also like to read Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which has a somewhat similar theme.

I really enjoyed the latest micro.blog photo challenge, both taking part and seeing all the great photos you people posted. As ever, there were some very imaginative responses to the daily prompts.

Why not check out the photo grid? My own little photo wall is also open for viewing.

As online search declines (thanks Google 😖) more people should know about it the discovery tools on micro.blog. They’re seriously useful.


📷 Day 30: hometown

A view of the Botany Bay shore, with the Sydney CBD in the background

📷 Day 29: drift

Parasailing over the ocean near the shore.

Is the Web reconfiguring itself again?

a pile of ropes

Is the web falling apart?, Eric Gregorich wonders.

Meanwhile Manuel Moreale is confident that the web is not dying.

I agree with both of them. These views aren’t contradictory. Falling apart is what the Web does best. It’s been falling apart since it started, and reconfiguring itself too.

Google search used to control and shape the web. Because everyone just Googled their searches, websites all used Search Engine Optimization in a vicious circle of conformity. But that’s finally changing.

Search gets degraded by advertising greed on one side and AI tools are generating drivel on the other. Both are examples of what Ed Zitron calls the rot economy.

So how can good material rise to the surface?

In part it’s a return to the old ways. Blogrolls and webrings and RSS are having a mini-revival and it’s not entirely mere nostalgia. One-person search engines like Marginalia are having a moment, as are metasearch engines and other ‘folk’ search strategies. I like little experiments like A Website Is A Room.

Here’s my tip: to find interesting books, great quotes, and intriguing podcasts, more people should know about micro.blog Discover!

Photo by Valeria Hutter on Unsplash