I really did read a lot of geeky Zettelkasten posts and now I’m going to share them with you
Every so often someone on Hacker News mentions Zettelkasten, a method of making longer work from simple, connected notes. An interesting conversation usually follows. Several of these posts have reached the front page of the Hacker News site, making their authors ‘HN famous’, which is the geek’s version of blowing up on TikTok. The top Zettelkasten post there has around 300 comments, while the 10th has 31.
It’s worth staying a little sceptical about whether visibility on Hacker News is a good proxy for competence. But the comments are usually interesting and often helpful. So here’s a countdown of the top Zettelkasten posts, from 10 to 1. And here, top simply means ‘most commented upon’. For your reference, I’ve noted whether each article is introductory/basic, intermediate/involved, or advanced/complex.
And I’d be interested to know what your favourite Zettelkasten article or resource is - there are a lot to choose from. Or else feel free to tell me exactly why you think this is all a daft waste of time.
The Zettelkasten article top ten countdown
Bob Doto, presents a constructive comparison of two different approaches to note-making. The Zettelkasten method, and Nick Milo’s ‘Linking Your Thinking’ (LYT) may appear similar, but as this article points out, they’re really quite different:
“The things that differentiate zettelkasten from LYT are the very things that make each system truly work.”
Bob has some additional articles about the Zettelkasten approach, which are highly recommend.
Org-Roam is a plain text knowledge management system based on Emacs Org-mode. This post provides an add-on visual interface that shows a map of your notes, similar to other tools such as Roam, Obsidian and Logseq. The tool is “a frontend for exploring and interacting with your org-roam notes.” If you use Org-mode and think you might need this, read on.
Abram Demski of lesswrong.com goes to town on explaining the evolution of his paper-based Zettelkasten system. He uses 3x5 inch index cards, but he also tried Workflowy and has nice things to say about it. There’s a follow-up at the end, in which the author says he now uses notebooks, but still finds the Zettelkasten referencing system very useful. Along the way he offers one of my favourite principles: “small pieces of paper are just modular large pieces of paper”. This particular article also one of Abram’s top posts on lesswrong.com
(Yes, this article covers a lot)
Web developer Scott Spence writes about the tools he has been using for notetaking: GitHub, Notion, RoamResearch, Obsidian, Foam. There’s a helpful warning at the top of the article that since it’s three years old the technical details may be out of date. This post is for lovers of digital tools!
An article from a small German software company about Niklas Luhmann and the structure of his notes. Warning: the description here of how Luhmann connected notes through consecutive numbering (Folgezettel) seems a little simplistic. And TBH I’m not sure how useful this article really is, but the authors do seem to have succeeded with the HN popularity contest.
A very full introduction to the Zettelkasten method, by Sascha Fast of zettelkasten.de. It’s a great introduction, which also goes into useful depth. If you’ve already been building your Zettelkasten for a while, it’s worth coming back to this to see what you can pick up now you’ve got a real example to play with. These guys also have an app (the Archive) and a great forum, but if you’re reading this you probably already know that.
Brian Kam (of Interintellect) writes a simple summary of the Zettelkasten approach, with a follow-up post two years later, by which time he was no longer a beginner since he’d written (drum roll…) 6,837 notes. He implements his Zettelkasten with a Git-based wiki.
Tech writer Mingyang Li describes his Zettelkasten categories in Obsidian. There are categories like ‘Journal’, ‘chat with people’ and ‘distinguishing-between’. It’s quite useful to see how one person benefits from specific clusters of notes.
GitLab software engineer Tomas Vik runs through the slip-box method, based on Sönke Ahrens’s book, How to Take Smart Notes. He recommends creating individual plain text (markdown) files and gives clear examples of how this is structured. He used Zettlr as his markdown-enabled text editor of choice, but mentions alternative apps that do similar things. As a bonus, there’s a follow-up post a year later, in which the author describes how his process has changed (not much) and why he now uses Logseq instead of Zettlr.
Amazon data scientist Eugene Yan wins the HN Zettelkasten popularity prize with his post on how he implements the system in Roam. Well, it has attracted the most comments anyway. It’s a useful introduction, and commenters mention other apps such as TiddlyWiki, Obsidian and Workflowy. The author seems to have moved on, and started using Obsidian in 2023.
Well done If you’ve read this far you are clearly my kind of person. Though you’ve probably noticed that these aren’t necessarily the very best articles about the Zettelkasten method. In any case, everyone differs on what that would even mean. But if you want to gain an understanding of this particular approach to note-making and writing, most of these articles are well worth reading. And if this was all you had available you’d certainly be able to make a good start.
I was interested to discover that quite a few technically-competent people are interested in the Zettelkasten, and are even using one, and was mildly amused to see how keen some seem to be on their many and various digital tools.
I found the follow-up posts, where they existed, the most useful, because they showed how the authors' methods had evolved over time, with actual Zettelkasten use. This is much better than the kind of breathless article that says, basically: “I heard about this Zettelkasten word two days ago and now I’m up against a deadline to post something, anything.” The HN comments are worth skimming too, not least because there are a some sensible criticisms of this system and plenty of alternative suggestions.
To be honest, though, I’ve found the commentary on Reddit and at the zettelkasten.de forum to be generally of a higher quality. This is probably because the participants there are all already Zettelkasten-curious.