Atomic Notes

    When it comes to writing notes, how much mess is just enough?

    Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks, likes to keep his notes messy1:

    “‘Messiness’, in this context at least, is just the state of not being so hubristic as to imagine that you know, in advance, precisely what’s required in order to do or to create something worthwhile. Which, of course, nobody does.” - The life-changing magic of not tidying up

    I really appreciate the benefits of serendipity, but I also need some structure, which is why I’m happy with making atomic notes, densely linked. You might call it a Zettelkasten. Burkeman says he tried a Zettelkasten approach to his notes, but found it too organised.

    That’s not at all how I’ve experienced it.

    The image that for me best sums up this process of making short notes to create longer pieces of writing is that of my little worm farm. All sorts of scraps get dumped in at the top. And mostly unseen, the worms turn everything into nourishing compost.

    It’s almost magical.

    So instead of being obsessive, I just have a few simple rules that I mostly stick to.

    • Plain text (Markdown) notes.
    • Each note is a single idea with a unique ID.
    • Each note deserves a clear title.
    • Notes link meaningfully to other notes.

    And while this little system might not result in much tidiness, it’s still really neat.

    an open worm farm showing vegetable scraps but no worms

    1. HT: Frank ↩︎

    Don't make a Zitatsalat out of your writing

    Zitatsalat? What does that even mean?

    Yes, Zitatsalat. I found this lovely but rarely used German term in the title of a book by the journalist Stephan Maus. The book’s name is Zitatsalat von Hinz & Kunz.1

    I love the rhyming rhythm of this compound term, but what does Zitatsalat actually mean?

    Well, Zitatsalat translates as Quote Salad. It’s not a compliment.

    The cover of Stephan Maus's book, Zitatsalat

    Zitatsalat, by Stephan Maus (2002).

    What’s wrong with quoting other writers?

    There’s a temptation for those writing by means of a Zettelkasten, or card index, to use too many quotes in their writing - to collect a whole garden of notes, then serve them all up on a large plate of mixed leaves. Perhaps this is because the Zettelkasten approach to making notes makes it almost too easy to dish up a pretty indigestible salad of citations.

    The subtitle of Maus’s book is: ‘Handpicked from the Zettelkasten’, and it’s true, the Zettelkasten makes it easy to gather and rearrange the pithy quotations of other writers.

    But that doesn’t mean you have to use them all in your own writing. It’s fine to collect interesting quotations and excerpts from books and videos and articles and podcasts. But on their own they don’t belong to you, and you can’t just string together a pile of quotes and call it an article. It’s important to reflect on your reading and make it your own. That means writing about what the wise words of others mean to you, because:

    Nothing says “I didn’t think this though for myself” like a direct quote.

    A bowl of mixed salad

    Sure, it’s a salad, but is it your salad?

    Write memos about the quotes you collect

    One way of treating the process of gathering quotes from your reading is to see it as being a bit like the grounded theory process of gathering and reflecting on interviews. In this process the researcher records an interview, using direct transcription, but also reflects on the interviewee’s words by means of writing memos.

    You don’t just write down the words of others. As you progress, you also write your own reflections on what the others have said. Then, when it comes to writing a longer article or book, the memos serve as important raw material.

    The Wikipedia entry on grounded theory says:

    “Memoing is the process by which a researcher writes running notes bearing on each of the concepts being identified… Memos are field notes about the concepts and insights that emerge from the observations.”

    But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s really not cool to quote, and especially not Wikipedia.

    And you’re right.

    A market display of Calabrian chili

    Chili, Tropea, Calabria, Italy. Norbert Nagel / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

    Don’t plate up a meal that can’t be eaten

    I’m as guilty as anyone of trying to pack in as many quotes as possible in my writing.

    The APA Style Guidelines say it’s usually better to paraphrase rather than to quote directly2, but did I listen? No!

    When I studied psychology I found it almost impossible to follow the very clear assignment instructions not to include any direct quotes at all.

    Because I love quotes!

    And, truth be told, I love quote salad, it’s delicious.

    But even I have to admit it can get pretty indigestible really quickly.

    Years ago, when we lived in the West of Scotland we enjoyed the Calabrian chili pasta served by our local Italian restaurant, and as we began making it at home, we grew accustomed to the tremendously hot chilies we were using. Then one evening we served our favourite dish to some unsuspecting visitors. Too late we realised our mistake. They were completely unused to this kind of heat. I remember watching in dismay as they sat quietly but in obvious distress, as though expecting smoke and flame to erupt from the top of their heads like a volcano. We were so apologetic, but it was too late.

    Zitatsalat is a strong dish. So by all means, offer your guests some quotes.

    Just not too many.

    Very few, even.

    So for now, here are as few quotes as I can manage:

    1. DuMont Buchverlag, Köln 2002. ↩︎

    2. see what I just did there? ↩︎

    Work as if writing is the only thing that matters

    “Work as if writing is the only thing that matters. Having a clear, tangible purpose when you consume information completely changes the way you engage with it. You’ll be more focused, more curious, more rigorous, and more demanding. You won’t waste time writing down every detail, trying to make a perfect record of everything that was said. Instead, you’ll try to learn the basics as efficiently as possible so you can get to the point where open questions arise, as these are the only questions worth writing about. Almost every aspect of your life will change when you live as if you are working toward publication. You’ll read differently, becoming more focused on the parts most relevant to the argument you’re building. You’ll ask sharper questions, no longer satisfied with vague explanations or leaps in logic. You’ll naturally seek venues to present your work, since the feedback you receive will propel your thinking forward like nothing else. You’ll begin to act more deliberately, thinking several steps beyond what you’re reading to consider its implications and potential.”

    • Tiago Forte’s summary of How to Take Smart Notes, by Sönke Ahrens

    The card index system is ‘a thing alive’ - or is it?

    Niklas Luhmann, the famed sociologist of Bielefeld, Germany, wrote of how he saw his voluminous working notes (his ‘Zettelkasten’) as a kind of conversation partner, which surprised him from time to time. But he wasn’t the first to suggest that a person’s notes might be in some sense alive.

    At the end of the Nineteenth century there was a massive explosion of technological change which affected almost every aspect of society. People marveled at new invention after new invention and there was a tendency to see mechanical and especially electrical advances as somehow endowed with life. The phonograph, for example, was held to be alive and print adverts even claimed it had a soul.

    A vintage print advert for a phonograph with a soul

    Huge industrial transformation led to fundamental changes in business administration. Yet again, information threatened to overwhelm with its sheer quantity. The index card system was adapted for new circumstances, and it too was seen as somehow alive. Manuals, sometimes sponsored by office furniture manufacturers, explained how to operate this new system.

    One such manual, Julius Kaiser’s The Card System at the Office (1908) emphasised the central role the humble index card now took:

    “The set of cards can fairly be regarded as the basis of the entire system, hence it is properly called the card system.” (para 59 Definition)

    Another example of these ‘card system’ manuals is R.B. Byles’s The card index system; its principles, uses, operation, and component parts (1911).

    This short volume begins memorably:

    ”Roughly speaking, the world is divided into two classes : those who use the Card Index System and those who do not.” (p.v)

    The first chapter introduces the metaphor of the card system as a living entity:

    “an alphabetic file is a dead, inanimate thing, giving forth only such information as it is compelled… A file based on the card index system is, on the other hand, a satisfactory and economical system of dealing with every sort of material, and is moreover a thing alive, ready at all times to place at the disposal of those who consult it all that information which in the past was regarded as the special attribute of the man [sic] of long experience.” (p.8)

    As we approach the second quarter of the Twenty-first Century, the tendency to believe our new technology is somehow alive re-appears. Large language models talk back to us with eery proficiency. But just as the phonograph and the card index obviously aren’t alive, we’ll look back on this period and recognise quite clearly that our latest AI tools aren’t actually alive either. Metaphors can be useful, provided we don’t forget that they’re just figures of speech.

    This being the case, it’s time to celebrate those who are really living: us, the people who animate the otherwise inanimate technologies of every era.

    Three ways my notes might be ‘alive’

    Nevertheless, there are at least three directions in which it might still be reasonable to think of your collection of notes as being alive.

    The first direction is towards the idea of the ‘extended mind’, which I wrote about in How to make the most of surprising yourself.

    You could view your collection of linked notes as part of your extended mind, which your brain creates constantly by co-opting its wider environment into its own processing activity. Brain and environment together create mind. On this account I might view ‘aliveness’ as a quality that arises at the intersection of myself and my world, and therefore out of the interaction between myself and my notes.

    In her book, The Extended Mind, Annie Murphy Paul says:

    “We extend beyond our limits, not by revving our brains like a machine or bulking them up like a muscle — but by strewing our world with rich materials, and by weaving them into our thoughts.”

    The second way of thinking about this is a kind of formalisation of the idea that aliveness happens between people and their world. One such formalisation is known as Actor Network Theory. This concept claims that everything that exists, happens in complex networks of relationships.

    Perhaps these early encounters with ‘living’ technology that I described earlier were grasping after a perception only later addressed systematically by intellectual developments such as Actor Network Theory, which proposes that non-human entities do have agency in the ‘parliament of things’.

    Bruno Latour, the sociologist most strongly associated with ANT, said he’d have preferred to call it ‘actant-rhizome ontology’ if that had sounded better (sorry Bruno, it really didn’t). I wrote a little about this when I claimed a network of notes is a rhizome not a tree.

    The third way of thinking of my notes as being alive in some sense relates to Lynne Kelly’s work on memory. I referred to this in The mastery of knowledge is an illusion. My thinking here was strongly influenced by the wonderful book Kelly co-wrote with Margo Neale: Songlines: the power and the promise.

    Non-literate, oral cultures live in an enchanted world, not necessarily in a magical sense, but in the sense that the whole environment ‘speaks’, as part of a wider extended mind. Geographical features are not merely ‘dead matter’. They’re alive to tell stories which recount histories and genealogies, to give blessings and warnings. Plants and animals are similarly endowed with a depth of meaning. This is the world that literate culture has exiled itself from, but could perhaps regain.

    So, are my notes ‘a thing alive’? Well, not exactly - but then not exactly not, either. Perhaps in time this is how we’ll come to see AI too, as existing in a kind of liminal space somewhere between living and non-living.

    Whatever the conclusion, I’ve found this a useful question to think with.

    See also: Jules Verne could have told us AI is not a real person


    Byles, R. B., 1911. The card index system; its principles, uses, operation, and component parts (London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons) view online.

    Kaiser, Julius, 1908. The Card System at the Office (London: Vacher and Sons) view online

    Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly, 2020. Songlines: The Power and Promise. Thames and Hudson.

    Annie Murphy Paul, 2021. The Extended Mind. The power of thinking outside the brain. HarperCollins.

    Sayes, Edwin, 2014. “Actor–Network Theory and methodology: Just what does it mean to say that nonhumans have agency?.” Social studies of science 44, no. 1:134-149.

    How to start a Zettelkasten from your existing deep experience

    An organized collection of notes (a Zettelkasten) can help you make sense of your existing knowledge, and then make better use of it. Make your notes personal and make them relevant. Resist the urge to make them exhaustive.

    Don’t build a magnificent but useless encyclopaedia

    I guess we all start from our existing knowledge, since none of us is a blank slate. You could just start with what most matters to you right now, and work from there. That’s because it’s more useful and feasible for your system of notes to be personally relevant than to be generally encyclopaedic.

    There’s a big difference between an encyclopaedia and a human brain.

    • The encyclopaedia has the information but no effective way of showing what actually matters at the moment.
    • The brain is the opposite: it knows what matters right now but can’t remember all the details.

    Document your journey through the deep forest

    The Zettelkasten is a useful middle way between these two extremes. It’s a tool to help you make and maintain personally useful trails through the deep forest of accumulated knowledge. Because these trails are useful to you, the expert, they are very likely to be helpful to someone coming up behind you.

    On this basis I think there’s no point in trying to recreate, say, ‘20 years of project experience’ in a Zettelkasten. That would be like building your own Wikipedia. It would be a beautiful construction but how would you use it, and would you really be creating knowledge you couldn’t find elsewhere? (Maybe this really is what you’d like, though, I don’t know).

    Avoid inert ideas

    On Reddit u/cratermoon pointed me to Alfred North Whitehead’s classic essay about “inert ideas” PDF. According to the philosopher and educationalist, there is a great difference between what you remember and can repeat, and what you can actually apply.

    “ ‘inert ideas’ – that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.”

    The Zettelkasten method is at the very least a means of throwing your ideas into fresh combinations, to see what’s useful and what’s merely received knowledge.

    Converse about what really matters to you

    What the Zettelkasten excels at is systematising information that matters to you right now and that might matter in the future for a specific purpose. You have a bright idea in the present moment but your brain forgets it. Take a note, link it, and your Zettelkasten will resurface it for you. Your brain can probably remember this idea, given the right prompts, but the Zettelkasten is useful because it remembers the idea slight differently from how you do. Each idea in the Zettelkasten leads from and to different, and sometimes surprising places. In this sense your Zettelkasten is not so much a tool for remembering as a creative conversation partner about shared memories.

    Imagine, then build, new knowledge products

    Having said that, the Zettelkasten is also best when it’s aimed at the creation of products beyond itself. In other words, it’s primarily a working tool for creating new knowledge products. It’s really not just a reference catalogue or archive.

    You might intend to create a book, or article series, or a course on project management, say, distilling your experience and passing it forwards. With that in mind, the Zettelkasten really is useful.

    Where (and how) you go is more important than where you start from

    The first note: the single most important thing. Here’s an example: “20 years of Project Management experience in two paragraphs”. Everything then follows as an extended commentary on that single idea. However, because it’s all connected, you don’t even need to start with the most important idea. You can just start with the first idea you think of right now. Where does it lead? The Zettelkasten process will take you there.

    This unfolding process is the opposite of the standard practice. In the case of 20 years of PM experience the standard practice might be to take a conventional set of PM categories as your table of contents and then to write the same thing everyone else already wrote. The Zettelkasten method is specifically to deny the established categories and to allow the process to uncover new, better ones - new and unique trails through the forest of knowledge.

    An example

    This, for example, is how Niklas Luhmann worked. He was an experienced senior public administrator, with years of professional work behind him, before he became an academic, a professor of sociology at Bielefeld University. He used his Zettelkasten to break free of the established ways of understanding organisations, and to create an innovative theory of social systems, the subject of his many publications. Though he died in 1998, he was so prolific that there’s a backlog of books he authored. Two new volumes were published in 2021 1 and a collection of his lectures in 2022! The single idea that powered his Zettelkasten was: “Theory of society; duration: 30 years; costs: none.”

    This article is adapted from a comment I originally posted on Reddit. There’s plenty more on this subject at Atomic Notes

    1. Die Grenzen der Verwaltung (you can read a German article about it), and Differenz – Kopplung – Reflexion. Beiträge zur Gesellschaftstheorie ↩︎

    💬"At what point does something become part of your mind, instead of just a convenient note taking device?"

    A question discussed with philosopher David Chalmers, on the Philosophy Bites podcast.

    🎙️Technophilosophy and the extended mind

    So much of this depends on what ‘the mind’ means. Meanwhile, we do seamlessly interact with our note-making tools, to achieve more than we could without them.

    Give it, give it all, give it now

    Atomic notes - all in one place

    From today there’s a new category in the navigation bar of Writing Slowly.

    Atomic Notes’ now shows all posts about making notes.

    How to make effective notes is a long-standing obsession of mine, but this new category was inspired by Bob Doto, who has his own fantastic resource page: All things Zettelkasten.

    Atomic Notes

    The Atomic Notes category is now highlighted on the site navigation bar.

    And if you’d like to follow along with your favourite feed reader,there’s also a dedicated RSS feed (in addition to the more general whole-site feed).1

    But if there’s a particular key-word you’re looking for here at Writing Slowly, you can use the built-in search.

    And if you prefer completely random discovery, the site’s lucky dip feature has you covered.

    Connect with me on or on Mastodon. And on Reddit, I’m - you guessed it - @atomicnotes.

    See also:

    Assigning posts to a new category with

    1. If you’re not sure what website feeds are, see IndieWeb: feed reader and how to use RSS feeds↩︎

    How to overcome Fetzenwissen: the illusion of integrated thought

    It’s too easy to produce fragmentary knowledge

    One potential problem associated with making notes according to the Zettelkasten approach is Verknüpfungszwang: the compulsion to find connections. It may be true philosophically that everything’s connected, but in the end what matters is useful or meaningful connections. With your notes, then, you need to make worthwhile, not indiscriminate links.

    Another potential problem is Fetzenwissen: fragmentary knowledge, along with the illusion that disjointed fragments can produce integrated thought.

    Almost by definition, notes are brief, and I’m an enthusiast of making short, modular, atomic notes. Yes, this results in knowledge presented in fragments. And in their raw form these fragmentary notes are quite different from the kind of coherent prose and well-developed arguments readers usually expect. You can’t just jam together a set of notes and expect them to make an instant essay. So is this fragmentary knowledge really a problem for note-making? If so, how can determined note-makers overcome it?

    Does the index box distort the facts?

    Near the start of the Twentieth Century Karl Kraus, the Austrian1 writer and editor of the journal Die Fackel (The Torch), opposed the use of the Zettelkasten (English:index box) because he believed it produced inadequate thought, memory and writing.

    He particularly disliked the way the technique created what he saw as the illusion of integrated thought out of nothing more than disjointed fragments.

    Kraus was well-known for his acerbic aphorisms, and he had one specially for Zettelkasten users:

    “Anyone who writes in order to display education must have memory; and then he is merely an ass. If he also uses the scientific disciplines or the card index (Zettelkasten), he is also a fraud” (Die Fackel, Heft 279-80 (1909)).

    The red front cover of German journal Die Fackel, or The Torch. This is the first issue.

    Kraus ridiculed his literary and political enemy Maximilian Harden, a rival journalist who was the editor of Die Zukunft (“The Future”), He claimed Harden either owned a Zettelkasten or just had a mind built like one. Either or both of these, Kraus claimed, had ruined Harden’s writing style. If Hardin did use a Zettelkasten, said Kraus, it really showed. And if he didn’t use one, then he must have internalised the constraints of the Zettelkasten. Either way, according to Kraus, the result was poor writing.

    More generally, and rather snobbishly, Kraus lamented the kind of memory possessed by the “day clerk”, which he held to be a mish-mash of “names and sayings one has heard, of mis-heard judgments and badly-read reports, of concepts and histories without context, of facts seen distortedly, of fifty fashionable expressions, and of the additional feature of one’s own fragmentary knowledge (Fetzenwissen)” (Die Fackel, Heft 230-31 (July 15, 1907)).

    To be sure, Kraus was making at least half a fair point. Such connectivity is indeed an illusion, in the sense that it is fabricated. But as with all illusions, the trick is to do it seamlessly well. From fragments you can build a greater whole, if you do it carefully enough. Knowledge is necessarily fragmentary, in the sense that everything big is made of smaller parts. But that is no reason to present it in a clumsy manner. Just because you start with fragments, that doesn’t mean you should end there.

    Can you create coherent writing just from a pile of notes?

    Despite the sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s apparent canonization as the patron saint of the Zettelkasten, I’m not convinced his writing always achieved the kind of coherence that Karl Kraus would have appreciated. Here is the writer Robert Minto, lamenting his own use of the Zettelkasten approach, which he found let him down when it came to actually writing a doctoral thesis. He turned to Luhmann’s writing to review how the master had done it:

    “I decided to read one of Luhmann’s books to see what a zettelkasten-generated text ought to look like. To my horror, it turned out to be a chaotic mess that would never have passed muster under my own dissertation director. It read, in my opinion, like something written by a sentient library catalog, full of disordered and tangential insights, loosely related to one another — very interesting, but hardly a model for my own academic work.” – Robert Minto , Rank and File — Real Life

    This reader is far from alone in finding Luhmann’s prose style off-putting. In a section entitled “Why he wrote such bad books”, a scholar of Luhmann’s work wrote that Luhmann’s texts were:

    “extremely dry, unnecessarily convoluted, poorly structured, highly repetitive, overly long, and aesthetically unpleasing” – Moeller,The Radical Luhmann, 2012, p. 10.

    Another example of the kind of digressive writing style of which Karl Kraus might have disapproved is that of the philosopher and historian Hans Blumenberg. According to one Blumenberg scholar:

    “His writings can be disorienting in their digressiveness, at times seemingly impelled only by the desire to exhaustively transmit his enormously wide reading. The fragmented and anecdotal nature of some of his later books, composed of sometimes tenuous thematic groupings of short pieces (often originally published in the feuilleton pages of newspapers such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) seems fitting for a thinker who is said to have prepared for writing by collecting quotations on index cards. These cards were then worked through one by one and marked as ‘used’ when they had been integrated into the finished text.” – Plagne, 2017:9. See also Nicholls, 2015.2

    Perhaps you should keep your notes private

    The opposite extreme of this kind of writing-as-bricolage is that of the German philosopher G.W.F Hegel, who went to great lengths to hide the sources from which he assembled his own work. Hegel’s approach to writing is an excellent example of what might be termed the distinction between frontstage and backstage in knowledge work. This is a concept developed by the sociologist Erving Goffmann, but its quite familiar. In the theatre, the audience only sees part of what the actors and stage crew are up to. In the restaurant too, there’s a lot happening behind the scenes that the diners never see. For many of us, the background work is often quite different from the finished work we show to the world. Unlike Luhmann and Blumenberg, whose often clumsy final prose style was apparently conditioned by the process of its assemblage, Hegel drafted and edited his work in such a way as to deliberately obscure his production methods. His own voluminous Zettelkasten, on which he utterly depended, was kept strictly backstage. He rarely even cited his sources.

    I am arguing that this practice of editing fragments to make them appear seamlessly part of whole paragraphs, sections and chapters, is precisely what’s required of those who choose to work using initially fragmentary methods. It could be argued that a sophisticated thinker such as Niklas Luhmann probably had good reasons for his opaque prose style, quite other than literary ineptitude. Indeed, in The Radical Luhmann, Moeller suggests three such reasons; and Luhmann himself wrote a quite sceptical conference paper on whether academics should try to make themselves understood! However, for most writers and surely most readers, coherence remains a key literary virtue.

    Make it flow

    Hegel’s rigorous concealment of sources prompted Friedrich Kittler to suggest: “Hegel’s absolute Spirit is a hidden index box” “Hegels absoluter Geist ist ein versteckter Zettelkasten." – Friedrich Kittler, quoted in Krajewski, Kommunikation mit Papiermaschinen

    To my mind Kittler’s criticism of Hegel makes a good, if rather arch joke, but it isn’t much of a criticism of Hegel’s writing style. Indeed, for completed writing to seem to the reader to be coherent, the index box should be hidden. This is the well-known skill of editing your writing to make it flow, and it’s hardly too much for readers to expect this of a writer.

    True, there are a few writers who seem to have been more at home in their notes than in the finished work. Walter Benjamin, author of the unfinished Arcades Project was perhaps one of them. But fragmentary writing is rarely so influential as Benjamin’s.

    My own aspiration is to produce coherent writing, but a glimpse backstage would reveal that this very article is cobbled together from four separate fragments, which I added directly to the whole by means of Transclusion. My conclusion from this little exercise is that you can create coherent writing just from a pile of notes. In fact, I’d go further and claim that this is a very helpful way of writing.

    To create coherent writing, make coherent notes

    Although final editing is always required, it may also be possible to craft the individual notes themselves in such a way that they really do lend themselves to seamless incorporation into a larger work. If you write disjointed, incoherent notes, you’re going to find it hard to use them to write a strong piece of finished writing. But conversely, if you write clear, concise and modular notes, densely linked, you’ll find it much easier to complete readable and persuasive work. Having said that, I would never censor myself by writing nothing, just because my idea isn’t concise enough. Writing itself is thinking, and there’s always a second draft!

    Obviously, this is a skill that I’m still learning. The learning never ends. Writing useful notes is a skill you can always get better at. And I’m convinced this goal, of producing seamless writing from fragmentary origins, may well be achievable. It’s already quite enjoyable and that’s not a terrible thing.

    See also:

    From fragments you can build a greater whole

    Aby Warburg and the search for interconnection

    More on the Zettelkasten approach to writing notes


    Krajewski, Markus. Kommunikation mit Papiermaschinen. Über Niklas Luhmanns Zettelkasten, in Hans-Christian von Herrmann, Wladimir Velminski (Editors) Maschinentheorien/Theoriemaschinen. Bern: Peter Lang. p.283-305

    Kraus, Karl, Die Fackel. An online facsimile of Kraus’s journal, Die Fackel, can be found at AAC Fackel

    Kuhn, Manfred. Critique of Zettelkästen Taking Note Now. 2007.

    Moeller, Hans-Georg. 2012. The Radical Luhmann. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Nicholls, Angus. Myth and the Human Sciences: Hans Blumenberg’s Theory of Myth (New York: Routledge, 2015), 8.

    Partington, Gill. “Friedrich Kittler’s” Aufschreibsystem”." Science Fiction Studies (2006): 53-67. PDF

    Plagne, Francis Dominique 2017. “Hans Blumenberg’s anthropology of instrumental reason: culture, modernity, and self-preservation.” Thesis: School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne.

    1. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said he was German. ↩︎

    2. An earlier version got these references the wrong way round. ↩︎

    From fragments you can build a greater whole

    Everything large and significant began as small and insignificant

    This is my working philosophy of creativity and I’m trying to follow it through as best I can. Starting with simple parts is how you go about constructing complex systems.

    “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system”. — John Gall (1975) Systemantics: How Systems Really Work and How They Fail, p. 71.

    An artwork by Lawrence Weiner, entitled Bits and pieces put together to present a semblance of a whole

    Bits and pieces put together to create a semblance of a whole, by Lawrence Weiner

    Begin with fragments

    In October 1837 the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson prompted the twenty-year-old Henry David Thoreau to start writing a journal. Thoreau took this advice very seriously. He finished up with 14 notebooks, 7,000 pages, and 2 million words. Small fragments can add up to an awful lot. From these bits and pieces he constructed pretty much all of his completed works. What began as jottings ended up as mature reflections.

    He claimed his disconnected thoughts provoked others, so that “thought begat thought”. Thoreau wrote in his journal:

    “To set down such choice experiences that my own writings may inspire me – and at least I may make wholes of parts.” - Thoreau, Henry David. 2009. The Journal, 1837-1861. Edited by Damion Searls. New York: New York Review Books.

    The nest-eggs are what you start off with, without worrying how many you will finish with or what they might later hatch into.

    From smaller parts build a greater whole

    In a sense, the greater whole is an illusion. Really it’s nothing other than a collection of smaller pieces, joined together in such a way as to encourage the human tendency to see wholes even before it sees parts. As with the artwork of Lawrence Weiner, it’s all Bits and pieces put together to present a semblance of a whole.

    These bits and pieces may seem insignificant. Perhaps you really are just another brick in the wall, as Pink Floyd once sang. But without bricks the wall is nothing. That’s pretty much all a wall is. Together the fragments add up to a greater whole, which may well be more than merely a semblance or an illusion. Sometimes the whole really matters. The author David Mitchell concludes his novel, Cloud Atlas with this reflection:

    “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” ― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

    A wall or an ocean is a large or even enormous reality, and without its many small components it would be nothing.

    Join your work together

    A three-dimensional cross-shaped block made from complex Japanese joinery

    Image Source: TheJoinery_jp

    To make a complete work you need to join the parts together with great care. Think of the work of the skilled joiner, who meticulously and ingeniously connects pieces of timber to make a sturdy and beautiful product - whether it be a piece of furniture or an architectural element such as a staircase or a ceiling vault.

    Such an effect cannot be created without skill and effort. You can’t just nail two planks of wood together and hope for the best. In the same way you can’t place your notes side-by-side and expect to read a finished piece of writing.

    To make your writing coherent you need to become a joiner.

    Sönke Ahrens mentions this part of the writing process in his popular book on Taking Smart Notes. Sadly, his advice in this important area remains quite limited.

    “Turn your notes into a rough draft. Don’t simply copy your notes into a manuscript. Translate them into something coherent and embed them into the context of your argument while you build your argument out of the notes at the same time. Detect holes in your argument, fill them or change your argument.” – 📚Ahrens, Sönke. 2017. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking: For Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.

    For those who can already write well, the point may be obvious, but for those of us for whom well-made prose doesn’t come easily, it needs to be stressed: the connecting together of thoughts and ideas is almost as important as the thoughts and ideas themselves. The writing must flow.

    It is well worth reflecting on Thoreau’s writing practice.

    “The thoughtfulness and quality of his journal writings enabled him to reuse entire passages from it in his lectures and published writings. In his early years, Thoreau would literally cut out pages or excerpts from the journal and paste them onto another page as he created his essays.” – Thoreau’s Writing - The Walden Woods Project

    But he didn’t just cut and paste. His writing progressed through drafting and re-drafting, from the original raw field notes, to the journal, to his lectures, to essays, and from there to published books. Each of these shifts fine-tuned his writing until ultimately he had a very well-crafted outcome.

    So even though Thoreau cut and pasted snippets of his work, joining small pieces together to make finished pieces of writing, this was very far from a lazy process. Walden, for example, was published after seven drafts, which took the author nine years to complete. I see Thoreau’s justly celebrated work as a prime example of the value of writing slowly.

    Do it seamlessly well

    If, like Thoreau, you put the bits and pieces together well enough, the readers won’t see the joins.

    Or even better, as with the brick courses of the wall on which Weiner’s artwork is mounted, viewers do see the joins but this doesn’t detract in any way from the experience of the whole. You just need to avoid displaying what the German writer and editor Karl Kraus called fragmentary knowledge (Fetzenwissen) - the curse of the Zettelkasten, or card index.

    It may be simple, but it’s not easy.

    See also:

    How to decide what to include in your notes

    Before the days of computers, people used to collect all sorts of useful information in a commonplace book.

    The ancient idea of commonplaces was that you’d have a set of subjects you were interested in. These were the loci - the places - where you’d put your findings. They were called loci communis - common places, in Latin, because it was assumed everyone knew what the right list of subjects was.

    But in practice, everyone had their own set of categories and no one really agreed. It was personal.

    Since the digital revolution, things have become trickier still. There’s no real storage limit so you could in principle make notes about everything you encounter. But no matter what software you use, your time on this earth is limited, so you need to narrow the field down somehow1.

    But how, exactly?

    You might consider just letting rip and collecting everything that interests you, as though you’re literally collecting everything.

    Sacha Chua's summary of Lion Kimbro's book, How to make a complete map of every thought you think

    Lion Kimbro tried to make a map of every thought he had.

    As time passes, you’ll notice that you haven’t actually collected everything because that’s completely impossible. Even Thomas Edison, the prolific inventor, wasn’t interested in absolutely everything, although he tried hard to be. If you do a bit of a stock-take of your own notes, you’ll see that, really, you gravitate towards only a few subjects.

    These are your very own ‘commonplaces’.

    From then on you have two choices.

    1. If you’ve enjoyed it so far, you can just keep doing what you’ve been doing, collecting all the things. Why not?
    2. But if you like, you could start doing it more deliberately. For example, at the start of a new year, you could say to yourself: In 2023 I seem to have been interested in a,b, and c. Now in 2024 I want to explore more about b, drop a, and learn about d and e.

    You could create an index, with a set of keywords, and add page number references to show what subject each entry is about, and how they relate. Or not. Of course, it’s your collection of notes and you can do whatever pleases you. That’s the point.

    the bower of a satin bower bird. The male bird collects blue items to attract the female.

    Bower birds collect everything, but with one crucial principle.

    Where I live we have satin bower birds.

    The male creates a bower out of twigs and strews the ground with the beautiful things he’s found. Apparently this impresses the females. The bower can contain practically anything, and it really is beautiful. Clothes pegs, pieces of broken pottery, plastic fragments, bread bag ties, lilli pilli fruit, Lego, electrical wiring, string - even drinking straws, as in the photo above. The male bower bird really does collect everything. But what every human notices immediately is that every single item, however unique, is blue.

    I enjoy collecting stuff in my Zettelkasten, my collection of notes, but like the bower bird I have a simple filter. I always try to write: “this interests me because…” and if there’s nothing to say, there’s no point in collecting the item. It’s just not blue enough.

    See also:

    Sacha Chua Book Summary CC-by-4.0.
    Peter Ostergaard, Flickr, CC NC-by 2.0 Deed

    1. There are exceptions. A few people have tried to video their whole lives. And at least one person, Lion Kimbro, has tried to write down all their thoughts. But its not sustainable↩︎

    Does the Zettelkasten have a top and a bottom?

    What does it mean to write notes ‘from the bottom up’, instead of ‘from the top down’? It’s one of the biggest questions people have about getting started with making notes the Zettelkasten way. Don’t you need to start with categories? If not, how will you ever know where to look for stuff? Won’t it all end up in chaos?

    Bob Doto answers this question very helpfully, with some clear examples, in What do we mean when we say bottom up?. I especially like this claim:

    “The structure of the archive is emergent, building up from the ideas that have been incorporated. It is an anarchic distribution allowing ideas to retain their polysemantic qualities, making them highly connective.”

    Which way is up?

    My own preferred Zettelkasten metaphor is the rhizome, the mass of rooty material with no obvious centre or trunk and no definite top or bottom. Imagine a fungus as it spreads underground or in a rotten log. There’s no telling where it will pop up next.

    It’s quite difficult to think with this image, though, because there’s plenty of conditioning to say everything around us is hierarchical, with a clear upside and downside. Families, schools, businesses, governments, nationalities, genders, races, footwear, even accents. Everyone always wants to know who’s up and who’s down. It’s nuts! As I write, the media is full of news about the Oscars - who’s been nominated, and why, and why not. The dominant organising image all around me isn’t the rhizome at all, it’s the tree.

    Try seeing the trees and the forest too

    But if you think about it for a moment it’s obvious there isn’t just one tree, one hierarchy with a single top tier. No, there are many. To stick with my example here, China and India have their own ‘versions’ of the Oscars with completely different winners and losers, and so does every country that makes movies (even Wales, population 3 million). Maybe I believe the Oscars are the most important movie prize-giving event of the year, but clearly not everyone does. You can ignore all the others if you like, but a tree only really makes sense in relation to the forest it’s an integral part of.

    Hierarchy, heterarchy, homoarchy… am I just making these words up?

    Real life is more like a forest than a single tree. It’s structured around multiple overlapping, competing hierarchical (as well as non-hierarchical) systems. Even those who have completely bought into the idea of hierarchy can acknowledge this much.

    So we live in a heterarchical world, in which any item could potentially be part of more than one organising structure. The opposite of this isn’t hierarchy, as it happens, it’s homoarchy. That’s a little-used word to describe a situation where all the elements are fixed in their location within a fixed organisational structure.

    The principle of organization a society embodies depends on the way its institutions are arranged with respect to one another. Two basic principles can be distinguished: heterarchy—the relation of elements to one another when they are unranked or can be ranked in different ways (as coined by Crumley), and its opposite, homoarchy,—a condition in society in which relationships in most contexts are ordered mainly according to one principal hierarchical relationship. Homoarchy and heterarchy represent the most universal “ideal” (generalized) principles and basic trajectories of socio-cultural organization. - Bondarenko, 2020.

    The Zettelkasten enables us to visualise and manipulate the heterarchical reality we live in, by creating a variety of provisional structures. You want a tree? You want top down? Sure, go ahead, but you can also have a non-hierarchical bottom-up network at the same time and even using the same notes if you like. Networks absorb hierarchies. They subvert them without destroying them. How so? The secret is simply: links.

    Get linking to get thinking

    Bi-directional links, especially, subvert the homoarchy, because they make it harder to say for sure what comes first. If the second note links back to the first note, you could quite easily see the second note as coming first, if you really want to, especially if you actually began from the second note.

    Every Page is Page One summed up a web design philosophy which pointed out that you can’t control where your readers arrive. Sure, you can construct a ‘landing page’, but that doesn’t mean they won’t enter your web site from another direction. If every page is page one, then every page also needs some kind of index, or table of contents, or at least some way into the rest of the material. This is quite normal on the Web, and I regard it as equally normal in my collection of notes.

    I find it helpful to think of each note as being located both top-down and bottom-up at the same time. In Indra’s Net each point, however lowly, reflects every other point, however exulted - but that’s another story.

    The key questions

    Having written a note, I ask “what’s a part of this?” That’s the top-down question. What are the sub-components of this idea? Then I ask “what’s this a part of?” That’s the bottom-up question. What bigger concept is this note just a part of? But there are other, more rhizomatic questions. “What is this similar to or different from?” “What compliments or competes with this?” and so on.

    My mantra is that of historian (and Zettelkasten supremo) Hans Blumenberg:

    “Every note a thought that immediately makes sense as a thought, every thought a little theory.” “Jeder Zettel ein Gedanke, der sofort als nachdenkenswert einleuchtet, jeder Gedanke eine kleine Theorie.” (Ragutt and Zumhof 2016, 5)

    The historian Hans Blumenberg’s Zettelkasten - his index box

    Image: Hans Blumenberg’s Zettelkasten

    In other words, each of my notes is as unitary, modular and clear as I can make it, so I can construct with it larger concepts (every note is a single thought).

    At the same time, each note is highly generative. Each contains the seeds of a whole new set of notes, if I choose to take that route (each thought is a little theory).

    This way, every note, at least implicitly, is at the top of a hierarchy yet to be dived into, and equally, at the bottom of a hierarchy yet to be climbed.

    And if I want to subvert the structure completely, all I need to do is to make a different kind of link, just because I can.

    What if I really just want a fixed structure?

    It’s tempting to imagine that there really is a ‘top’ note, or a ‘top’ idea that all the other notes relate to. In some sense that might be true. For example, Niklas Luhmann’s celebrated Zettelkasten revolved entirely around his notes on “a theory of society, duration: 30 years, costs: none” (Luhmann 1997:11; quoted in Albert, 2016). But even if you do decide to write a note containing your lifetime’s single focus, within your collection of notes, it’s still just another note.

    When you create a product - a book, an article, a blog post, a video etc. - you do fix the structure. A book has a clear table of contents. An academic article usually has a rigorous structure determined by the particular discipline or even the particular journal requirements. With these kinds of products a free-form structure is rare. So yes, you can and will have a fixed structure, when you eventually produce something creative from all of your note-making. But until then, you’ll benefit from letting the structure of your notes emerge and change as your thought progresses.

    Now read:


    Albert, Mathias. “Luhmann and Systems Theory.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. 5 Aug. 2016; Accessed 29 Jan. 2024.…

    Bondarenko, D.M. (2020). Social Institutions and Basic Principles of Societal Organization. In: Bondarenko, D.M., Kowalewski, S.A., Small, D.B. (eds) The Evolution of Social Institutions. World-Systems Evolution and Global Futures. Springer, Cham.…

    Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari (2004/1980). Rhizome. In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi. New York: Continuum, pp. 3-28.

    Helbig, Daniela K. “Life without Toothache: Hans Blumenberg’s Zettelkasten and History of Science as Theoretical Attitude.” Journal of the History of Ideas 80, no. 1 (2019): 91-112.…

    Luhmann, N. (1997). Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (2 vols.). Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Suhrkamp. Published in translation as Theory of society (2 vols.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012–2013.

    Ragutt, Frank, and Tim Zumhof, eds. 2016. Hans Blumenberg: Pädagogische Lektüren. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

    Ross Ashby's other card index

    During the Twentieth Century many thinkers used index cards to help them both think and write.

    British cyberneticist Ross Ashby kept his notes in 25 journals (a total of 7,189 pages) for which he devised an extensive card index of more than 1,600 cards.

    At first it looks as though Ashby used these notebooks to aid the development of his thought, and the card index merely catalogued the contents. But it turns out he used his card index not only to catalogue but also to develop the ideas for a book he was writing.

    Cyberneticist Ross Ashby at work at his desk

    In a journal entry of 20 October 1943 he explained his decision to switch from an alphabetical key-word index to ‘an index depending on meaning’.

    He describes his method as follows:

    “20 Oct ‘43 - Having seen how well the index of p.1448 works, & how well everything drops into its natural place, I am no longer keeping the card index which I have kept almost since the beginning. The index was most useful in the days when I was just amassing scraps & when nothing fitted or joined on to anything else; but now that all the points form a closely knit & jointed structure, an index depending on meaning is more natural than one depending on the alphabet. So I have changed to a (card) index with the points of p.1448 in order. Thus it can grow, & be rearranged, on the basis of meaning. Summary: Reasons for changing the form of the index.” - Ross Ashby, Journal, Vol. 7

    What was he up to? Thanks to Ashby’s meticulous note-taking, and the fact that it has all been saved and digitized, you can trace his working methods. It also helps that his handwriting is very clear!

    • First Ashby made almost random notes in his notebooks, which he indexed alphabetically by key-word, using a card index. To aid referencing, he gave the notebooks a continuous page numbering across all 25 volumes.
    • Next, in April 1943 and based on his notes, he created an outline for a book manuscript p.1234, then revised it six months later, on October 4th p.1447.
    • Satisfied with the revised outline p.1497, he created a completely new card index (the ‘Other’ index), arranged by subject, based on the outline headings, rather than key-words. This new index is what he describes in his note of October 20th 1943, which is reproduced above.
    • He deliberately kept this second index flexible, so that his notes could be re-arranged for as long as possible prior to the drafting of the actual manuscript.

    This workflow is quite different from that of sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who unlike Ashby, didn’t use notebooks to any great extent. In fact it highlights a particularly striking aspect of Luhmann’s approach: for Luhmann the card index is its own contents; they are one and the same. Put another way, Luhmann’s Zettelkasten is largely self-indexing.

    Ashby didn’t do this. Instead he followed the more standard card index system, elaborated, for example, by R.B. Byles, in 1911. In this system, originally designed for business, all documents are filed away, typically in order of receipt or creation, and then accessed by means of a separate card index, which provides the key to the entire collection. Ashby’s innovation was to adapt the card index system to refer to key-words in his notebooks, referenced by page number. Luhmann, certainly, also used key-words. His first Zettelkasten had “a keyword index with roughly 1,250 entries”, while his second, larger Zettelkasten had “a keyword index with 3,200 entries, as well as a short (and incomplete) index of persons containing 300 names” (Schmidt, 2016: 292).

    However, due to Luhmann’s meticulous cross-referencing of individual cards, the key-word index isn’t strictly essential to connect the ideas in the Zettelkasten in a meaningful way; Luhmann’s cards link directly to other cards.

    Fast-forward two generations and it seems that in the Internet age it is Luhmann’s method that has won out. The online version of Ross Ashby’s journal includes both the notebooks and the index as a single hyperlinked body of work. This represents a tremendous effort on the part of those who have painstakingly digitized the collection. Today, like Luhmann’s Zettelkasten, Ashby’s notebooks, at least in their Web-based incarnation, are finally self-indexing.

    And there’s another sense in which Luhmann’s method won out. While Luhmann published scores of books, Ashby published plenty of academic articles, but only two full-length books. And neither of these books, as far as is evident, bear much relation to the manuscript outlines in his ‘other’ index. We can only speculate on whether Ashby might have produced more books had he used a system more like Luhmann’s.

    Yet despite their differences, Ashby’s approach in creating his ‘other’ index is very consistent with Luhmann’s concern to keep the order of notes as flexible as possible for as long as possible.

    The open drawer of Ross Ashby’s card index…


    The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive

    Jill Ashby (2009) W. Ross Ashby: a biographical essay, International Journal of General Systems, 38:2, 103-110, DOI: 10.1080/03081070802643402 (This is the source of the photo, above, of Ashby at his desk).

    Byles, R.B. 1911. The card index system; its principles, uses, operation, and component parts. London, Sir I. Pitman & Sons, Ltd.

    F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn and V. Turchin (editors): Principia Cybernetica Web (Principia Cybernetica, Brussels), URL:….

    Schmidt, J. (2016). Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine.…)

    *

    The Hashtags of a cyberneticist

    Even the index is just another note

    To illustrate that claim, here’s a dynamic index of my Zettelkasten articles

    Even the index is just another note

    Index cards from The Card System at the Office

    It’s tempting to place your notes in fixed categories

    At some point in your note-making journey you’ll notice that quite a few people like to place their notes in fixed categories according to some scheme or other. The ancient method of commonplaces held that knowledge was naturally organised according to loci communis (common places). Ironically, no one from Aristotle onwards could ever agree on what the commonly-agreed categories were. Assigning your notes to categories is consistent with the ‘commonplace’ tradition, but that’s not what the prolific sociologist Niklas Luhmann did with his Zettelkasten, and furthermore it runs exactly counter to Luhmann’s claim in ‘Communicating with Slipboxes’, where he said:

    “it is most important that we decide against the systematic ordering in accordance with topics and sub-topics and choose instead a firm fixed place (Stellordnung).”

    But there’s no need to despair, there is a way through the impasse! After all, what exactly is a subject or category? The subject or category index itself, it turns out, is nothing other than just another note. Here’s a real-life example:

    Screenshot of a Zettelkasten index created in Obsidian

    “i have this note that basically functions as an general index and entry point for my ZK: it has every index card plus a People index and every main card.” - u/Efficient_Earth_8773

    When everything’s a note, even the categories are just notes

    Why does this matter? If even the index is just a note, then you haven’t constrained yourself with pre-determined categories. Instead, you can have different and possibly contradictory index systems within a single Zettelkasten, and further, a note can belong not only to more than one category, but also to more than one categorization scheme. Luhmann says:

    “If there are several possibilities, we can solve the problem as we wish and just record the connection by a link [or reference].”

    When even the index is just a note, a reference to a ‘category’ takes no greater (or lesser) priority than any other kind of link. This is liberating. Where a piece of information ‘really’ belongs shouldn’t be determined in advance, but by means of the process itself.

    A colourful diagram of the Dewey Decimal classification system

    The Dewey Decimal System pigeonholes all knowledge, like cells in a prison.

    Some people want an index, like folders in a filing cabinet, or subject shelves in the library. Well they can have it: just write a note with the subjects listed and make them linkable. Some people don’t want this, and they can ignore it. I personally don’t understand why you’d want to set up a subject index that mimics Wikipedia or the Dewey Decimal system, or even the ‘common places’ of old. I’m neither an encyclopedist, a librarian, nor an archivist. What I’m trying to do is to create new work. I want to demonstrate my own irreducible subjectivity by documenting my own unique journey through the great forest of thought. My journey is subjective, because it’s my journey. I’m pioneering a particular route, and laying down breadcrumbs for others to follow should they so choose. It’s unique, not because it’s original but because the small catalogue of items that attract me is wholly original. As film-maker Jim Jarmusch said:

    “Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.” (I stole that from Austin Kleon).

    But that’s just me (and Luhmann).

    Make just enough hierarchy to be useful

    Having thought a bit about this I’m inspired now to sketch my own workflow, to see how it… flows. In general, I favour just enough data hierarchy to be viable - which really isn’t very much at all. I’m inspired by Ward Cunningham’s claim that the first wiki was ‘the simplest online database that could possibly work’. Come to think of it, this may be one of the disadvantages of the way the Zettelkasten process is presented: perhaps it comes across as more complex than it really needs to be. As the computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra lamented,

    “Simplicity is a great virtue but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse: complexity sells better.” - On the nature of Computing Science (1984).

    If you must have hierarchies like lists and trees, remember that they’re both just subsets of a network.

    image showing how a list and a tree are subsets of a network

    Source: I don’t know. If you do, please tell me ;)

    See also:

    Three worthwhile modes of note-making (and one not-so-worthwhile)

    A book on a table surrounded by hand-written notes on index cards

    I finished reading Alex Kerr’s Finding the Heart Sutra on New Year’s Eve, so it just scraped into my reading for 2023. And while reading I made notes by hand, as I’ve done before. Although there aren’t very many notes (just eleven, plus a literature note that acts as a mini-index), they’re high quality, since I found the book very interesting.

    I don’t mean I’ve written objectively ‘good’ notes. Rather, I mean the notes are high quality for my purposes. Everyone who reads with a pen in hand is an active reader, so the notes one person makes will be different - perhaps completely different- from the notes another person makes. In any case, no two readers read a book the same way.

    Reflecting on this it seems to me there are at least three fruitful ways, or modes, of making notes while reading, as follows: Free-form, directed, and purposeful note-making.

    1. Free-form note-making. In this mode, you start with no expectations and just make notes whenever something grabs you. This is great when you don’t yet know what you want to focus on. The risk is you try to read everything, only to discover it’s like drinking the ocean. Ars longa, vita brevis, so you’ll ultimately need to narrow down your field somehow.
    2. Directed note-making. In this mode, you already know, broadly, what interests you, for example, Richard Hamming’s 10-20 problems. So you make notes whenever something you read resonates with one of your predetermined interests. I used to think I was interested in everything, like Thomas Edison. But after writing notes on whatever took my fancy for a while, I observed that really, I kept revolving around a fairly limited set of concerns. So mostly these days I make directed notes, or else engage in the closely related purposeful note-making.
    3. Purposeful note-making. This mode is more focused still than directed note-making. Here you have a specific project in mind, such as a particular book or article you want to write, and so you make notes whenever your reading material chimes with what you want to write about. If there’s a risk to this kind of note-making, it’s that in your focused state, you’ll miss ideas that you might otherwise have found worth making notes about.

    Each of these note-making modes has its place, but in this particular case I was reading Finding the Heart Sutra with a very specific project in mind. So the notes I made were also quite specific. I imagine that someone else would be surprised by the notes I made, since they don’t really reflect the contents of the book. For instance, my notes are definitely not a summary of the book’s contents. Nor do they even follow the main contours of the book’s themes. Instead, I was making connections while reading with the main concerns of my own project. Each of my notes stands in its own right and could potentially be used in a variety of different contexts, but collectively, they make sense in relation to my own preoccupations. They fit into my own Zettelkasten, and no one else’s.

    “Most great people also have 10 to 20 problems they regard as basic and of great importance, and which they currently do not know how to solve. They keep them in their mind, hoping to get a clue as to how to solve them. When a clue does appear they generally drop other things and get to work immediately on the important problem. Therefore they tend to come in first, and the others who come in later are soon forgotten. I must warn you, however, that the importance of the result is not the measure of the importance of the problem. The three problems in physics—anti-gravity, teleportation, and time travel—are seldom worked on because we have so few clues as to how to start. A problem is important partly because there is a possible attack on it and not just because of its inherent importance.”

    If you want to know more about how to read a book, you could do worse than read How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler. It’s not the last word on the subject, but it’s a good starting point.

    And it’s a warning against a fourth mode of note-making that I don’t advise: encyclopedic note-making. This is where you read a book and try to write a summary that will work for everyone. First, it’s hard work, and secondly, it’s probably already been done. If you open the link above you’ll see that the Wikipedia entry for How to Read a Book already includes a summary of the book’s contents. There are circumstances where the careful and complete summary is worthwhile, but I suggest you only start this task with the end - your own end - in mind.

    If you have thoughts about making notes while reading, I’d be very interested to hear about it.

    See also:

    A note on the craft of note-writing

    Learning to make notes like Leonardo

    How to make the most of surprising yourself

    How to be interested in everything

    How to make the most of surprising yourself

    Your collection of linked notes, your Zettelkasten, isn’t a ‘second brain’, as though it were separate from your first, actual brain. Rather it is part of your extended mind, which your brain creates constantly by co-opting its wider environment into its own processing activity. Brain and environment together create mind. In the case of the Zettelkasten it’s a very deliberate extension of the brain, with a few simple but powerful generative rules.

    One of the interesting features of this deliberately extended cognitive tool is its ability to present you with surprises. Reading through old notes, for example, you may be surprised that you ever wrote this. And re-reading your work in the light of new information, you may have new flashes of inspiration or see new connections that weren’t previously visible. Or perhaps the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated notes will prompt you to create a third, which contains an entirely new idea.

    In this sense, your notes become a kind of conversation partner, reminding you of what you once thought, and even challenging you to go further. It’s a living thinking environment, an ever-evolving ‘connectome’, which sometimes appears to have a life of its own.

    Why not surprise yourself?

    Philosopher Andy Clark is quite well known for claiming that the human mind extends beyond the brain, and that “human brains spawn and maintain extended human minds”.

    In a podcast interview with Sean Carroll, he recommends artificially curating environments in which we can surprise ourselves. This temporary increase in uncertainty, he claims, reduces prediction error in the long term.

    “it looks as if very often, the correct move for a prediction-driven system is to temporarily increase its own uncertainty so as to do a better job over the long time scale of minimizing prediction errors, and that looks like the value of surprise, actually, and that we will… I think we artificially curate environments in which we can surprise ourselves. I think, actually, this is maybe what art and science is to some extent, at least, we’re curating environments in which we can harvest the kind of surprises that improve our generative models, our understandings of the world in ways that enable us to be less surprised about certain things in future.”

    Clark refers to the work of Karin Kukkonen, a literary scholar who has applied the idea of predictive processing to literature. This reminded me of Steven Johnson’s suggestion in his book, Farsighted that a good novel is a decision-making simulation. He extolls the sophisticated decision-making conundrums of the characters in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, over the simpler black-and-white decisions of Charles Dickens' characters.

    So perhaps the surprise function of the Zettelkasten is more useful than at first appears. It isn’t merely an aid to memory, or a handy conversation partner, or a writing prompt. On Clark’s account, it may also enable precisely the kind of surprises we need and can learn from in order to understand the world better.

    Of course, we constantly encounter surprises in everyday life, and sometimes learn from them too. But viewed through the ‘predictive, extended mind’ lens, the Zettelkasten presents a precise, controlled and deliberate laboratory for cultivating such a learning process.

    I wonder how your notes have surprised you. Please let me know.

    Some resources

    Andy Clark on the Extended and Predictive Mind - [Sean Carroll’s Mindscape: Science, Society, Philosophy, Culture, Arts, and Ideas] (

    Clark, Andy. 2022. Extending the Predictive Mind, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, DOI: 10.1080/00048402.2022.2122523

    Johnson, Steven. 2018. Farsighted : How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most. New York: Riverhead Books an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

    Kukkonen, Karin. 2020. Probability Designs: Literature and Predictive Processing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780190050962

    See also

    A network of notes is a rhizome not a tree

    How to connect your notes to make them more effective

    The mastery of knowledge is an illusion

    Learning to make notes like Leonardo

    A handwritten page from Leonardo's Codex Arundel

    Leonardo wrote on loose sheets of paper

    The Codex Arundel, a notebook of Leonardo Da Vinci, is not what it first appears. It isn’t a notebook that Leonardo used. For the man himself it wasn’t a notebook at all. It’s a collection of individual notes, bound for convenience only after his death. The British Library webpage observes:

    “The structure of the notebook reveals that it was not originally a bound volume. It was put together after Leonardo’s death from loose papers of various types and sizes, some indicating Leonardo’s habit of carrying smaller bundles of notes to document observations outdoors.”

    He wasn’t the first to adopt this habit. Beginning in the Fourteenth century it had become something of a fashion for Italians to create their own ’zibaldone’, a hodgepodge of notes on diverse subjects. Leonardo wrote of his notes:

    “This is to be a collection without order, drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place, according to the subjects of which they treat.”

    The same is true of the Forster Codices, in the care of the Victoria and Albert Museum: they weren’t originally codices (books), but unbound notes.

    “Leonardo probably worked on loose sheets of paper (bought at one of Milan’s many stationers' shops), which he carried about with him to record his observations. His papers were at some stage folded into booklets and later bound, possibly under the ownership of the Spanish sculptor Pompeo Leoni (1533 – 1608).” (

    Many of the notes in the Codex Arundel were written in 1508, but they span most of Leonardo’s career.

    The notes cover a very wide range as well as references to many different subjects. They include sketches of a mechanical organ and of an underwater breathing apparatus, There are notes and diagrams on mechanics, lists of proverbs and riddles, sketches on bird-flight, a household inventory, notes on optics and mirrors for producing heat, calculations on balances and weights, a plan for an urban quarter, and for a complete city, notes on the acoustics of drums and wind instruments, notes on river dynamics and on geometry, and a sketch of a cockleshell.

    Leonardo Da Vinci - master of making notes

    Here’s the German scholar Hektor Haarkötter, writing about the note-making expertise of Leonardo Da Vinci:

    “Leonardo is the early master of the note [Nottizettel]. Today da Vinci is famous as an artist and painter, inventor and designer. However, he was not very productive as a public artist. Only about fifteen paintings that can be proven to have been created by him have survived, some of them in very poor condition or never completed. Leonardo da Vinci was really productive, however, in the privacy of his writing. He left behind over 10,000 sheets, drafts, scraps, snippets, sketches, papers, pages and slips of paper. (Many have been transcribed in Theodor Lücke, Leonardo da Vinci. Tagebücher und Aufzeichnungen. Leipzig, Paul List Verlag, 1953)

    And this is only the part of his many records that have come down to us. Through his papers we know of other ledgers, notebooks, and codices, but they have disappeared, been scattered, torn apart, sold off, or in one way or another through the course of time, simply destroyed. How large the number of those records is of which we have no, well, note, is incalculable.

    Already in Leonardo’s work all the characteristics of the note [Nottizettel] as a private medium are visible. He wrote in a code so that unauthorized eyes could not have read his notes. The universality of writing materials and forms of writing corresponded the universality of the subjects. From word lists and shopping wishes to technical drawings and philosophical notes to obscene and pornographic sketches. None of them was intended for the public, and the Renaissance master never published a book. He would hardly have been able to do so, he admitted to himself in his notebooks, which today are traded at astronomical prices at auctions, but which themselves lost an overview of his records.

    What remains?

    The amazing thing about the inconspicuous medium of notes is that from a hodgepodge of notes in the writing practice of writers and scientists, a completed book can emerge in the end. However we must not forget that, as a rule, only a small part of the notes, as a preliminary stage, finally ends up in the work. The larger part of such paralipomena [supplementary material, literally ‘things omitted’] remains, is never used, is hardly ever read again, and is often discarded and thrown away. Or the notes end up in the archives, where they are preserved as cryptic manuscripts, in worm-eaten folders or as messy single sheets, where they can enjoy the security of all basement magazines, never again to be viewed by human eyes. Notes are communicants after all without communicating. The path to the finished book is paved with media corpses.”

    Source: Hektor Haarkötter, «Ich notiere, also bin ich» Notizen als Medien des Denkens Passim 28 (2021) Bulletin des Schweizerischen Literaturarchivs, p.4-5. Available at: <…> Translated with and a bit of imagination.

    What can we learn from Leonardo’s approach to making notes?

    Write everything down

    Make notes. you never know when you’ll invent a diving mechanism, or a flying machine, or who knows what else? Toby Lester, author of Da Vinci’s Ghost, claims, “Whenever something caught his eye he would compulsively open a small notebook that he wore hanging from his belt and begin sketching furiously, with almost mind-boggling virtuosity. He loved his tiny sketchbook and recommended that all serious artists carry one.” “These things should not be rubbed out,” wrote Leonardo, “but preserved with great care, for the forms and positions of objects are so infinite that the memory is incapable of retaining them”. Leonardo plainly wrote (and drew) in order to think - and you can too.

    Use your memory too

    Don’t expect your note system to remember things for you. There is a view that writing helps you to remember. But Hektor Haarkötter calls this ‘a myth of the media’. “In fact,” he says, “there is hardly a more effective way to erase a thought from memory than to write it down. The problem of remembering is not solved by taking notes, but only delegated, namely from “What did I want to remember?” to “Where did I write it down?” And the larger the volume of notes, the smaller the probability of finding a specific note again.” So making a note is primarily the act of thinking itself, not a primarily a way to remember what you thought.

    Do what works for you

    Loose leaf pages worked for Leonardo, and he wrote thousands of them. He had a system that enabled him both to think and to capture his thoughts. Don’t wait for the ideal system to appear, when an OK one will do. And don’t over-complicate things. He didn’t have a Moleskine notebook, or Obsidian software. He just wrote.

    Don’t put off the organisation for another time

    Don’t put it off, because that day may never come.

    Leonardo intended “to arrange them later each in its place, according to the subjects of which they treat”, but as far as we can tell, he never did. This is possibly a reference to the then popular practice of arranging notes in ‘loci communis’, or commonplaces - so called because there were several different standard systems of thematic arrangement by category. He didn’t get round to it. And later editors didn’t have much idea of what order to put his notes after he was gone. Who knows what he might have finished if he’d been a bit more organised at the outset. Don’t put off the organisation of your notes, because it will probably never happen.

    Publish, by any means necessary

    Notoriously, Leonardo hardly finished anything. Some of this, such as the unfinished painting now known as Mona Lisa, may have been deliberate. But on his death, Leonardo left his notes to his faithful pupil Francesco Melzi, who then left them to his son. The son didn’t value them at all and abandoned them to molder in an attic, so it’s amazing any of these now priceless notes survived at all. In fact the reason Leonardo is best known as an artist, which was not his main occupation (in 1482 he put at the very bottom of his resume for the Duke of Milan, “also I can do in painting whatever may be done”), is that the notes were effectively lost for generations and only really came to attention in later centuries. Don’t put off the publishing of your knowledge. Your pupils' children might not follow your instructions any more than Leonardo’s did. Share what you know with others. Don’t expect it to outlive you. Seize the day. You might think you’re no Leonardo. That’s right. You’re not. You are you, and that’s exactly what the world needs.

    Furthermore, it’s so much easier to publish these days than it was at the time of Leonardo. There’s hardly any excuse not to press ‘send’.

    There might just be a better system

    I hesitate to try to improve on arguably the greatest genius of all time, but with the greatest presumption, here goes. Leonardo himself called his notes ‘a collection without order’, and perhaps a modicum of order might heave helped him. The system he never got around to using was that of ‘commonplaces’, extremely widely used during the Renaissance and for centuries after. The idea was that you’d catalogue your notes according to a more-or-less standard set of locations (i.e. common places). There are a few problems here.

    First, it’s hard and uninteresting work to catalogue all your thoughts into predetermined folders like this. Perhaps that’s why Leonardo didn’t do it. Maybe it was just not important enough.

    Second, even if you do want to file your notes, it’s not universally agreed what the folder names should be. Through the ages there have been numerous attempts to design a standard set of commonplaces, and none of them have stuck. One such is the Dewey Decimal System, often used for cataloguing library subjects. Not even all the libraries follow this particular system. Wikipedia has a list of ‘main topic classifications’, too. Though you might not know this, you probably haven’t suffered from your ignorance on this matter. To the ordinary Wikipedia user, it doesn’t really seem to make much difference.

    Third, keeping your ideas in the categories within which they were formed tends to limit innovation and re-combination. For example, a folder of notes labelled ‘psychology’ doesn’t really tell you much and it keeps your psychology ideas artificially separated from your thoughts on art, or sport, or jokes. In fact, any categories tend to damp down the creative spark. Perhaps that’s why Leonardo’s ‘collection without order’ worked for him.

    More resources

    The Codex Arundel is at the British Library and online.

    David Kadavy has a great podcast episode about Leonardo: Leonardo Mind, Raphael World – Love Your Work, Episode 290 Ironically, Kadavy sees Leonardo as ‘the greatest procrastinator who ever lived’. It’s ironic because, well, it’s Leonardo.

    Hektor Haarkötter’s book on notemaking includes more on Leonardo as well as a host of other characters, but Notizzettel is currently only published in German.

    And if you’ve read this far, you’ll love Gillian Hess’s Substack blog, Noted. She has already written plenty about Leonardo, which you can read by subscribing.

    Meanwhile, on this site, I’ve also written about Aby Warburg’s compulsion to make notes, and about Ted Nelson’s evolutionary file list, and about the writing process of Henry Thoreau - and probably lots more about Zettelkasten I’ve forgotten about.

    A note on the craft of note-writing

    An fairly new article from Brazil caught my eye, on note-writing as an intellectual craft. It highlights the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s note-making process (he put his many linked notes in a Zettelkasten - an index box).

    Cruz, Robson Nascimento da Cruz, and Junio Rezende. “Note-writing as an intellectual craft: Niklas Luhmann and academic writing as a process.” Pro-Posições 34 (2023).

    Abstract: "Despite numerous indications that academic writing is a means toward intellectual discovery and not just a representation of thought, in Brazil, it is seen more as a product of studies and subjects than an integral part of university education. This article presents note-taking, an apparently simple and supposedly archaic activity, as a way through which academic writing is eminently oriented towards constructing an authorial thought. To this end, we discuss recent findings in the historiography of writing that show note-taking as an essential practice in the development of modern intellectuality. We also present an emblematic case, in the 20th century, of the fruitful use of a note-taking system created by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Finally, we point out that the value of note-taking goes beyond mere historical curiosity, constituting an additional tool for a daily life in which satisfaction and a sense of intellectual development are at the center of academic life."

    If you live your life in chunks, what size should they be?

    Life tends to be lived in chunks. Hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years - these are familiar if slightly artificial concepts. But what’s the best-sized chunk of life to focus on? Some would advise living in the moment, by which they don’t really mean the 86,400 seconds that are available in a single day. They effectively mean no chunks at all (or infinite chunks, perhaps).

    Reading an article on why you should divide your life into semesters reminded me that I’ve already come across this idea in the shape of the book The Twelve Week Year. I actually bought The Twelve Week Year for Writers, which I’ve skimmed but haven’t read properly yet. I’d like to have a structure to my year that’s more than just “get through it”. But I’m daunted by the thought of needing something concrete to show for my time spent on earth. What did you achieve in your chosen chunk of life? This question won’t be answered by heartbeats or breaths, by sunsets or swims. It would be OK maybe if it could be answered with dollars, but that’s not really acceptable either. It’s too soulless. The question, what did you achieve? needs actual achievements. It needs productivity of the sort I’m not very available for.

    @visakanv says “the meandering mind is a feature not a bug”. Why can’t I accept this? Perhaps because I keep putting myself in situations where the meandering mind is a bug not a feature?

    I can just about manage to write a short note like this. And then another one… and so on. Austin Kleon calls this “Sisyphus mowing the lawn”. And indeed, I’m happy writing my short notes. If I can’t manage to organise my life into semesters, perhaps I can organise it into atomic notes - the shortest possible viable writing session.

    I saw on the forum that some members log their note-making productivity on a 10-day rolling tally. One person has written 16 notes in ten days, another has written 33.

    They are inspired, as am I, by Sonke Ahrens' exhortation to work as is nothing counts other than writing (well, some of them are).

    "If writing is the medium of research and studying nothing else than research, then there is no reason not to work as if nothing else counts than writing.
    Focusing on writing as if nothing else counts does not necessarily mean you should do everything else less well, but it certainly makes you do everything else differently.
    Even if you decide never to write a single line of a manuscript, you will improve your reading, thinking and other intellectual skills just by doing everything as if nothing counts other than writing."

    I’d like to know what kinds of time you find yourself dividing your life into. Do you mainly live in days, or mainly in hours, or perhaps weeks? Do you instead devote yourself to living in the moment? If so, which moment?


    How to connect your notes to make them more effective

    A linked note is a happy note

    A great strength of the Zettelkasten approach to writing is that it promotes atomic notes, densely linked. The links are almost as valuable as the notes themselves, and sometimes more valuable.

    But once you’ve had an idea and written it down, what is it supposed to link to? Is there a rule or a convention, or do you just wing it?

    A woodblock engraving of Saint Jerome at his study.

    How are you supposed to make connections between your notes when you can’t think of any?

    When I started creating my system of notes I didn’t know how to make these links between my atomic ideas, and this relational way of working didn’t come naturally to me. I would just sit there and think, “what does this remind me of?” Sometimes I’d come up with a new link, but more often than not, I didn’t. The problem is, the Zettelkasten pretty much relies on links between notes. An un-linked note is a kind of orphan. It risks getting lost in the pile. You wrote it, but how will you ever find it again? And if you do somehow stumble upon it again, it won’t really lead anywhere, because you haven’t related it to anything else.

    Fortunately, there are some helpful ways of coming up with linking ideas that can really aid creative thinking and unlock the power of connected note-making.

    Make a path through your notes with the idea compass

    Niklas Luhmann, the sociologist who famously (to nerds) kept a Zettelkasten, didn’t exactly say this, but each atomic note already implies its own series of relations. Each note can be extended by means of the idea compass - a wonderful idea of Fei-Ling Tseng, as follows:

    • N - what larger pattern does this concept belong to?
    • S - what more basic components is this concept made of?
    • E - what is this concept similar to?
    • W - what is this concept different from?

    Notice how the first two questions promote a tree-like hierarchical structure, with everything nested in everything else, while the second two questions promote a fungus-like anti-hierarchical structure, with links that form a rhizome or lattice. Alone, the former structure is too rigid and the latter is too fluid. But put them together and they can be very powerful. The genius of the Zettelkasten system is that it absorbs hierarchical knowledge networks into its overall rhizomatic structure, without dissolving them, and allows new structures to form (Nick Milo helpfully calls these ‘maps of content’).

    Find the larger pattern

    Each atomic idea might be thought of as part of a larger pattern. In a sense, every note title is just an item in a list that forms a structure note at a level above it. Say I write a note on ‘functional differentiation’. I realise that this is just one component of a structure note that also includes ‘social systems’, ‘communication’, ‘autopoeisis’ and so on. I write this list, call it ‘Niklas Luhmann - key ideas’, and link it to my existing note. Now I have some ideas for some more notes to write. But will I write them all? No - I’ll only pursue the thoughts that actually interest me, or seem essential. The rest can wait for another day. Actually, I’m suddenly intrigued by what you could possibly have instead of functional differentiation (i.e. what is this note different from?), so I write a new note called ‘pre-modern forms of social structure’ - and link it back to my ‘functional differentiation’ note.

    Look for the basic components

    Going even further, the atoms, which seemed to be the smallest unit, turn out to be made of sub-atomic particles and so on, all the way down to who knows what (well, particle physicists might know, but I don’t). That means each atomic idea is really just the title of a structure note that hasn’t been written yet. So I take a new note and write: ‘Functional differentiation - the key points’. I imagine this new structure note to be like a top-ten list of important factors, each one ultimately with its own new note - but I’m not going to force myself to write about ten things that don’t matter, just what I find interesting.

    It’s really important that you don’t try to answer all four questions with a new link. You’re not creating an encyclopedia. Instead, you should only make the connections that actually matter to you. The trace of your own inquisitiveness through the material is, in itself, important information. If it doesn’t matter to you, don’t write about it! Since the notes are atomic, and the possible links increase exponentially (?) the possibility space you are opening up is almost infinite and it can feel overwhelming. So just go with the flow. The key is to find your own curiosity and run with it. That way (as I’ve said before):

    • you’ll write worthwhile notes that address your own questions and

    • this hook of curiosity will help you remember as you learn.

    That’s what I’ve been doing this morning. At no point have I stopped to think “what shall I write next?” In this sense, the Zettelkasten is a kind of conversation partner. Niklas Luhmann said he only ever wrote about things that interested him. This seems unlikely until you try it for yourself.

    And if you keep asking yourself these questions, you’ll find that over time the linking starts to come naturally. It will be increasingly obvious to you what relationships matter. The questions in the idea compass will become intuitive and fade into the background. Well, that’s my experience, but YMMV.

    Apply a framework that intrigues you

    Another way of making connections, besides the idea compass, is to apply a conceptual framework (or mental model) that interests you - and see where it leads. Here’s an example: Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects.

    The idea here is that any new technology changes the whole landscape or ecology, by bringing some features into the foreground and pushing others into the background. It’s called a tetrad because there are four questions to ask of a new technology:

    1. What does the medium enhance?

    2. What does the medium make obsolete?

    3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?

    4. What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

    (This really clicked for me when I puzzled over why my kids don’t use smart phones for talking to people. It seemed crazy to me, but then I looked at question 3 and realised the new technology had retrieved asynchronous communication, which the telephone had previously made obsolete. But I digress.)

    Anyway, I’m suggesting you might be able to take these four questions and ask them of the ideas in your notes. For each atomic note: what does this idea enhance, make obsolete, retrieve, or reverse?

    Another simple but powerful example is Tobler’s law: “I invoke the first law of geography: everything is connected to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things”. What would it be like if you made everything about physical location?

    It’s important to say these are just examples, and they may not work for you. Nevertheless, you may be able to think of frameworks from within your own line of work that allow you to ask a similar set of questions about your ideas. In my experience these frameworks are everywhere and yet are quite under-used.

    This article is a lightly edited version of a Reddit comment.

    More on making notes.

    You might also like to read about how a network of notes is a rhizome not a tree.

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