Call for Model Examples of Zettelkasten Output Processes

Perhaps too much of the resurgence of the zettelkasten idea and the online space about it is focused on what a zettelkasten is or how it should be done. After this, descriptions of the process of collecting material for one’s zettelkasten is followed by using it to generate new ideas and thought, though this last part is relatively sparce in comparison. Very little of the discussion or examples I’ve seen in online fora, social media, websites, and the blogosphere is focused on actively using them for creating actual long form output.

As Luhmann’s (all-too-frequently used) example is so powerful, I think it would be massively helpful if users had stronger examples of what these explicit creation workflows looked like, particularly at the longer end of creation of chapters or even book length spaces. Are there any detailed posts, videos, other media about how one approached this problem? What worked well? What didn’t? What would you do differently next time? Have you done this multiple times and now settled into something you feel is most efficient? Is your process manual/digital? What tools helped along the way for laying out and doing the actual stitching together and editing? Would you use them again or try something else? Have you experimented with different methods or practices?

Here, I’m looking for direct and actual experience; I’m explicitly not looking for “this is how I would do it” responses.

Because it’s much easier and far more successful for humans to imitate the practice of others than to innovate it for themselves, I’m ultimately looking not for outlines of what people recommend, but public examples of the practices in progress. Who can show their actual “receipts” and in a reasonably linear and practical way for others to follow? We suffer from a lack of these practices being visible online as most aren’t. Further even the digital ones aren’t public, or if they are, they aren’t well known.

As an example of the broader problem, I’ve yet to see a week go by that someone doesn’t read Ahrens’ generally excellent book, but in posting online they still seem lost in attempting to put the lowest level ideas into active practice.

Personally, I use Hypothes.is as a digital tool for the majority of my note taking. One could follow my feed and see it in real time if they choose. There are benefits for this public practice and I’m aware that many people follow this feed of notes out of curiosity. I’ve even gotten emails from folks indicating that they’ve learned some interesting things for use in their own practices. Sadly, the follow up of revision, cross linking, active indexing, and subsequent growth isn’t public (yet), though the platform I’m using is open to active public conversation and commentary, which is a useful side benefit. I have seen a few other public examples of others’ practices, some in video form, though this can be dull as the time and effort is work and doesn’t make for powerful entertainment because it isn’t. Still these public examples can be far more powerful than some of the explanations I’ve seen, especially for beginners who don’t comprehend the long term benefits (surprise, serendipity, insight, emergent creativity) and who generally focus on the minutiae for lack of direct experience.

On the creation portion, I’m currently experimenting with carrying out the original  instructions of Konrad Gessner, an early zettelmacher, as laid out in his book Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium. (1548. Zurich: Christoph Froschauer) and hope to report back shortly about the experience. 

Call for explicit examples

So where are the examples? Show us your receipts. Who’s doing this in public that people can follow? Who can be imitated until people have the experience(s) to do this more easily on their own? Let’s collect some of the best (or at least extant) examples for sharing with others. 

Once we’ve got some concrete examples then we can study them and iterate on them.

Too many people seem intent on potentially wasting their time by innovating on a practice they haven’t even tried because someone in the productivity space (who usually hasn’t tried it either) wrote a page long post saying it would be a good idea. I know we can do far better.

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

48 thoughts on “Call for Model Examples of Zettelkasten Output Processes”

    1. My goal in posting this is just that: to get people like you with long standing practice to post their examples publicly online as models so that others can follow along! We await links…

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      1. I think it’d be a great idea if you hosted/created a space for busy writers to show their workflow publicly instead of asking us to do the heavy lift on our own. We already know the system works & many writers would love to show how it does. Would benefit both of us!

        1. Bob, perhaps you’re missing (or forgetting) some of the context of my original post. There are already half a dozen forums for zettelkasten across the web for doing just this. The ZK forum, several on Reddit, multiple channels on YouTube not to mention the countless blogposts and other social media. Most people have exhausted the low hanging fruit about what it is, how to start, and there are thousands of divergent opinions about exactly how one ought to keep notes—it’s all so commonplace I’ve seen Eminem demo his slip box to Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes. Despite all this, there’s nearly nothing about what we might call the “last mile ZK” problem of using those notes to create and publish new material.

          I’ve got as sophisticated a system as anyone out there, but I’ve also done a large amount of research and reading on these practices and related cultural practices throughout our broader intellectual history. What I’m looking for is that last part, which at present people only outline in the hypothetical. The depth of people writing or talking about the last step of utilizing their slip box to actually create content is exceedingly sparse.

          I suspect, in part, it’s because that most of the “influencers” in the space don’t have enough practice and knowledge to actually get to the final step of using their system to create something.
          see also: https://notes.andymatuschak.org/zUMFE66dxeweppDvgbNAb5hukXzXQu8ErVNv

          I’m well aware of the time and difficulty that it takes, and hope to get to something on the topic myself. But given the presumably thousands who have their own boxes, who do this daily, and many of whom dedicate countless hours to posting low-level advice in the aforementioned fora, how is this last part so sparse as to appear non-existent?

          You’ve mentioned (twice) that you’re happy to demo yours, and that’s great. If you need me to turn on a recording and post the result to YouTube, Reddit, etc., I can do that if it makes things easier for you. But I suspect that this is not the bottleneck in the larger space.

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          1. I’m not sure yre seeing what yr post is actually asking. You’re saying “I’m looking for direct and actual experience; I’m explicitly not looking for ‘this is how I would do it’ responses.” And, I’m saying: We’re busy. Host us, and we’ll show you. I’m not the one looking for proof


          2. Why not create a publication on Medium? That way, writers could be paid for writing up how they use their zettelkasten to publish articles (this is assuming that writers put their content behind Medium’s flexible paywall).



    2. Thanks u/taurusnoises, your spectacular recent video “Using the Zettelkasten (and Obsidian) to Write an Essay https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OUn2-h6oVc is about as close to the sort of public example of output creation I had been looking for!

      I’m sure that there are other methods and workflows out there which vary by person, method, and modality (analog/digital) and it would be interesting to see what those practices look like as examples for others to use, follow, and potentially improve upon.

      I particularly appreciate that your visual starting perspective of the graph view in Obsidian fairly closely mimics what an analog zettelkasten user might be doing and seeing within that modality.

      I’m still collecting extant examples and doing some related research, but perhaps I’ll have some time later in the year to do some interviews with particular people about how they’re actively doing this as you suggested.

      On a tangential note, I’m also piqued by some of the specific ideas you mention in your notes in the video as they relate to some work on orality and memory I’ve been exploring over the past several years. If you do finish that essay, I’d love to read the finished piece.

      Thanks again for this video!

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  1. A nice call to action. I look forward to seeing the results.

    I’m currently writing my second book. It’s about how Charles Darwin looked at the world. I only discovered Zettelkasten and Obsidian when I was already a considerable way into the book, but, after using them for a while, so sold was I on their potential that I ended up taking several months off writing to build a retroactive vault for the stuff I’d already covered—as well as the stuff I was yet to cover. I’ve documented some of how I did this on my blog (though not in anything like the level of detail you’re looking for). Here’s a link to some pertinent posts (but do read/subscribe to my other stuff, obviously—we all need more readers!): http://richardcarter.com/tag/zettelkasten/?orderby=date&order=asc

    As you’ll see from a couple of my more recent posts linked to above, using a Zettelkasten(ish) system has helped immensely in putting together a few of my more recent, rather complex chapters. It has allowed me to see the wood for the trees.

    In terms of your call for examples, it’s difficult to break a complex process such as researching and writing a book into a single, linear workflow. It involves keeping lots of plates spinning at the same time. While working on my Darwin book, I’m also making notes for other potential books (on different topics), as well as notes about other stuff that also happens to interest me—some of which have resulted in longer-form blog posts (e.g. http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/nature-writings-ill-defined-thriving-ecosystem/).

    (Off the top of my head…) A few of the key lessons I’ve learnt:

    have a note-making system in place before you start your research. Putting one in place retroactively is a major headache!
    don’t get too hung up on what constitutes an ‘atomic’ note; I write notes on single ‘topics’. If they start to get too long, I try to split them. Many of my notes would now probably count as ‘atomic’, but by no means all of them. What matters is that they’re useful to me.
    once you’ve amassed enough notes around a particular major topic, you find linking between them enables you to shorten many of the notes;
    once you reach the stage where certain notes have evolved from longform notes into (mostly) an organised set of links to other notes (which I refuse to call a MOC), you’ve probably got good material for a chapter. In fact, you’ve got the beginning of a chapter outline;
    have a note for each chapter you plan to write, so you can begin to link ideas together. (c.f. https://notes.andymatuschak.org/Create_speculative_outlines_while_you_write)
    construct your chapter outline inside your chapter note using indented bullet-points. Each major bullet point (and many of the minor ones) should link to or reference an existing note. If you find they don’t, you’ve probably identified an area requiring more research (or an area that doesn’t belong in the chapter).
    don’t try to write your actual chapters in your note-making app. Keep your notes and what you construct out of them separate. (I often break this rule when drafting blog posts, but I always delete the draft from my vault once I publish the post.)

    I should probably write a blog post or two about this some time!

  2. Chris Aldrich calls for actual examples of how we use our Zettelkästen for outputs. I am not sure if the following is exactly what he wants because I do not use a single zettelkasten equivalent for all the ideas on paper slip equivalents. For a particular output, I collect a project-specific folder of them to process them. (By contrast, for the project-independent/ evergreen notes the goal is mainly to find new relationships and categories, as described in this video and associated blog post.)

    But here is the process shown in zoomed screenshots of the collections. The description of my workflow is simple: after connecting and rearranging them, I sift through them one branch after the other. The key of this process is probably to see which items need to be pruned because they are tangents that are not well enoough connected and would therefore need unwarranted space. That’s it.

    The example shown is the authentic (albeit anonymized) collection of my Kindle annotations and other notes for my recent post about Clark Quinn’s latest book.

    Graph ImageRaw

    Graph Image Pruned

    1. Thanks for the demonstration Matthias! This is interesting and useful for the middle portion of the process and the import portion into your WordPress site is a fascinating portion that isn’t often seen. (Is that site publicly viewable, or only private? I’d love to see it.)

      The portion I’m hoping to see delineated in more detail is what you do with your notes after what you’ve shown here? Now that you’ve got them and they’re linked, how do you actively revisit and reuse them? What does that portion of your process look like? Do you actively use them to write papers, articles, blogposts, other? How is that done?

      Of course if this is the end of the trail, perhaps beyond linking new bits as they arrive, that’s an excellent data point for me as well.

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      1. “what you do with your notes after what you’ve shown here?”
        I click them and start writing and (as Stephen says below “this my brain does, not my software.”) Still I would say that for me, tech stops a bit later (techno-optimism :-).

        “how do you actively revisit and reuse them?” I revisit (click) them as often as I need to come up with a sentence. Think of it like turning cards face up in the game of Pairs (aka Memory or Concentration) — just that it won’t cost me scores. And it’s more effortless (no popup or page turning).

        As for “reuse” (after writing), this applies more to the other sort of notes I mentioned (leading to my embarrassing 127.0.0.1 wordpress pages) where I would say, with Stephen again, “the magic happens in the creation, not in the subsequent use”.

        “Do you actively use them to write papers, articles, blogposts, other?” Yes, mainly blogposts. Fortunately I don’t have to do any more academic grind work with boring references or similar formal work. This may have shaped my practice. My messy map suffices as my outline.

  3. The Zettelkasten is a method of recording thoughts or bits of information on separate slips of paper and storing them for future use. Famously, Luswig Wittgenstein organized his thoughts this way. Also famously, he never completed his ‘big book’ – almost all of his books (On Certainty, Philosophical Investigations, Zettel, etc.) were compiled by his students in the years after his death. So it is with some relevance that Chris Aldrich calls for “stronger examples of what these explicit creation workflows looked like,” especially at the point where the individual items come together to form an essay or a book. In response, Matthias Melcher writes that he would “sift through them one branch after the other…. to see which items need to be pruned because they are tangents that are not well enough connected.” I think this is hardly what Aldrich wants.

    But it’s not a trivial problem. I have compiled, at latest reckoning, 35,669 posts – my version of a Zettelkasten. But how to use them when writing a paper? It’s not straightforward – and I find myself typically looking outside my own notes to do searches on Google and elsewhere. So how is my own Zettel useful? For me, the magic happens in the creation, not in the subsequent use. They become grist for pattern recognition. I don’t find value in classifying them or categorizing them (except for historical purposes, to create a chronology of some concept over time), but by linking them intuitively to form overarching themes or concepts not actually contained in the resources themselves. But this my brain does, not my software. Then I write a paper (or an outline) based on those themes (usually at the prompt of an interview, speaking or paper invitation) and then I flesh out the paper by doing a much wider search, and not just my limited collection of resources.

    1. Thanks Stephen, this is a very useful data point and likely the process I suspect which is most common.

      To get a general grip on note taking practices, I’ve been collecting rough numbers of notes per day over spans of time from people. You mention 35,669 posts here. Over what span of time (years/days) does that currently represent?

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  4. If I understood your post correctly, you are looking for legitimate examples of people working with a Zettelkasten to produce output? And, that show their process online?

    Here’s a list of people that I’ve bumped into while looking for paper Zettelkasten users.

    Scott Scheper (you already know him)
    Brain-Friendly Thinking (originally started digital, I believe swapped to paper recently, but the Zettelkasten is not the main focus of his channel)
    Dave Hayes (released 3 videos a few years back, hasn’t uploaded since)

    Man… There’s really not that many, and even less active ones. I think the Antinet is getting a resurgence, we can see that as this community is growing – I am hoping more people start posting about their knowledge development methods.

    I guess a question for you now is: What’s the intention behind finding these people? Because if for you, it’s just to talk with them, I think this reddit community is probably the best place to do that. For newcomers to learn more and imitate others as they develop their own, then I think we just need more people posting publicly online about what they are doing.

    Have you found any more people who work with an Antinet? Because I’d be curious to learn more about them.

  5. I see your point, there are not many people going “oh hey! look at all my output, btw I use a zettlekasten” and I think its for a few reasons:

    People haven’t been on this bandwagon for long enough to make that direct statement.
    There is so much structure behind the definition of a “zettlekasten” or antinet that it might seem like someone who is following core principles feels that they aren’t allowed to say they are using this method. Scott I think said that he just wrote on cards before but never used the system like antinet the way he does now.
    People into knowledge management are always evolving their way of thinking (at least I am) because they want to find something that works for their specific output. Right now, my output is academic work, but I graduate in October and my antinet will shift in output needs and im not sure what that will mean for my knowledge workflow. But I think thats an important distinction.

    I do think output is important, but I also think that the zettle world is really new. But I think a lot of us picked it up becasue it was like a feature to something we were already doing. For me, I mean Ive been taking written notes since 5th grade, but I didnt come up with something as sophisticated as what Luhmen did.

    Your method is also growing, and you have some great evidence of that, and that should be enough for your own personal growth. I picked up antinet because it felt good, and I see the benefits.

    Also, comparing productivity tools feels very much like a “see who’s better” game. I think the better thing is to find people who you aspire to and see what they do and try it!

    Ramble over

  6. Very close by, my post and my comments on it Knowledge Workers Are Changed by the Information They Process.

    The post itself is the output of my notes on productivity, work, and writing. The trigger for me to write the post was reading the paper linked there.

    An excerpt from one of my notes on the paper:

    The valuable output of knowledge workers is the result of the individual’s processing of knowledge and experiences. They are literally informed, from the Latin roots “to shape.”1 Tools which embed a model of a knowledge worker’s task in the software do not add value.

    A linked note “Busyness Is Not Productivity”, observes, “Knowledge work, deep work, doesn’t look busy and can’t be measured quantitatively. Knowledge work isn’t in the tasks performed.”

    I drew from a few other notes related knowledge work, including:

    “Knowledge Isn’t Rote Memorization”, which is mostly about pedagogy but includes this quote from Plutarch:

    the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth

    “The Writing is Not the Outcome of Learning”, commenting on Ahrens How to Take Smart Notes chapter 5, “Writing Is the Only Thing That Matters”, led me to “The Writing is the Point”, again referencing Ahrens, “Writing is Remembering”, where I wrote, “for important things we experience and wish to understand, learn, and work with, writing them down is the key action that enables, and in a real sense is our memory and learning”.

    I have a few other notes related to writing and productivity, but those were the main ones. From there I was able to construct my post.

    I hope this is useful.

    For etymology and usage of “inform” I consulted the Webster’s 1913 dictionary entry. Why? James Somer’s 2014 blog post, You’re probably using the wrong dictionary reminded me how a good dictionary is an essential writing tool. I highly recommend, if you write a lot, giving the old dictionary a shot. Of course there are many modern words it won’t have, but it has all the words you use most.

  7. I’m not sure how I stumbled upon this page, but I 100% agree with the sentiment.

    Lots of enthusiastic starts, yet not many fulfill the task of truly ‘trusting’ in their communication partner.

    I’ve spent the last 2-years teaching it in multiple book clubs and have had success in providing the fundamental building blocks of implementing a Zettelkasten with the use of digital tools—bi-directionally linked block-based outliners (RoamResearch).

    Before coming forward with the work I knew that it had to be proven effective at not only translating between analog→ digital, but also feasible as a simple-to-teach and simple-to-understand way of working that form fits around the individual.

    All that being said, for examples of actualized OUTPUT I put my words to the test and formulated a 100-tweet thread during #threadapalooza2020 and live-streamed the entire process.

    Because of the digital advantages, I was able to pull the entire thread into existence without having to “write” a single word.

    1st PUBLIC DEMO:
    https://twitter.com/beauhaan/status/1340808149234642944?s=20&t=Ezid1nbYT5cFVqDq4OUsPQ

    LIVESTREAM OUTPUT of 100-tweet thread without ‘writing’ a single word:
    https://twitter.com/beauhaan/status/1339043213319884800?s=20&t=-LPB2IbmfaQoyALAxqj2DA

  8. I’ve always written a lot of notes, but apart from the notes themselves, I rarely have any tangible output to speak of. I might share some of my insights with friends, or in a comment on reddit, but I never seem to get around to writing the blog posts I always plan on, and now I know why…

    I recently read the paper The Marks are on the Knowledge Worker (1994) via a reddit discussion, and it totally blew my mind. It argues that the “defining characteristic [of knowledge workers] is that they are changed by the information they process.” “Humans are informed (ie. given form) by perceiving their environment and act more effectively in relation to the environment as a result.”

    So a knowledge worker is changed by the information they process, and it’s this change that’s important/valuable compared to any material output they might produce. Put another way, the result of working with my ZK is myself! I grapple with content in order to shape myself and engage with the world from a new/better/more informed perspective.

  9. For a Luhmannian Zettelkasten (Antinet), and for its output, we can turn to Luhmann’s books. Also, there’s my writing pieces from my book (which I’ve shared here and there). Everything I’ve put out started as notes in my Antinet.

    I think a lot of people in this community are still in the early stages. Until very recently with the introduction of my YouTube videos, there weren’t any good resources for building an analog Zettelkasten.

    Right now people are in the incipient stages of developing knowledge with it. I think it will take some time (another 8-12 months) before people can provide links to their output (their books).

    Heck even myself, I can’t provide a link to the Antinet Book yet because it’s still being edited. The draft was finished around May.

    Soon I think there will be less hand-waving and more examples of output (books/dissertations) using the Antinet.

    You’re spot on in your main point: output is the goal. The Antinet Zettelkasten is the airplane, the destination is the output.

    Apart from this, this community has some fantastic practitioners. Each person seems to be applying the fundamental component and then innovating on top of that in their own way.

  10. So I need to solve different machine learning issues at work, when starting, I created a problem-solution linking which as I broaden continues to be useful For example, a structure note relates to the problem of performance of binary classifiers organized by context.

    The outgoing links point to “solutions” with personalized notes and curated references and examples.

    I’ve thought of pushing the whole problem-solution portion of my ZK to a github repo. Not sure anyone would find it useful though.

    Structure

    One solution.

  11. @chrisaldrich Your interesting discussion makes it clear how different people’s notes are, on a spectrum between raw and ready. Mine are definitely very raw as this is inevitable for immediate, distraction-free capturing of ideas. I responded to your question about my WordPress site here on Mastodon https://mastodon.social/@x28de/108645702211303454 and I should add that on my WordPress, I love to reread the notes on aggregated category PAGES, i.e. violating the ZK atomicity, probably because this feels more like output.

  12. I don’t tend to document my process in any real tangible way. I have one photo of my desk with some cards on it and Scapple open that I have posted on here before. My process is very fluid and depends a lot on whether I am writing by myself, in collaboration, or what the output is. Sometimes, I don’t even look at my cards, like with a recent book chapter I am writing, not because they are not useful but because I already know what went into the cards by heart and had a fair idea of how I would use those cards to put that chapter together. Other times, especially if it is new knowledge I sort through the cards, draw out the few that are relevant to get my argument started and use whatever means necessary to put together a mind map or outline of my piece. Sometimes I may dip in and out of my ZK, where I think, “I am sure I have read about/taken a note on this.”

    I think the process will vary dependent on what kind of writer you are. There are apparently two main types: “pantsers” and “plotters”, but in reality people usually sit somewhere along the scale with these two types being extreme ends of a scale. I plot to a point and then test out the plot in a very “pantser” way, so I can’t show a clear workflow from read >> note>> ZK>> plot>> output. I feel like if I do, people will assume that this is a workflow that would work for them, when in reality it is probably one I use to fit that specific use case.

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