Rules against quotes in Zettelkasten? A closer look at Ahrens on Quotes and Collecting

I’ve seen several places in the note taking or zettelkasten communities the general advice that one should not include quotes in or amongst their notes. The general source of this “rule” seems to stem from Sonke Ahrens’ book Smart Notes. However, suggesting that Ahrens has a “rule” against quotes is a dramatic misreading of his intent. I imagine that this potentially stems from someone reading and excerpting his intent incorrectly and then others passing it along indiscriminately in the dreadful litany of one-page blogposts about how one should keep a zettelkasten.

The word “quote” (or close variations like “quotes” and “quotation(s)”) only appear 19 times in the first edition of Ahrens’ book.

In most of the contexts which have what one might call an “anti-quote” connotation, he’s directly recommending against the practice of indiscriminate highlighting/excerpting and collecting of general quotes specifically because they don’t aid in creating understanding by the reader. Instead he repeatedly recommends that one internalize the information by rewriting it in their own words instead. This helps the reader to better understand and know what the author is trying to convey. This also allows the reader to have material in their collection already written in their own words for later reuse.

Talking about “literature notes” Ahrens writes:

He did not just copy ideas or quotes from the texts he [Luhmann] read, but made a transition from one context to another.

Be extra selective with quotes – don’t copy them to skip the step of really understanding what they mean. Keep these notes together with the bibliographic details in one place – your reference system.

Places where quote appears in a context which argues against indiscriminate collection of quotes:

A typical mistake is made by many diligent students who are adhering to the advice to keep a scientific journal. A friend of mine does not let any idea, interesting finding or quote he stumbles upon dwindle away and writes everything down.

As well, the mere copying of quotes almost always changes their meaning by stripping them out of context, even though the words aren’t changed. This is a common beginner mistake, which can only lead to a patchwork of ideas, but never a coherent thought.

It is so much easier to develop an interesting text from a lively discussion with a lot of pros and cons than from a collection of one-sided notes and seemingly fitting quotes

Even doctoral students sometimes just collect de-contextualised quotes from a text – probably the worst possible approach to research imaginable.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Lonka recommends what Luhmann recommends: Writing brief accounts on the main ideas of a text instead of collecting quotes.

Now let’s take a quick look at some of Ahrens’ “pro quote” passages which provide the opposite view of when and where quotes can be useful:

The available books fall roughly into two categories. The first teaches the formal requirements: style, structure or how to quote correctly.

It would certainly make things a lot easier if you already had everything you need right in front of you: The ideas, the arguments, the quotes, long developed passages, complete with bibliography and references.

You follow up on a footnote, go back to research and might add a fitting quote to one of your papers in the making.

In this textual infrastructure, this so-often taught workflow, it indeed does not make much sense to rewrite these notes and put them into a box, only to take them out again later when a certain quote or reference is needed during writing and thinking.

How is one to have useful/impactful/fitting/necessary quotes at hand if they haven’t excerpted them as they read? In these portions he is actively suggesting that quotes from one’s reading in their notes can be a good thing and can help in making persuasive arguments. The secret is that they need to be done judiciously. One needs to be able to quote in a manner which keeps the original context and argument, but which can also fit into your current context and provide support or further argumentation.

As an example of terrible decontextualization, who hasn’t attended a wedding that featured a reading of 1 Corinthians 13? The passage seems wholly appropriate for a church wedding reading, but when you consider that it’s excerpted out of context you might reconsider using it at your own wedding. Go back and try reading it in light of being sandwiched between Corinthians 12 and 14 and you’ll change your mind that chapter 13 is about the sort of romantic love and implied by a wedding. Once you’ve done this, there’s added comedic subtext to scenes like the following from Wedding Crashers (New Line Cinema, 2005):

Father O’Neil: And now for our second reading I’d like to ask the bride’s sister Gloria up to the lectern.
John Beckwith: 20 bucks First Corinthians.
Jeremy Grey: Double or nothing Colossians 3:12.
Gloria Cleary: And now a reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

To prevent embarrassment of this sort, perhaps when you’re quoting a source directly you ought to provide at least a short note about the context in which the words were provided?

Any good rhetorician will tell you that quoting works in your writing can be incredibly helpful in building context and creating authority.

If anything, Ahrens’ book is missing a section on “how to quote correctly”, and this is a stumbling block of his text. As a quick remedy, one could read a bit of Seneca perhaps?

“We should follow, men say, the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in; these bees, as our Vergil says: ‘pack close the flowering honey And swell their cells with nectar sweet.’”
—Seneca in 84th letter to Luculius (“On Gathering Ideas”), Epistles 66-92. With an English translation by Richard G. Gummere. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library, 2006), 277-285.

Beyond just Ahrens there are several thousands of years of prior art seen in the commonplace book tradition where quotes feature not only prominently but at times almost exclusively. Quotes, particularly sententiae, are some of the most excerpted and transmitted bits of knowledge in the entire Western canon. Without quotes, the entire tradition of excerpting and note taking might not exist.

Of course properly quoting is a sub-art in and of itself within rhetoric and the ars excerpendi.

Fellow note taking writer Umberto Eco warns against this same sort of indiscriminate collecting without actively making the knowledge your own. In How to Write a Thesis (MIT Press, 2015, p125), instead of railing against indiscriminate highlighting, or digital cutting and pasting, Eco talks about another sort of technological collection tool more rampant in the 1990s and early 2000s which facilitated this sort of pattern: the photocopier.

Beware the “alibi of photocopies”! Photocopies are indispensable instruments. They allow you to keep with you a text you have already read in the library, and to take home a text you have not read yet. But a set of photocopies can become an alibi. A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them. This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neocapitalism of information, happens to many. Defend yourself from this trap: as soon as you have the photocopy, read it and annotate it immediately. If you are not in a great hurry, do not photocopy something new before you own (that is, before you have read and annotated) the previous set of photocopies. There are many things that I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it.

Many people may highlight, tag, or collect a variety of quotes within a text, but this activity is only a simulacrum of understanding and knowledge acquisition. This pattern can be particularly egregious in digital contexts where cutting and pasting has be come even easier and simpler than using a photocopier.  Writing it down and summarizing important ideas in your own words will actively help you on your way to ownership of the material you’re consuming.

A zettelkasten with no quotes—by definition—shouldn’t carry the name. So let’s lay to rest that dreadful idea that quotes aren’t allowed in a zettelkasten.

And if you’re just starting out on your zettelkasten or commonplace book journey and don’t know where to begin, I’ve recommended before writing down the following apropos quote and continuing from there:

No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them.
—Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (Secker & Warburg)

After Ahrens’ book I see an awful lot of people talking about “processing” books. There are too many assumptions about what this can mean and this hides many levels of inherent work involved in analyzing and synthesizing knowledge. I would suggest that we’re better off talking about reading them, annotating, excerpting, and thinking about them, or maybe writing about and combining them with other knowledge than “processing” them.
Annotated Pivoting with Hypothesis during Covid by Christine MoskellChristine Moskell (Hypothesis | OLC Innovate 2020 | YouTube)

Kicking off OLC Innovate 2020, Hypothesis held two free workshop sessions on collaborative annotation with members of AnnotatED. The sessions each started with a "Getting on the same page" introduction from Jeremy Dean of Hypotheses, followed by "Notes from the field", where a variety of AnnotatED community members talked about what's happening with collaborative annotation at their schools and participants had the chance to discuss ideas and questions with these experienced practitioners.

In this clip Christine Moskell, Instructional Designer at Colgate University, shares examples of how instructors used Hypothesis during the Covid pivot. 

Christine Moskell talks about a professor’s final exam design prompting students to go back to annotations and add new commentary (or links to other related knowledge) that they’ve gained during the length of a course.

This is very similar to the sort of sensemaking and interlinking of information that Sönke Ahrens outlines in his book How to Take Smart Notes though his broader note taking thesis goes a few additional steps for more broadly synthesizing ideas into longer papers, articles, theses, and books.

Dr. Moskell also outlined a similar tactic at the Hypothesis Social Learning Summit: Spotlight on Social Reading & Social Annotation earlier today, though that video may not be accessible for a bit.

How can we better center and model these educational practices in our pedagogies?

Zettelkasten Overreach

The zettelkasten is just that, it isn’t a calendar, a rolodex, a to do list or a hammer, saw, or even a jackhammer.

The basic zettelkasten note taking method is very simple and clear cut as originally described by Konrad Gessner in Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium (Zurich: Christoph Froschauer. Fol. 19-20, 1548) to Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Just a handful of bullet points can outline the elegance and simplicity of the system. This dramatic simplicity leads to some tremendous value and complexity.

However, in modern use as seen online since roughly 2018 on, the idea and the digital tools surrounding it, has seen some severe mission creep. Zettlekasten has moved to the fad stage and we’re “zettlecasting” everything under the sun. While it can be used as a productivity tool specifically for writing, some are adapting and using it (and tools built for it) for productivity use writ-large. This includes project management or GTD (Getting Things Done) functions. Some are using it as a wiki, digital garden, or personal knowledge management system for aggregating ideas and cross linking them over time. Others are using it as a journal or diary with scheduling and calendaring functions tacked on. Still others are using it to collect facts and force the system to do spaced repetition. These additional functionalities can be great and even incredibly useful, but they’re going far beyond the purpose-fit functionality of what a zettelkasten system was originally designed to do.

Ahrens highlights the zettelkasten method as being simply and specifically designed to do its particular workflow well—no more, no less. He cleverly analogizes slip boxes to their larger box cousins, the shipping container, and the way that that they revolutionized the shipping industry.

In hindsight, we know why they failed: The ship owners tried to integrate the container into their usual way of working without changing the infrastructure and their routines. They tried to benefit from the obvious simplicity of loading containers onto ships without letting go of what they were used to.

Following this analogy, many people are currently trying to not only revolutionize shipping, but sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, and marketing as well. While this may be interesting and the digital tools might accommodate some of these functions, are they really custom built from start to finish to really excel at these functionalities? Can they really do all of them at once? While some may come close and do well enough, the added complexity and overreach of all these functionalities may be diluting the base power of what the zettelkasten is capable.

People conflate the idea of note taking and the zettelkasten with tools like Obsidian, Logseq, and Roam Research. This is not necessarily a good thing. If they expect it to do everything and it’s not capable of that or well designed to do what they expect, they’re more likely to get confused, frustrated, and eventually give up. I’ve seen it happening more and more.

As an example, in a book club related to Ahrens’ text in which many highly educated and talented people have been using these tools and have even previously read the book, many are still far too confused about what these tools are and the value that can come from them.

For those who are just coming to the idea of a zettelkasten, I recommend you limit yourselves to just that basic functionality. Don’t muddy the waters with other productivity functions, to do lists, journals, diaries, kitchen sinks, or the latest wiz-bang plugin. Don’t throw in buzz words like GTD and MOC. Stick to the simplest script for a few months and focus on finely honing a small handful of questions and ideas each day from your reading to see what happens. Write, link, repeat. Don’t get caught up in the collector’s fallacy by keeping and saving every single fleeting note (thought) you’ve got (or if you must, put them into a folder off to the side). Focus on the core idea.

Once you’ve got that part down and it’s working for you, then consider adding on those other functionalities. Experiment with them; see what works. But don’t be surprised if those other portions aren’t the magic bullet that is going to revolutionize your life. We’re likely to need new tools, functionality, and a system built from start to finish, to make those other things a useful reality.

Featured image: zettelkasten flickr photo by x28x28de shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I’m excited to join Dan Allosso‘s book club on How to Take Smart Notes as a means of turning my active reading, annotating, and note taking into papers, articles and books using Obsidian.md and Hypothes.is

Details: 

cc: Ian O’Byrne, Remi Kalir

Replied to How to remember more of what you read by Aaron DavisAaron Davis (Read Write Collect)
Across a series of posts (1,2,3), Steve Brophy explains his use of Roam Research and the Zettelkasten methodology to develop a deeper dialogue with what he reads. This is broken up into three steps, the initial capturing of ‘fleeting notes‘, rewriting the text in our own words as ‘Literature N...
Some useful looking links here. Thanks Aaron.

I’ve been digging deeper and deeper into some of the topics and sub-topics.

The biggest problem I’ve seen thus far is a lot of wanna-be experts and influencers (especially within the Roam Research space) touching on the very surface of problem. I’ve seen more interesting and serious people within the Obsidian community sharing their personal practices and finding pieces of that useful.

The second issue may be that different things work somewhat differently for different people, none of whom are using the same tools or even general systems. Not all of them have the same end goals either. Part of the key is finding something useful that works for you or modifying something slowly over time to get it to work for you.

At the end of the day your website holds the true answer: read, write, respond (along with the implied “repeat” at the end).

One of the best and most thorough prescriptions I’ve seen is Sönke Ahrens’ book which he’s written after several years of using and researching a few particular systems.

I’ve been finding some useful tidbits from my own experience and research into the history of note taking and commonplace book traditions. The memory portion intrigues me a lot as well as I’ve done quite a lot of research into historical methods of mnemonics and memory traditions. Naturally the ancient Greeks had most of this all down within the topic of rhetoric, but culturally we seem to have unbundled and lost a lot of our own traditions with changes in our educational system over time.