NaNoWriMo with Zettelkasten Approach for an AcWriMo Non-Fiction Writing

Using Niklas Luhmann’s rough average of six zettels per day working full time for 8 hours a day versus writing approximately 1,667 words in an hour’s work (~28 words written per minute, which seems a reasonable average), I’ve created a zettelkasten word count equivalent for reading, research, and note making.

  • 28 words for every minute spent reading and making fleeting notes.
  • 415 words for every well-formed, fully written out permanent note
  • 500 words for every well-formed, fully written out and installed permanent note (includes work to install it in the box)
  • 84 words for every cross link created from one note to another
  • 140 words for every bibliographic card created
  • 56 words for every index entry created

If you’re diligently working at any or all of the above, instead of measuring all the small pieces, you could just use a 28 word/minute measure for your zettelkasten-based work.

If you’re not a full time research-only academic (without a teaching load or other administrative obligations) and for fun want to measure your NaNoWriMo for non-fiction work on a card per day basis using Niklas Luhmann as a guide/measure, then you should do the reading, research and note taking work to produce 0.75 cards per day (that is, well written permanent notes installed, indexed, and well-linked; we’re not keeping track of the indexing cards, bibliographic cards, or other fleeting notes here, which you’ll also be doing along the way) to keep pace for an equivalent 50,000 words during the month. This is about 5.25 cards per week or about 23 cards for the entire month.

The goal here is, instead of churning out raw words, to churn out reading, research, and note making towards material you can reasonably use to write journal articles, book chapters, or a full non-fiction book.

If you’re using an index card-based system for fiction writing the way Vladimir Nabokov did, then you really should do a traditional word count as that’s more closely in line with the workflow of the standard NaNoWriMo work.

N.B. This probably overshoots the mark, as the 6 cards/day number for Luhmann probably includes all cards and not just permanent notes in his entire collection over his entire lifetime’s work. It also doesn’t take into account the possibility that he carried a teaching load, administrative work, fundraising work, or other nonsense required of professors.) Of course this is is all just for fun anyway, so… quit worrying and start researching and writing a little bit every day.

How to Make Notes and Write, a handbook by Dan Allosso and S.F. Allosso

A new handbook on note making and writing

I wasn’t expecting it until next week or shortly thereafter, but just in time for the new academic year, Dan Allosso has finished a major rewrite on his and S.F. Allosso’s earlier edition of A Short Handbook for writing essays in the Humanities and Social Sciences. This expanded edition has several new chapters on note making (notice that this is dramatically different than note taking) using a zettelkasten-based (or card index or fichier boîte if you prefer) approach similar to that practiced by Beatrice Webb, Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Hans Blumenberg, Mortimer J. Adler, and Walter Benjamin among many others.

The focus of the book is on note making for actively producing tangible outputs (essays, papers, theses, monographs, books, etc.), something on which a few recent texts in a the related productivity space haven’t delivered. While ostensibly focused on the humanities and social sciences in terms of examples, the methods broadly apply to all fields. In fact, some of the methods draw historically on some of the practices fruitfully used by Bacon, Newton, Leibnitz, Linnaeus, and many others in the sciences since.

This isn’t your father’s note making system…

While many students (especially undergraduates and graduate students) may eschew this sort of handbook as something they think they “already know”, I can assure you that they do not and will benefit from the advice contained therein, particularly the first half. I’ve often heartily recommended Sönke Ahrens’ book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking to many in the past, but I think Allosso’s version, while similar in many respects, is clearer, shorter, and likely more easily realized by new practitioners.

There’s more detail in Dr. Allosso’s announcement video:


How to Make Notes and Write is available at Minnesota State’s Pressbooks site for reading online, or download as a .pdf or .epub. If you’d like a physical copy, they’re also available for purchase on Amazon.

For those in the educational spaces, Dr. Allosso has given the book a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0), so that people can use it as an Open Educational Resource (OER) in their classes and work.

For teachers who are using social annotation with tools like in their classrooms, Allosso’s book is an excellent resource for what students can actively do with all those annotations once they’ve made them. (Here’s a link to my annotated copy of a recent working draft if you care to “play along”.)

† Unless of course your father happens to be Salvatore Allosso, but even then…

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How to Sidestep Mathematical Equations in Popular Science Books

In the publishing industry there is a general rule-of-thumb that every mathematical equation included in a book will cut the audience of science books written for a popular audience in half – presumably in a geometric progression. This typically means that including even a handful of equations will give you an effective readership of zero – something no author and certainly no editor or publisher wants.

I suspect that there is a corollary to this that every picture included in the text will help to increase your readership, though possibly not by as proportionally a large amount.

In any case, while reading Melanie Mitchell’s text Complexity: A Guided Tour [Cambridge University Press, 2009] this weekend, I noticed that, in what appears to be a concerted effort to include an equation without technically writing it into the text and to simultaneously increase readership by including a picture, she cleverly used a picture of Boltzmann’s tombstone in Vienna! Most fans of thermodynamics will immediately recognize Boltzmann’s equation for entropy, S = k log W , which appears engraved on the tombstone over his bust.

Page 51 of Melanie Mitchell's book "Complexity: A Guided Tour"
Page 51 of Melanie Mitchell’s book “Complexity: A Guided Tour” featuring Boltzmann’s tombstone in Vienna.

I hope that future mathematicians, scientists, and engineers will keep this in mind and have their tombstones engraved with key formulae to assist future authors in doing the same – hopefully this will help to increase the amount of mathematics that is deemed “acceptable” by the general public.