A Paper Zettelkasten System for Nonfiction Writers

Okay, this post is serious inside baseball. If you’re interested in:

A) keeping a paper zettelkasten, that B) you are using to make nonfiction writing, e.g. articles, essays, books…

…read on. We will return to 20th century office toys and their uses (and sounds!) soon.

Perhaps like me, the book How to Take Smart Notes inspired you to try to set up a zettelkasten note-making system to help you write.

I have now spent years trying to do just that. I started with digital zettelkastens (Roam, then Obsidian), but writing notes in a digital space just doesn’t work for me. Too easy to collect notes; too hard to process them.

I also tried previously on paper, but mine foundered on a numbering system that was too complex for me to use. I spent way too much time filing.

Digital for reference? Yes, please.

Digital for note-making? I just don’t enjoy spending my off-the-clock time staring into a screen. I realized I was violating my own law! (Havron’s First Law of Personal Information Management: Use tools you love to use.)

But index cards… now, that’s a different story.

I love paper and pens. I will happily noodle around with index cards early in the morning, and long into the night. And thinking is partly noodling around — looking at notes, seeing something you can add, finding connections.

So my zettelkasten — my hobby, not my job — would have to be paper.

Do You Work Your System, Or Does it Work You?

A zettelkasten is a note-making and writing tool / toy for someone who loves systems. I also love systems. Not many people are into filing for fun, but I am one of those people.

The hazard of loving systems, though, is that developing a system can go from being a means to an end, to becoming an end in itself.

Fluffing and buffing a complex note-making system FEELS productive to me, but if I’m not getting writing out into the world, it’s actually robbing writing from me.

Is the system helping me write more, or is it soaking up my limited writing time?

When it comes to systems, good enough is MORE than good enough. Most of what I’ve read about zettelkastens became, for me, a series of system-fluffing traps. I found most systems complex and opaque.

I needed simple, and clear.

Book Recommendation: A Simple, Clear Paper Zettelkasten System

Simple and clear was what I found with a book called How to Make Notes and Write, by Dan Allosso and S. F. Allosso. (You can download it for free at the link.)

Dan Allosso is a historian. His father, S. F. Allosso, taught literature. This book developed from a previous handbook teaching students how to write. Dan expanded the book to include how he uses his paper zettelkasten.

What I love about this book is that it is laser-focused on output: creating nonfiction writing, meant to be read by others. The zettelkasten serves the writing, first and last.

Because of that, I found Dan Allosso’s zettelkasten system to be cleaner and simpler than anything else I’ve read.

He does not parse out four or five fine-grained types of notes (fleeting, literature, evergreen, sprout, etc).

He uses two: source notes, and point notes. “Source Notes” are notes he makes mostly from the source but with some initial thoughts and questions. “Point Notes” are his own thoughts:

“Others have called these “Main Notes” or “Permanent Notes” or “Evergreen Notes”. I called them Point Notes to remind myself that when I write them I should be making a point.” (Allosso 2022, p 66)

Good reminder. And for me, anyway, good enough.

I also liked his method for numbering his notes, which reminds me a bit of the folder structure of the Johnny.Decimal system which I love, and use for my digital files.

This is a well-written, well organized book about how to write. It is also a well-written, well organized book about how a working writer uses a paper zettelkasten to produce writing.

I’m going to give Allosso’s system a go for several months. So far, I’ve written a few things with it.

Highly recommended.


REFERENCES

Ahrens, S. (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.

Introduction to the Zettelkasten Method, Zettelkasten Method. Available at: https://zettelkasten.de/introduction/ (Accessed: 12 August 2022).

Allosso, Dan; Allosso, S.F.(2022) How to Make Notes and Write. Kindle Edition.

Get a free download here: https://minnstate.pressbooks.pub/write/

*****
Written on
© 2022 Anna Havron. All rights reserved.