MK over at the Taking Note Blog just commented on my recent post about one thought per note. He helpfully adds several more links on the same idea and mentions that this is “one of the most basic features” of his note-taking.
I have mentioned the Taking Note Blog before, and I highly recommend it. A few years ago I took a saturday and read through every single post in the archives—and have kept up with every post since. This has probably been the single greatest influence on the way that I think about managing information. So head over there and start taking notes!
This week Christian Tietze over at Zettelkasten.de wrote up two helpful reviews of my note taking methods: (i) this post discusses the advantages of keeping notes in a notebook and (ii) this post discusses my recent description of moving from reading to organized notes on the computer.
I discovered Christian and Sascha’s work on this site only recently, but I have already learned a lot, so head over there and check out what they have to say about taking notes.
I’ve recently been asked how I process my notes from my notebook into the computer. I make a distinction between the low-friction handwritten notes that I create for the purpose of engaging with my reading or a lecture and those more organized and polished notes that help me actually remember material years down the road. See here for details.
While reading a book or article, I make a note every time I have a substantial thought or observation. I begin by writing the page number I am currently on, then the thought. As much as possible, I try to write in my own words, critically evaluating what I am reading rather than merely echoing. If, however, I think that I will need to quote an author explicitly, I copy down the quote making sure to place directly quoted material in quotation marks. I then double check the quote for accuracy. All of this should take a minimum of effort and organization while still maintaining clarity and depth of thought.
When I come to organize these notes, I slowly work through each page reference one at a time. First, I ask myself whether it is important that I remember this bit of information long-term. If not, I move on immediately. Second, I ask myself, “What is the single idea here?” trying to remember the principle of one thought per note. So I have two possibilities: (1) I need to create a file that captures this single idea or (2) I already have a file. Let’s take both these possibilities in turn:
- This option is more involved since I have to create a new idea note. (This is accomplished easily with my Sublime Text plugin.) Let’s break this down into steps with a couple screen-shots:
- I begin by populating the title of the note.
- I then create a bullet list off the top of my head out of every other note that has a conceptual connection to this new idea I am working on. If the connection is not completely obvious, I add a one-line description of the connection. I then follow all these links and add back-links in each of those files with the same procedure. While I am in those files, I keep an eye out for links to other files I did not remember in the first step. I keep adding to the list of connections and adding back-links until I have exhausted the connections to the best of my knowledge. This sounds time consuming, but it usually only ends up taking a minute or two and it greatly helps with keeping things tidy once the Zettelkasten expands to hundreds of notes.
- Now the hardest part: I think very carefully about the single idea that prompted the creation of this note file. I try to write out my own view as clearly as possible in about a paragraph. In all likelihood, I will copy and paste this paragraph into a rough draft of something I am writing, so I try to put in the effort up front to make the writing level as good as possible while the ideas are fresh in my mind. If this ends up going on to more than 300 words or so I likely have more than one idea and I need to split it up into multiple files.
- I then add a “References” section beneath my written paragraph with subsections for each source contributing to my understanding of the topic. Since this is a new note from reading I will just create one reference to the current author. In this section I put important quotes or page citations that I may need when I go to transform my humble paragraph into part of a real document.
- I find the file that accurately captures the single thought. I review its contents and think about whether this new bit of information alters my views on the matter. If so, I edit my description of the idea. Either way, I add a link at the top of the note in the Connections section to the relevant reading note file with a one-line description of what this reading in particular contributes to my understanding. If there is a quote involved or a more extended description of an authors position, I may also create a subsection at the end of the file in the section called “References.”
I read, and I write while reading; but I write down what I think after contact with someone else, more than I write down that other person’s thought.1
A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, trans. Mary Ryan (The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 190. ↩
In his How to Write a Thesis (Amazon), Umberto Eco suggests that you keep a box of index cards devoted to “reading index cards” alongside another box with “idea index cards.” In my digital version of the index card box, I have been primarily keeping “idea” notes, with one idea per file. Reading Eco, however, has encouraged me to also keep distinct “reading” notes, with one file per book or article that I read.
Here is an example screen-shot of a reading note:
In this screen-shot we see three areas:
- The title tells me both the title of the article and the author. This region is not always identical to the actual file name. Because this note is a child of
Lloyd Gerson.md, the note file name is
Lloyd Gerson - A Note on Tripartition.md.
- A bullet list of connections to idea notes (or other reading notes) with a brief one-line explanation of what the connection is. I leave out the explanation when it is completely obvious (e.g. the link to
- A summary that contains both a sketch of the overall argument and my response to it. I compose a draft of this in my notebook while the reading is fresh in my mind as soon as I finish reading the article (or as soon as I am done with each chapter in the case of books). I then mostly transcribe this into the Zettelkasten later with a little cleaning up. This also serves the function of review.
I do not use this reading note file to keep track of bibliographic information as Eco suggests. Instead, all this information is stored in a BibTeX file so that it can be referenced automatically with Pandoc-style citations.
I was getting a little tired of the standard Sublime Text 3 Jekyll Plugin because it automatically populated the YAML header with stuff I never use. So I wrote a quick and dirty plugin:
When using the Zettelkasten Method to organize my notes, I have found it important that each note file contains only a single idea.1 I try to take this single thought and articulate it in as clearly as possible. This may take anywhere from 50 to 500 words. After I have spelled out the single idea I now have a mental hook that I can attach other ideas and pieces of information to—and this becomes more useful the more specific the hook. For instance, suppose I kept all my thoughts about Plato in a single file. Whenever I want to connect a thought to this information I would add a link:
[[Plato]]. But this link could refer to anything within my Plato research. As it stands, however, I have split my research into bits as fine as possible while still maintaining the intergrity and coherence of the ideas. The specific thought that Plato’s account of tripartition in the Republic arises out of a need to explain internal motivational conflict goes into a single file. In other notes I can refer to this specific thought with a link:
[[Plato - Tripartition - Internal Conflict]].
This also gives me a way to manage my references to secondary literature. As I’m reading Lloyd Gerson’s article “A Note on Tripartition and Immortality in Plato,” I find that he talks about this subject on pages 85 and 86.2 So I add a brief quote and a few comments to the bottom of a section labeled “References” in the note. If I had not split up my notes on Plato into fine- grained topics, I would have trouble knowing where to put this information and I would have more trouble finding it again when I need to know what Gerson says about this specific topic. The “References” section in the note is already populated by several other references to secondary literature. This way, when I go to write the paragraph in Chapter 4 of my dissertation that deals with the link between tripartition and motivational conflict I have already prepared both my own position and a list of references to my sources.
I have just created a syntax definition for Sublime Text 3 that slightly extends the wonderful Academic Markdown, which is itself an extension of Markdown Editing. All that I have added is a definition for my own wiki-style links. As an example, the link syntax looks like this:
[[Philebus - Four Kinds]]. With the color scheme that comes with Academic Markdown this gives the links a nice blue:
The whole thing is rather long, so I’ll just provide a link to the gist. Save this as a file in your Sublime Text
User folder and you should be able to set this as the default syntax for all files with the
.md extension (or whatever you use).
After a few tweaks, I’m glad to see that Shawn Graham has my Zettelkasten set-up running in Sublime for OSX. Check out his post here.
Shawn Graham just put up a nice post over at Electric Archaeology, in which he impliments some of my Skim–Markdown scripts. If you have had any trouble with those scripts I suggest looking at his post since he explains in more detail a few things I didn’t.
(By the way: PDFtk does run on OSX as a command-line tool called PDFtk Server; the GUI is Windows only. I use this in the apple script just to pull out PDF bookmarks, which I use for chapters in books, and make these headers in the resulting markdown —very useful organization for 300 pages of notes. As Shawn mentions, the script runs fine without this, however.)