June 29th, 2020

What Makes A Good Zettelkasten Note

I’ve done a bunch of videos on my Obsidian setup and even walked you through how I use Obsidian to track both book notes and random notes on other things I’m reading. Today we’re not going to talk so much about a piece of software as what type of data should be in your notes so that the become useful to you over the long term.

There are a few considerations for making notes useful in the long-term. First, if the note is from a book or other resource you should be able to tell right away what that resource is. If you can’t tell which book you got it from, then you lose some of the context that surrounds the idea. I regularly find myself referring to source material for a bit of extra context as I start to the writing process. Sometimes it’s simply to make sure I’m conveying the information properly, sometimes I realize that my note isn’t quite as informative as I had hoped so I go back for context.

Next, who is the original author of the piece. I have found that sometimes I can remember who talked about a topic but have no idea the exact title I gave a note. This is the exact reason I include the author in my notes, because it makes them easier to find later.

As you add each note one of the most important questions to ask yourself is how does the idea you’re looking at currently connect to notes you already have in your system. Occasionally the answer may be, not very much. I have been encountering that recently as I’ve been reading more books on racism towards First Nations in Canada, and on racism in general. As I’ve added knowledge by more reading I’m starting to connect ideas together, but when I started it was a small cluster of notes that didn’t relate to any other information I had previously gathered.

When I realized this, I knew I had lots of work to do to educate myself better.

Sometimes you’ll find that you remember reading something and can pull the core of the idea out, but don’t remember where you found the idea. I’ve read over 400 books in the last 6 years, and didn’t have a good note system at the beginning. I regularly remember old ideas but don’t know how to connect them to their source. I simply write it down and take a guess at where it came from. If I really need the source, I’ll do the hard work of digging through my book reviews to find the source but otherwise the idea is the important part

You also need to ask yourself is, if you need a “proper” Zettelkasten identifier in your file titles? The Zettelkasten identifier was started in a non-digital age, so on one hand tools like Obsidian have stellar search and you can find most of what you need. On the other hand, the more notes you have the greater the chance that you’ll have duplicate note titles. While I’m not worrying about old notes, I’m now appending the date and time of notes to the title I want to give them. I prefer daymonthyeartime which would look like 150620202014 as I write this article. I haven’t hit a conflict yet, but I’d rather have a plan I start executing long before I have an issue.

When to Tag or Link your Zettelkasten Notes

I’m going to talk specifically about tagging and linking as it pertains to my software of choice, Obsidian so the specifics may change a bit for your software of choice.

In Obsidian a #tag does not link notes in the knowledge graph view. Only using [[tags]] in the wikilink format will do this. As such, I use #tags when I’m referring to very broad topic areas like my #writingideas tag. I can use this tag to find any note that I want to write about. I also use this on notes that I need to summarize with my #tosummarize tag.

If I want to link notes to a topic (I’ll talk about those in a minute) area an use that note as a topic note, then I use the [[tag]] in a wikilink format. That means that any note with this tag will show up in the graph view in Obsidian.

What is a Topic Note?

Topic notes are often going to be a bit different than a single note with a reference. Topic notes are for broad areas if inquiry. I have one going that links out to a bunch of different note taking methods. I have another that links to all the note taking and research apps I’m playing with or want to review and publish something about.

I don’t write a lot in these notes outside of simply linking them to more specific notes, which may link to individual articles and ideas. Topic notes are really an index for your other notes so that you can find the high level idea and then drill into any ideas or sub-topics that relate to the idea.

How Many Notes Before a Zettelkasten is Useful?

One of the final questions most people ask themselves as they start is, when will all these notes become useful? The truth is that you’re going to need to put in a bunch of work to collect thoughts and link them together before you’re going to see the benefits spoken of in How to Take Smart Notes. Ahrens says that with good notes you simply organize them for a project and then write through them.

As for a specific number, I’ve heard people say that once they got 200 notes into their system they started to see huge benefits. Others have said it took 1000 notes. The trouble is that we can’t tell if in those 1000 notes there were only 200 good ones with the rest simply being filler.

It may also depend on what you’re doing with the notes. If you’re looking at writing 1000 word blog posts then you may need less connections. If you’re writing a 70,000 word book then you may need more notes to have your ideas fleshed out in a way that truly aids your writing.

Whatever the number is, you’re going to need to put in some work with the system up front. If it’s simply a fad you’re going to experiment with for a bit and then let go, don’t expect to get much out of the process.

My Zettelkasten Template

For all that talk, here is my Zettelkasten note template. I use this in both 1Writer from my iPad and in Obsidian from macOS. In both scenarios I use the built in text replacement systems of the operating system, which sync between each other. This system isn’t without it’s issues though.

On macOS, Obsidian is an Electron app which means it isn’t using the text fields that macOS text replacement expects. As such, my shortcut of ;;zet isn’t picked up and filled in. I generally trigger Tot and then copy/paste the template out of Tot into Obsidian.

On iPadOS, my text replacement works fine. The drawback here is that I can’t create or edit the base template in the text replacement system without messing it up because iPadOS doesn’t support multi-line text replacements. It sees them if you create them in macOS, but will put all your text on a single line if you create the text replacement on iPadOS. Yup this is a stupid bug and hopefully Apple will fix it in the future.

Title:
Author:
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DT:
tags:
description: