The Zettelkasten Method Means You’ll Never Run Out of Ideas Again with Sascha Fast

The Zettelkasten Method

Early this year, I came across the Zettelkasten method, a strategy that dramatically changed how I research and write articles and books. 

The Zettelkasten or Slipbox as a form of research and note-taking was popularised, at least in Germany, by sociologist and author Niklas Lumen.

(Fun fact: Lumen used the Slipbox or Zettelkasten method of research to write and publish over 70 books).

Basically, it involves writing a web of thought around your ideas, research and readings. I write five to ten entries a day in my personal Slipbox, which is a little like journaling. 

Fear not: creating a Slipbox is relatively easy providing you follow a few simple rules.

Create a single entry per idea

  • Link your entries to each other
  • Use descriptive headings 
  • Categorise your entries

There’s a little bit more to it than that. 

So, in this week’s interview, Sascha Fast explains:

  • How to get started creating your Slipbox
  • Why a Slipbox is ideal for non-fiction writers 
  • How he’s using a Slipbox to research 70-YES 70!- books
  • The tools you need to create one
  • What a Slipbox is and how to use one for writing

Resources

Sascha: Imagine you are very, very similar to another person. You could communicate in a very seamless way and very few misunderstandings, but the more you project yourself in the future, the more different you get from yourself, and the more important it is to treat your future self as a different person, with all the possibilities of misunderstanding, of different interpretations, and so on and so forth.

Introduction: Welcome to The Become A Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here you'll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan: If I could show you a simple process for organizing all of your research writings and ideas, would you be interested? Hi there, my name is Bryan Collins, and welcome to the Become A Writer Today podcast, and in this week's interview with Sascha Fast from Germany, we're going to talk about how you can create a slip box. But first here's a quick personal update for me. So lately I've been reading a lot of biography and memoir. I've been reading books like Black Boy by Richard Wright and also Richard Pryor's memoir, and I guess that's been inspired by the social unrest which was making a lot of news at the time of recording this week's podcast interview. But before that, I'd also been reading books by the likes of Mary Carr about how to write more memoir and tell personal stories, because it's something that I want to do more of for my next book.

Bryan: I'm still working on what my next book will be about, but I'd like to explore the topic of parenting, but rather than just writing an instructional parenting book, I'd like to get into some of my experiences of parenting. I case you don't know, I've got three small kids. Well, two small kids and one teenager. So I have a 18 or 19 month old baby, I have a 9 year old daughter and a 14 year old teenager. So it's the full spectrum. So teenager, child, and baby. And there's definitely lots of interesting things that happened with three kids, and it's a topic I'd like to explore in my next book. So I've written a series of articles about parenting and about some of the things that have happened when I've been raising three kids, and it's a bit different, because normally I write about business, self-help, or entrepreneurship and so on. So I guess I've been reading more memoir and more autobiography to see how the masters of the craft do it.

Bryan: And of course, when you're writing a book, an important part of writing is the research process. Particularly if you're writing nonfiction and even if you're telling personal stories, it's still important to research. And that brings me up to the topic for this week's episode, which is how do you create a slip box. So I came across the strategy or process of a slip box earlier on in 2020, and it's dramatically changed how I research and edit my articles and books. Slip box in German translates as zettelkasten, and you'll have to excuse my pronunciation. And basically this form of research and note taking was popularized by the sociologist and author Niklas Luhmann, who during his career wrote over 70 books.

Bryan: Basically the slip box involves creating a web of thought about your ideas, research, and readings. So what I'll do is I'll write 5 to 10 entries a day into my personal slip box, which is a little bit like journaling. So I get up in the morning, write a 15 minute journal entry, and then I'll write 5 to 10 ideas based on a book I read, or some articles that I've come across, or just some observations about things like parenting, which of course is the book that I'm working on. Now a slip box is relatively easy to create, provided you follow a few simple rules, which we'll explore in this week's interview. But basically you just create one single entry in your slip box per idea, and you can do it as an Evernote, or you can do it in Day One, or you can use pen and paper. And there's also some dedicated slip box apps, which this week's interviewee has created.

Bryan: You should also link your notes to each other, so that way you're building the web of thought that I've described, and you should use descriptive headings so that when you're going back through your notes and research, you can see what each entry in your slip box refers to. And of course you can go back and rewrite them as well. And you should categorize your entries so that you have a way of organizing your ideas. Now of course there's a little bit more to it than that, and it took me a while to get my head around the concept, but then I came across a fantastic website about the entire process and it's called zettelkasten.de, so that's Z-E-T-T-E-L-K-A-S-T-E-N dot D-E. I encourage you to visit that site because there are real world examples about how you can create and use the slip box along with some photos and imagery and so on.

Bryan: But I wanted to also speak to an expert on the topic, and I had an opportunity to catch up with Sascha Fast, who runs the website that I've just given you information about. And in this week's interview, he explains what exactly a slip box is and how you can use one for writing. He also gets into how to create your slip box and what you should put in each of your entries. And he talks about why it's ideal for non-fiction writers. And he's actually using the slip box to write 70, that's right 70, books. But don't worry. He also explains why you shouldn't try and write them all at once, so to speak and how you can focus on just one.

Bryan: And he also talks about the tools that you can use to create your slip box. We get into a lot more in this week's interview, but before we start, if you're listening to the show, can you leave a rating on the iTunes store or a short review wherever you're listening to the podcast, because more reviews on more ratings will help more listeners find the Become A Writer Today podcast. Now with that, over to Sascha and my first question, which was to explain what exactly a slip box is and how you can get started creating one.

Sascha: So the basic idea is to improve on general note-taking. And as we all know, note taking is like the transition phase from outside sources to your own knowledge and material, and then later should translate to your own writing. And zettelkasten is basically a tool to organize this process of note-taking, and that means it should improve thinking, writing, and organizing text later on, and in the gist it's more or less a hypertext with multiple caveats to it, but the hypertextual trait is generating the magic of the zettelkasten. It creates the living part of it, rather than being just a dead pile of notes.

Bryan: There's a couple of principles that inform how to create a zettelkasten or a slip box and put entries into it. Would you be able to walk listeners through what those are?

Sascha: Yeah. So based on Luhmann's article, Luhmann wrote an article, it's available online, communication with slip boxes is the translation, freely available.

Bryan: This is the German author who came up with the concept.

Sascha: Yeah. This concept we are using now. The practice of keeping a zettelkasten is hundreds of years old, but he counts as the godfather of [crosstalk 00:06:52]-

Bryan: He wrote dozens of books using this method.

Sascha: Yeah. At least 50, and I think published over 500 articles. Very productive person.

Bryan: Scientific books as well, so the research required for those is quite [crosstalk 00:07:08]-

Sascha: Yeah, he was very famous for a very broad range of reference from antique noble writings from some kings, and private letters, to neuroscience and everything in between. The main principles are first there are basically no categories. So how you put it into practices is up to the software, but we use just a folder of text files and each note or each zettel, a zettel is an individual note in the zettelkasten lingo gets a fixed address that never should change, or you use software that governs the changes, like if you use [inaudible 00:07:47] software, the software normally changes the title if you change the link, I don't recommend it, but it's a possibility. And some people use it like that.

Sascha: And then you create hypertext. So linking is the next principle. And I say from the practical principles, the... There aren't many principles. Everything should be in your own words. So you're front-loading the processing part of your sources. That means not extensive collecting of sources or something like that, but you process on the go and build up your knowledge base organically. I think that's basically the main principles. And other than that, it gets more individual and the zettelkasten's more or less a toolbox of related principles that can be tailored to any person's preferences of work.

Bryan: I think you described why the method appealed to me so much, because in the past I would research something or read an article and I would just save it all into a tool like Evernote, and I would keep all the research in Evernote. But then I found it hard to sift through my own notes versus the research. Whereas now what I'm doing is I just read something and rather than thinking like I need to save it all in a place, I'll just write a a hundred word reaction to what I read, and then I'll just put the link to the source. I'm actually using a journaling app for this, which is Day One, but I know you can use lots of different apps and I know you have an app you recommend, but that for me is the key differentiator between just putting everything into a large bucket, so to speak.

Sascha: Yeah. I think that's a perfect point to expand on, because as far as I read it, most of the attention is put to the system itself, how to place links and various techniques that you can use with varying software solutions. But one of the main parts is the behavior that results from the interaction of the zettelkasten. What you're describing is a behavioral shift. It has nothing to do with zettelkasten itself. You could do it without a zettelkasten and then decide, "Okay, no, I don't collect as much, and I process directly and just put it somewhere." But zettelkasten itself, it nudges you to better behaviors. It nudges you, for example, with the linking aspect. There's one rule for the zettelkasten we apply, there's no note or no zettel without a connection. So there are no orphan notes. And this forces you to connect everything you learn to what you already learned. And that's a behavioural thing. It's not only part of the system, but it changes you as a researcher and writer.

Bryan: That's definitely something I've found helpful. Another principle I find helpful is that one idea per note, or per entry, rather than many ideas.

Sascha: Yeah, that's another rule, I should say, because it tracks down to what you want to create. Because the one thought per note rule gives one note an address, so one thought has an address. So you can link thoughts to each other. On the contrast would be something like Wikipedia. It's a hypertext and you can link to several texts, but not a web of thoughts, but a web pages, a web of excerpts you can do. For example, it's the normal practice, I don't know how widespread is this, but in Germany, a university creating excerpts is one of the main staples, and if you create excerpts and each excerpt has an address, you create a web of excerpts, and that's a different thing from a web of thoughts. But we think in thoughts, obviously. The web of thought is what you want to create. It's not a web of pages, it's not a web of excerpts, or a category system or something like that. Web of thoughts is what you are or what you think, and that should reflect to the note taking.

Bryan: Yeah, I like that. It's a nice metaphor. A web of thoughts. So when I create an entry... I mean, here's what I do, and you can tell me if I'm doing it wrong. I'll read a book about, let's say, managing money for a business or a book about writing advice, and I'll find a quote in the book that I think is particularly interesting, like two or three lines, highlight it, copy it into the zettelkasten, and then I'll write 150 words about the quote and why I think it's important or useful. And then I'll put a link... Or I'll put a citation for the quote so I can find it again at the bottom of the entry.

Bryan: And then at the very top, then I'll put a... I'll sum up the entry with a verb or action statement. Something like "find power in repetition." So that was an entry about strength training that I had. Or another one I have is "focus on asset allocation, not timing." And that was an entry about financial management. And I've one here about writing, which is "tie personal events to real world events." So am I making any mistakes or is there another approach I should follow?

Sascha: No, it's quite the opposite, because the basic problem with just collecting is you're not creating any knowledge. Information is dead. For example, one could put information, like making notes, that we are now recording the podcast. But why is it relevant? Why is this information relevant. For a historian, for example, a historian of the zettelkasten method, it could be relevant because it's an historic event that takes place in this history of the zettelkasten. So an historian would process this exact podcast for his research and say, "Okay, now, for example, we share an idea and this is reflective of what the main ideas of zettelkasten is," And he basically processes as a historian.

Sascha: And what you basically did is the practical implication. So you took a piece of knowledge and connected it via the practical relevancy. So anything you process should have some relevance, and the connection make it more easy to see the relevance. So what you did is taking note and processing a relationship to you. So repeat a piece of information and it's relevant because this is the implication and it can be folded like a rule. Do this, or do that. And if you connect it to another note, you can, for example, say, "Okay, this note is relevant or this zettel is relevant to the other note because of this." For example, you could summarize, or let's say you have a piece of writing advice, for example, tie historical events to personal events.

Sascha: And you can have something similar or another note, but the strangeness of similar patterns, like the web of veins looks similar like the web on leaves or like trees or something, and you can link both to another note and say, "There are general patterns in reality and writing should reflect those general patterns." So this is how the web of thoughts create, in quotation mark, "knowledge," because it puts information into relationships. So knowledge thoughts get to be part of a web of thoughts. This webbing is what makes the newness of information, and then you just collect it in your zettelkasten and then new ideas happen to be in your writing.

Bryan: It's just pretty interesting. So I'm curious, can an entry just have an observation that I have, or should it have some research as well. For example, I'm writing a book about parenting, so I have observations about parenting from daily family life because I've got three kids. So I could put one of those in to the zettelkasten, but I wouldn't have any research to go alongside it. Is that okay?

Sascha: Yeah, everything is okay, but this is basically creating knowledge because you are doing the work of an empirical scientist, like a field study. So collecting data. Just stating the data is often quite useful because later on when you do interpretation to distill theories or something like that, you always want to have the data put in place. I do it in my own work. When I read studies, I make sure that I just describe what is done in the studies in the most unbiased way possible so when I review my empirical data, my zettelkasten, I have an unbiased base, and then I write notes about that. So I don't read the studies anymore, but have the body of knowledge in my zettelkasten, and then I could have rivaling interpretations of that.

Bryan: Yeah, that's actually something I've come across since I've started the method. I was reading a book about how to manage finances for a small business like my business, and the person who wrote the book gave one piece of advice, and then I read another book where the person gave a completely conflicting piece of advice, and I don't think I would have come across that unless I had got into the habit of saving entries in the zettelkasten. One thing I'm struggling with is the actual headings on the entries. Should they start with verbs or is the statements enough, or do you have any tips for how I can get that right?

Sascha: Well, one piece of advice would be observing your own patterns. I have, for example, made it a habit when I'm collecting concepts that I always have the word, and then I always have as, and then how the definition works. For example, I have various definitions of attention. So I have attention as products, attention as psychic energy, and so on and so forth. And that's a specific type of zettel or note in my zettelkasten. I think the best title would be the least exciting title. In the beginning phase of my own journey, I thought of the title like normal text titles, and titles have various functions, to make the text more interesting, to mislead the reader, to make the text surprising, and so on and so forth. And the least surprising title is the best. I think that rule led to improvement in my own title making.

Bryan: Okay. I'll try it out. I was interested that you said the reader, because my understanding is that the end, the slip box is really just for me, but then I will take what's in it and turn it into an article or a book.

Sascha: Ah, yeah, but the question is who's you? Because what you're reading now in your zettelkasten is not you reading yourself, but your past self writing for your future self. And this sounds like a trick model or something, but it's really true because your past self should be very different from your present self and your present self is the future past self to your future self. So imagine you're very, very, very similar to another person. You could communicate in a very seamless way and very few misunderstandings. But the more you project yourself in the future, the more different you get from yourself and the more important it is to treat your future self as a different person with all the possibilities of misunderstanding, of different interpretations and so on and so forth. So basically you're not writing for yourself, but for another person and the more... Or at least in my experience, the more I respect that fact, the better my writing got.

Bryan: Okay. I'll try and remember that. What would you say is the difference between a personal journal and a zettelkasten?

Sascha: There does not need to be a difference, because in my own zettelkasten, I have entries for my personal journal, like reflections on my future plans or how family history worked out for me or something like that. And of course there are links to many other departments in my zettelkasten. For example, for my work I have done extensive research on psychology and change, personal change and behavioral things and something like that. And in my zettelkasten I have links. I have links from, for example, some habit formatting and experience with my grandfather and something like that.

Sascha: And the question is, the difference should be the purpose. A zettelkasten is more like a thinking tool which should formalize more of your thinking and make it useful and something like that. And a journal is nothing you should need to come back. It's nice to read what you thought back in the day, but you don't make your thoughts back in the day really useful. I think this is one of the main distinction. You can use, of course, your journals and have insights or something like that, or put something into perspective, but the purpose of journaling, in my opinion, is not to make what you wrote useful, but just to write and be [crosstalk 00:20:34].

Bryan: That's a good distinction. So it's okay to go back and edit a slip box entry?

Sascha: Yeah, of course. It's part of process.

Bryan: Yeah. Whereas that journal entry, I mean, I rarely would edit a journal entry unless I see a typo that annoys me.

Sascha: It would be akin to 1984 if you changed your own journal entries.

Bryan: So my other question is in terms of like the cadence of entries into the zettelkasten. I can tell you what my process is, and maybe you could just talk about your process for a little bit. So I write usually in the morning time, and I start the day with a short journal entry and then I'll write in about four or five entries into this slip box based on something I've read. So that whole process, the journal entry and the process of putting slip box entries into the zettelkasten, it takes about half an hour, and then I'll move on. So I've been doing this for the past three months, so I have about 700 zettelkasten entries. That's quite a lot, but I did have some other research I brought in. You've been doing this a bit longer, so I'm curious what your process is like.

Sascha: I think one of the best books that's useful for that question is Deep Work by Cal Newport. Because zettelkasten work just means concentrated work, and all the methods, all the aspects Cal Newport mentions in his book are useful for the zettelkasten. In fact, I have a department in my zettelkasten based on this book that is applied to the zettelkasten a bit. I personally have, I think, two ways of putting notes or zettel in my zettelkasten. The one is just background noise I say. For example, if I have a client and I explained something, I always test if the explanation can be part of my zettelkasten, and then it's just copy paste. I copy paste part of the email, and then link it to other zettel and then it's just part of my knowledge base. And everything I do, I always question myself, could this be part of my zettelkasten and be of future use?

Sascha: And the way of creating entries are concentrated sessions. So I have two days a week where I do nothing but do zettelkasten work. So most of the time I have a book that I read and that I put markings on it, and then I go just from front to back and process all the marked parts. And in my case, I always go to the primary source. So if something is in the book and there's the footnote or reference to a study, I always read the study and if the study is referencing this from another source, I search for that until I get to the bottom of the issue, because I don't want to base my work on secondary opinions, but always on the primary ones.

Bryan: Yeah, and that's the real value, I think, for any nonfiction writer. So you must have thousands of entries then.

Sascha: Yeah. I can just look it up, I think next to 10,000 I think. Yeah, 9,204 notes at this moment.

Bryan: And you said, look it up. On your site, you recommend a piece of software. Is that software that you and your team have developed or...

Sascha: Yeah, of course I recommend my own software.

Bryan: That looks good, yeah.

Sascha: It's The Archive. It's focused on plain text. We have different principles and one is... We call it a software agnosticism, because I don't want to be boxed in in a particular kind of software, and because my own software is [inaudible 00:24:09], I should say I tested 20 different softwares, and it was always a pain to export my zettelkasten and then use a different one. Plain text just for many different software. And we have many different software users. Some use Sublime Text and others use our software and so on and so forth. And my recommendation is to tailor the methods in a way that you can use just a text editor, because basically a zettelkasten is a bunch of text, so you just use text editors because that's software to manipulate text in the best way possible. Not so much-

Bryan: And it's fine to also use index cards and pen and paper as well.

Sascha: That's a possibility, and I'm hesitant to recommend it because I find it very romantic to use paper and pen like back in the days. But there are, in my opinion, too much disadvantages. But it depends what you are doing. Let's say you are retired engineer and just want to have fun, then then do what is fun, and it's not so important that you are the most productive. But if you are a professional nonfiction writer, I would opt for the digital version because it's more powerful.

Bryan: You are nonfiction writer as well. You mentioned you're working on a book.

Sascha: Yeah, not only on one book, that's the strange part of the zettelkasten method. You can work on many books at a time, because there's a scene in Men In Black part two, I think where the agent, behind the scenes in the mailing office he works, and there's an alien with like 20 arms or something like that. And the same men are sorting the sorting the letters in categories. Zettelkasten allows for that. So you just put it in, put your input in, and if you follow the method, each note goes in the right direction. So to be honest, I'm writing like 70 books at a time, and the process I concentrate on one, and all the other books get written in side quests or something like that.

Bryan: So at some point you're going through your slip box and taking out all of the entries and putting them into a manuscript.

Sascha: Yeah. Basically like that. Normally I create one note for a book, and it's like an outline, or it's basically an outline. And then if some zettel is or note is relevant for this book, I put it at the right place, and at some point I have enough material and it's basically a finished rough first draft and I only need editing.

Bryan: That's fantastic. I'd see how that would appeal for nonfiction. So Sascha, it was great to talk to you today. Where can people find out more information about you, zettelkasten, or your work, or your software, which is called Archive?

Sascha: The main page is zettelkasten.de, and we have a great community. You can be part on and talk to other like-minded people about the method. That's the main place.

Bryan: For people who don't speak German. That's Z-E-T-T-E-K-A-S-T-E-N dot D-E. But yeah, thank you for talking to me through it.

Sascha: My pleasure [crosstalk 00:27:18].

Bryan: Also for you for your work on your site, because I was a bit confused when I read about it at first, but it really did clarify it for me, because there are examples on your site which I recommend listeners check out. But it was great to talk to you today.

Sascha: Thank you.

Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this podcast episode. If you did, please leave a rating on the iTunes store. And if you want to accomplish more with your writing, please visit becomeawritertoday.com/join, and I'll send you a free email course. Thanks for listening.



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