Don't Ditch Your Old Notes: An Argument for Holding onto Abandoned Ideas
- Don't overhaul or delete old notes containing ideas you no longer agree with.
- Instead, make new notes that challenge old notes, and link them together.
Some of the most common questions I see in the online zettelkasten community have to do with the nature of permanent notes:
- Can permanent notes be deleted?
- Can permanent notes be edited after they've been imported?
- Can permanent notes be changed if new pieces of information come along that contradicts them?
Despite their seeming difference, the questions above are all asking the same thing: How permanent is a permanent note?1
What is a Permanent Note?
To understand the potential permanence of these contested notes, we first need to understand the term and where it comes from.
"Permanent note" is a Sonke Ahrens coinage from his book, How to Take Smart Notes, used to distinguish between the notes that are stored in the zettelkasten—AKA "zettels"2 and "literature notes"3—and those that are considered to be "fleeting," or not stored in the zettelkasten.
Permanent notes are "the main notes in the slip-box."4 After an idea has been captured in either a literature or fleeting note, the note maker decides if the idea warrants being turned into a permanent zettel, based on whether or not the idea adds to others already imported or creates a new thread worth exploring. Once imported, the new note is linked to other notes through a variety of approaches,5 and is left to be sourced whenever the opportunity arises.
Persistent Confusions About Permanent Notes
Confusions regarding the nature of a permanent note are common, however, due in part to the English translation of Ahrens' book, which uses the term "permanent note" inconsistently. In some areas, the term is used to describe both literature notes and the main notes in the slip-box.6 In other areas, the term is used to describe only the main notes.7 Because of this, note makers have had to choose which definition of "permanent note" they use when talking about the zettelkasten method. Consequently, it's not uncommon for two people to use different definitions at the same time, which leads to both circular debates and confusions about the nature of the notes themselves.
Another reason for the confusion comes from the term itself. In English, the word "permanent" suggests not only "everlasting" but also "unchanging" and "immutable." For example, the Statue of Liberty can be both a permanent fixture in New York Harbor (that is, not to be moved), as well as permanently discolored by oxidation (unchanging in its appearance).8 Both of these connotations suggest a rigidity that is then transposed onto the zettelkasten as a whole.
Can Permanent Notes be Changed?
Because permanent notes contain dynamic content—notably, links—permanent notes are, by design, mutable. They and the connections that can be made to them are, in a sense, evergreen. Niklas Luhmann was known for updating the already existing slips in his zettelkasten regularly, "adding references whenever the integration of new cards in other parts of the collection made it necessary."9 The same goes for us.
Every time we return to a zettel, add a new link, and write in the reason for the new connection, the rhizomatic structure extends in new directions. The note and its relevance expands. Both the layout of the note, as well as how the idea contained inside is understood, become altered. This is not, however, the only way in which notes can be changed.
When pulling up older notes, especially those written in haste, making changes to the verbiage is perfectly acceptable. Editing your notes for clarity, updating word choices, and cleaning up grammar makes sense if you want your notes to remain engaging and inspiring.
Overhauling the contents of a note to the degree that the meaning has been fundamentally altered should not be done, however. Changing the meaning of your notes will have the unwanted effect of changing how the note is linked to others, which will fundamentally alter how it and its relatives relate.
Should Old, Outdated Permanent Notes be Deleted?
Luhmann is on record as saying that he never threw out any of his zettels.10 In my opinion, this is a practice we could all benefit from.
Luhmann welcomed his zettelkasten's ability to surprise him, where abandoned or forgotten notes popped up in exciting new contexts. In this way, old notes, when stumbled upon years after their import, might become the driving force behind revelations. Abandoned ideas could be reevaluated. Those that had been left for dead, reanimated. For Luhmann, the zettelkasten revealed its mysteries through his keeping of old notes, which were dynamically linked across his network of ideas.
But, there is more to keeping old notes than serendipity.
To throw out or delete notes simply because they no longer seem relevant now is to create a temporally-bound zettelkasten, a network of ideas based on the whims of your current self. This is short-term thinking, where the zettelkasten is meant to be used for long-term ideation and creation. (Luhmann maintained his zettelkasten for over thirty years). If, every time you have a new idea you change or delete an older note, all you've done is create an homage to your present understanding. You've lost the historical lineage of your thinking, along with the potential for serendipity. In essence, you've erased your past self while severely handicapping the self you have yet to become.
Create New Notes to Challenge Old Ideas
Instead of erasure, we want to create possibility. We want to create the conditions for serendipity and insight to take place. To echo Jakob Greenfeld, we want to create enough surface area for luck to have a place to land.11 We want to create the conditions where opportunities for writing are always at the ready.
If a new piece of information comes along that contradicts the idea contained in an older note, simply create a new note that challenges the older one. Then, link these notes together. In doing so you will have created:
- A map leading through a variety of takes on a single idea
- A record of ideas with which you disagree
- A "paper trail" of your past thinking
My therapist is fond of saying that true intimacy can not develop without conflict, and the same can be said about your notes. Having to navigate ideas we no longer agree with allows us to have a more intimate appreciation of the complexity of these ideas. This directly benefits our writing.
Keeping a record of ideas we currently disagree with gives us an opportunity to refute and build off of conflicting information. This allows us to better distinguish our writing from that of other writers.
Having a record of ideas we once had an affinity for, but no longer agree with, gives us an opportunity to humanize our writing. It shows the reader that our ideas were not downloaded whole and complete from on high (though some may have been!), but are rather the result of our own shifts in understanding. When we humanize ourselves, we make ourselves more relatable. For many writers, this can be hard to do. Be the writer people want to get to know by showing how your thinking has evolved.
What About Adding New, Opposing Ideas to Old Notes?
The same rules apply when deciding whether or not to add new, conflicting information to old notes.
If you come across a new definition that bests the old one, make a new note for this idea. In the vast majority of cases, do not include the challenging idea in the original note. Instead, write a new note, include the new definition, and include your take on why this definition bests the previous one. The reason for doing so is simple: Two different definitions are two unique ideas. Each one has an opportunity to be linked to unique ideas independent of its antithesis, creating divergent and unique trains of thought. This is what you want to happen in your zettelkasten: divergence.
When to Add Conflicting Information to a Single Note
The only times I put two conflicting definitions in the same note are when I want to create a note about the fact that there are two conflicting definitions. Call it a "discrepancy note" (I don't, but you might).
A note about incense being both mentally soothing and potentially carcinogenic, is a note about the predicament of things that can be both beneficial and dangerous. As such, notes linking to this note will probably speak to discrepancies in some way. But, splitting the note into two, will always give us more options.
For example, if you were to split the note into two notes, i.e....
- Incense can have a soothing effect on the mind
- Excessive use of incense over long periods of time may be dangerous to people's health
...then you would end up with the best of both worlds: two ideas that can be linked independently of one another, as well as linked together.
In the zettelkasten, more is often better.
Your zettelkasten extends out in (at least) two directions: a historical record of your thinking, as well as a trigger for the production of future writing. It is not a static representation of your current thinking—a relic of your present self—but rather a record of your captures and ideas over time. It is constantly in flux. It is fluid and flexible. It is, to use Andy Matuschak's term, "evergreen."
And yet, unlike plants, which often require pruning, the zettelkasten thrives on variability. The zettelkasten is a rhizome—networked, tangled, knotty, expansive in ways that seem unpredictable. But, this rooty expansion can not flourish if the zettelkasten is constantly being cut back.
When it comes to notes capturing ideas you no longer agree with, see it as an opportunity to grow your zettelkasten. Create new links containing new ideas. Discuss your deviations. Explore your past thinking. Take a cue from Niklas Luhmann, and "let your thoughts run wild."12 In doing so, you will have created the conditions for a continuous flow of new and exciting ideas that can be converted into writing as often as you are willing to sit down and do the work.
In this essay, I'll be focusing on the terminology and methods ascribed to maintaining a zettelkasten. Although, I would advise similarly for other note-making systems.↩
I use the terms "zettel" and "permanent notes" interchangeably. Both refer to the main notes kept in the slip-box.↩
The term "literature note" is another Ahrens coinage found in How to Take Smart Notes.↩
Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.↩
Linking notes can be established through a variety of means: folgezettel, structure notes, indexes, and links within notes are some of the most common.↩
Ahrens, pp. 23 and 24.↩
Ahrens, pp. 42 and 44.↩
To deal with this these implications, many note makers have abandoned the term altogether, adopting instead Andy Matuschak's term "evergreen notes." For a closer look at the differences between evergreen and permanent notes see https://writing.bobdoto.computer/misconceptions-about-the-relationship-between-permanent-and-evergreen-notes/↩
Schmidt, J. (2018). Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: The Fabrication of Serendipity. https://sociologica.unibo.it/article/view/8350/8270↩
In 1997, a year before Niklas Luhmann's death, he was asked in an interview if he ever threw out old notes. His reply: "No. Never." https://whagen.de/PDFS/11257_LuhmannDieRealitaetderMas_1997.pdf↩