Writing by Bob Doto

How to Handle Facts in Your Zettelkasten

Whether you're involved in a technical field, doing academic research, or just trying to keep track of what others have said about a topic, there are a variety of reasons why you may want (or need) to capture facts, definitions, and/or technical data in your zettelkasten. The trick is making those factoids usable and high-value.1

Restate facts in your own words

The reason we question whether facts should coexist with personal thoughts is because they appear less valuable. When directly copied from a source, these statements are essentially quotes. They're someone else's ideas. Accumulating a large number of uncontextualized facts leads to a network of other people's concepts, which may impress others but not necessarily improve your writing. Therefore, to enhance the value of captured facts, it's best to rephrase them in your own words.2

Restating facts is a form of paraphrasing, And, in that there is some value. Paraphrasing can help writers distill complex ideas into terminology that's specific to themselves, converting the information into something more personal.

In addition, paraphrasing gives the writer material that can actually be used. So long as you cite the source of the information, writing someone else's idea in your own words avoids plagiarism.

Say something about the fact

As you record facts in your zettelkasten, consider creating new notes so you can speak about the fact itself. By providing additional commentary, you can better integrate the information into your broader understanding of the topic, enhancing both your comprehension and your ability to write about the topic effectively.

Commenting can take many forms in your notes.3 The most obvious (and regarded) are comments that specifically relate different ideas to one another. But, other kinds of comments may prove valuable, as well. Comments about how a fact shows up in your daily life, how a fact is regarded in public discourse, how a fact is disputed, all make for valuable content. The important thing is to bring the fact into contact with your own thinking. It's what you have to say about facts that matters most.

It may be obvious, but facts can and should be connected to any other related ideas in your zettelkasten. In other words, facts need not be linked solely to other facts. Facts are not a special category of note, and there's rarely a reason to signify or otherwise stamp a note containing a fact to isolate it from others. Feel free to connect facts to any other type of content in your system. This will make for a more interconnected and meaningful network of information.

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  1. Facts are fluid. What is undeniably true today will most likely not be so in the future. In this piece, I am using the term "fact" solely for convenience.

  2. Let me be clear. I'm not a fan of the phrase "in your own words." The phrase suggests parroting and shifty word changes that feign original thinking, the kind of oft-plagiarized writing found in first-year college rhetoric courses. Unfortunately, its use is almost ubiquitous in online zettelkasten discussions. Nevertheless, when it comes to handling facts, "in your own words" is the right phrase for the situation (much to my chagrin).

  3. I am intentionally using the term "commenting" to de-inflate the conventional, oft-hyperbolic language used to talk about ideas and knowledge. In knowledge work, we're all just commenting on other people's comments.

#essays #zettelkasten #2023