Writing by Bob Doto

How to Use Folgezettel in Your Zettelkasten: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started

This article is intended to provide a comprehensive overview of the how-to's, as well as some of the the why-so's of folgezettel. For a look at how folgezettel fits into the broader zettelkasten discussion see https://writing.bobdoto.computer/zettelkasten/.

Importing your first note

Start by making a note and giving it the numeric ID 1.1. Since my fiancé and I have recently found ourselves having to distinguish between "true" apple trees and their invasive doppelgängers, let's start there:

This will be the first entry into our hypothetical, alphanumerically-assigned zettelkasten.1

Start anywhere, with any idea

Notice that the above note does not contain a "top-level" idea. It is not a note about apples in general. It is not "Apples are fruits." Rather, note 1.1 "Not all apples are considered edible" is a fairly specific statement. It was the first note imported into our shared zettelkasten, because it was the first idea that came to mind.

This is how a bottom-up note-making system is born. The note maker starts anywhere with any idea, working with what comes up as it does.

Branching

With folgezettel, as new ideas are imported into your zettelkasten, they will get situated alphanumerically among notes to which they most explicitly speak. A note that further develops an idea or takes an idea into a new area of thought should branch off that idea:

Note 1.1a branches off note 1.1 because, in my mind, "Crab apples are often mistaken for cider apples" is a continuation of "Not all apples are considered edible" due to the fact that crab apples are an oft-contested, non-edible fruit. Note 1.1a further develops the idea captured in 1.1, expands on it, and ultimately takes it to a new, deeper place.

Adding new notes that don't necessarily speak to ones previously captured

The beauty of a Luhmann-style zettelkasten is that it develops around your ideas as they come to you. In cases where a new idea comes to light that speaks to the general theme being explored, but does not directly speak to a previously captured idea, give the new note the next consecutive numeric ID (see notes 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4 below):

IMPORTANT: Whether or not the idea captured in a note has anything to do with one that precedes it is entirely subjective. Any of the ideas contained in notes 1.2 through 1.4 could have been interpreted in light of either notes 1.1 or 1.1a. If these were your notes, and you found this to be the case, you would ID the notes accordingly, and slot them in the appropriate thread. More on how to do that below.

New ideas that have nothing to do with previously captured ideas

So far, we've been looking at how similarly-themed ideas get situated within the alphanumeric folgezettel system. But, what about ideas that have nothing to do with previously captured ones? Where do they go?

Every digit in the alphanumeric can be thought of as the start of a new thread or theme, and the first digit is no different. At first, you may not know what that theme is. But, over time, as you add more ideas, it will become clear. All the notes above (and those that will follow below) start with the number 1 because they have something to do with apples or, possibly, fruit in general. If after importing a number of notes on apples I were to import a note on skateboarding, I would then start a new thread with the number 2:

If, however, my note on skateboarding spoke to one of the ideas I had previously captured on apples, then I would situate it within the context in which it was captured. See note 1.4a below:

In a Luhmann-style zettelkasten, connections are made at the level of the idea, not at the level of category or theme. (Keep this in mind when we get to "section headings" below).

Where and how to slot new notes in a growing zettelkasten

Every idea captured in your zettelkasten is a potential new thread or start of a new train of thought. Take a close look at the note titles below and see if you can discern why each was ID'd in the way it was:

As you can see, a number of different threads have developed, each focusing on a unique aspect of apples or skateboarding. Any idea that further developed a previous idea was given the appropriate alphanumeric ID. In this way, a note that started as a branch of a previous note can itself become the genesis of a new train of thought. The section developing around Macintosh apples (notes 1.2a, 1.2a1, and 1.2a2) is an example.

Should I have put that note somewhere else?

As threads develop in your zettelkasten and ideas begin to co-mingle in ways you hadn't predicted, you may be inclined to move notes around, feeling as if an older note might be better situated within a newly developed thread. In regards to the zettelkasten we've been developing, you might be wondering why note 1.1a on crab apples was not moved to the section of notes beginning with note 1.2 on apple varietals. After all, crab apples constitute a specific category of apple types.

The reason 1.1a remains where it is is because of the specific idea contained inside that note. The idea captured in note 1.1a was not developed in light of apple varietals, but rather in response to edibility. So, it was, and remains, situated in that context.

Folgezettel does not freeze ideas in time and space

Despite ascribing notes with specific alphanumeric IDs, folgezettel does not prescribe a fixed referent for captured ideas. The ideas found in your notes are not "stuck" in time and space just because they have been assigned an alphanumeric ID.

Since your notes will be relatively concise, dealing with one idea, (AKA "atomic notes"), your notes can be utilized in a variety of different contexts. Folgezettel does not restrict this. The fact that note 1.1a was developed in light of edibility does not mean it can't speak to or inform other ideas captured at different times in your zettelkasten.

This is where linking comes into play.

Linking allows ideas to jump around. It's one of the primary mechanisms by which a bottom-up system maintains cohesion.2 It's through links (as well as structure notes) that we're able to establish connections between ideas that have additional relationships beyond the ones defined when they were first imported.

What if an alphanumeric spot is already taken?

One of the most common concerns people have about folgezettel is what to do when an alphanumeric slot is "occupied" by a previously imported note. For example, what happens when you want to add a new note between notes 1.1 and 1.1a? Should 1.1a be given a new alphanumeric ID? The answer is simple: No. The alphanumeric ID shows that there is a relationship between notes, but not the semantic quality, cohesion, or structural organization—aka "the meaning"—of that relationship. In other words...

Folgezettel is not an outline3

One thing you may have noticed regarding our demo zettelkasten is that the ideas are not organized according to any semantic logic. Branches are not hierarchical. Note 1.1a on crab apples is not necessarily the most logical idea to follow note 1.1. In short, the ideas are not organized as they might be in an essay.

Essays and articles are typically built around logical, linear, semantically cohesive ideas.4 These ideas are organized so as to yield airtight arguments. Your zettelkasten, however, should be the opposite. It's meant to be unruly enough so "wild," novel ideas have a chance to break through conventional ways of thinking about a subject. It should feel a bit loose. Importing notes into your zettelkasten should not feel like you're outlining an essay or book.

More often then not, your first note on a subject will not contain a top-level concept or some sort of umbrella statement. It will be an idea that is niche and specific. Were you writing an essay, this note would show up in a different place than it appears in your zettelkasten, most likely after the broader concepts have been outlined. Such is the nature of bottom-up systems. There are no "occupied slots," because there is no prescribed order. Therefor, there is no need to worry about the order in which notes were imported.

Adding section headings

Contrary to what some have taught, there is no need to start your zettelkasten with predefined, top-level categories.5 Rather, let these markers develop organically, over time, in direct response to how your ideas have been forming.

If after developing a number of threads you decide that it would be helpful to give a label to that section so you it can be more easily located, you could then create a "section title" note.6 In the examples we've been developing above, section 1 might be labeled "APPLES" or, if the section began to include notes about fruits in general, "POMOLOGY." Section 2: "SPORTS and SUBCULTURE." Again, this is done after the fact:

You may also use the front section to store structure notes used to further develop the ideas and connections you've been making (see notes 1A, 1B, and 1C, as well as 2A and 2B below). These would be followed by the main notes of the section:

Section headings are not categories

It's important to remember that any label you apply to a section must not be considered a category. Section labels are place markers and are only used to help locate areas of your zettelkasten you'd like to come back to. These labels should not be used to help you decide where a new idea should land. Doing so leads to confusion as it diverts the note maker's attention away from the level of ideas and redirects it upward toward classification, which is a killer of all things bottom-up and emergent. Instead, connect notes at the level of the idea, not the level of the category.

Reconstructing arguments using folgezettel

"[I]f we systematically number the papers, we can easily find the original textual whole." Niklas Luhmann, Communicating with Slip Boxes

As we trace our thoughts back through the web of ideas stored in our zettelkasten, we encounter seemingly tangential ideas that we may either choose to engage with or skip over. In this way, the alphanumeric functions less as a way to organize ideas up front, and more as a rhizomatic map allowing us to follow ideas back through others we may not have considered prior to our search. We can see how this might be possible in the section below:

The above notes, as few as there are, present the writer with at least three different directions to take their writing on apple varietals. If the note maker wanted to write a concise post on apple varietals without spending a lot of time on each one, they could simply pull their notes on the apples themselves (notes 1.2, 1.2a, 1.2b, and 1.2c) and leave out notes 1.2a1 and 1.2a2. Not a very exciting post, but a post nonetheless.

If, however, the writer wanted to focus specifically on Macintosh apples and only briefly refer to other apple varieties, they would focus on notes 1.2a, 1.2a1, and 1.2a2, and only mention in passing the others.

A third and more interesting option would be to focus on the difference between "discovery" and "cultivation." By focusing and expanding on notes 1.2a2, 1.2b, and 1.2c a writer could develop a piece concerning both the economics and semiotics of apples. Call the piece "The Apple Industrial Complex," and watch the Likes and shares come flying in.

Three different pieces, each born from the same six notes.

Why use folgezettel

Folgezettel is not a requirement when it comes to building a Luhmann-style zettelkasten. It's a choice. Many highly functional digital slip-boxes exist that do not make use of an alphanumeric system.

Nevertheless, there are important benefits that come with using an alphanumeric ID for your notes, benefits that go far beyond the mechanics and technicalities of the practice that make it particularly rewarding.7

Folgezettel acts as a forcing function

Using an alphanumeric identification system for your notes is a workout. By having to situate new notes among previously imported ones, folgezettel forces at least one connection between ideas. It's mental calisthenics,8 acting as a check against capture bloat—that is, importing "all the things."

Folgezettel provides a bird's eye view of how your ideas are developing

Folgezettel allows the note maker to see top-level connections between all their notes without having to pull out a single one. Scanning the stack of notes above, it's easy to see where ideas are developing and how relationships are forming.

Folgezettel also provides a clue as to how many threads have been developing around a single subject. Using the alphanumeric convention above, the number which follows the period gives the note maker a quick calculation of the number of threads developing within a section. If, for example, my last note in a section was 7.16a1b2, it's clear that there are, at minimum, sixteen developing threads (not including the many sub-threads and links connecting ideas across threads). If threads equate to potential articles, books, chapters, posts, etc., the note maker knows, just by looking at the alphanumeric ID, that they have over a dozen angles that they could take on a single subject.9

Folgezettel helps show you what to write about next

In his book, How to Take Smart Notes, Ahrens discusses how visible "clusters" of notes might guide writers toward what work should be written next.10 Just by scanning the alphanumeric IDs below (even without titles), we can see that section 8c has developed more than those in the immediate vicinity:

A long alphanumeric ID is an immediate indicator that a train of thought has been developing. In the example above, I can see that note 13.8d, which is immediately followed by note 13.8e, has not itself been expanded on. However, note 13.8c1, which can be traced all the way out to note 13.8c1c1b3, has been developed quite a bit. It's in this way that long alphanumeric IDs function as cues for what might be worth writing about.

Should you use folgezettel?

In my 4-week course, Building a Zettelkasten for Creative Expression, (which starts 2/28/23, so get on it!), I teach many of the fundamental concepts, methods, and conversations involved in building and maintaining a personal, Luhmann-style zettelkasten. Recent zettelkasten history, the various kinds of notes, how to link with context, how single ideas become complex thinking, how information transforms into knowledge, common points of disagreement in the community, all of this is brought into the discourse. And yet, I only briefly touch on the subject of folgezettel.

Folgezettel is a simple, yet profound approach to working with a zettelkasten. But, it is not a necessity. While folgezettel is particularly good at giving the note maker a bird's eye view of what's developing in their stack of notes, positive forcing functions, and recommendations on what to write about next, neither of these benefits are necessary to develop and maintain a highly functional, Luhmann-style zettelkasten.11 Folgezettel, like every other method proposed by every other online zettel zealot, is useful only to the degree that you find it to be so.

Is folgezettel right for you? It may be if....

For all these reasons, I have found using an alphanumeric ID not only useful, beneficial, and rich in value, but also transformative. It has fundamentally altered, for the better, the way I see and make connections between ideas.


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  1. Niklas Luhmann suggests giving your first note the number 1. However, I have found that convention to be awkward and less revealing of what's going on inside the zettelkasten. Whatever system you choose just remember that not all digital platforms support all symbols in file names. While in the article I use 1.1 in my own zettelkasten, I use 1_1.

  2. Not living during the era of hyperlinks, Niklas Luhmann called links "references."

  3. For a more in-depth look at the non-outline nature of folgezettel, see "Folgezettel is Not an Outline: Luhmann's Playful Appreciation of (Dys)function"

  4. I say "typically" because not all essays need ascribe to such mainstream conventions. Experimental writers over the past hundred+ years have done us all a solid by showing just how far out essay writing can be taken. See the "language writers/poets" for examples.

  5. The idea that in his second zettelkasten Niklas Luhmann utilized predefined, top-level categories to organize his thinking is flimsy at best. In addition, many note makers will claim that their brain works in such a way as to require top-level categories. The fact is, all of our brains crave organization of this kind. It's one of the primary methods by which we make sense of the world. It also happens to be a crutch. A Luhmann-style zettelkasten pulls the rug out from under this overprescribed approach to meaning-making. So, while at first it may feel awkward to abandon predefined, top-level categories, just keep at it. It will feel less so over time.

  6. With digital platforms, doing so should allow the note to organize itself toward the front of the section.

  7. See https://writing.bobdoto.computer/folgezettel-is-more-than-mechanism/ for a more in-depth look at the limits of seeing alphanumeric IDs solely in a mechanistic light.

  8. Of course, there is always the option of putting any notes that don't contain relevant ideas at the end of the alphanumeric list. But, these so-called "orphans" would be very apparent.

  9. Again, this doesn't include the many threads that could be built of links alone.

  10. Ahrens, S. (2017) How to Take Smart Notes. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.

  11. Nor are they necessarily exclusive to folgezettel. Other techniques, particularly the use of structure notes and indexes can, if leveraged with such an intent, offer similar benefits.

#essays #zettelkasten #2023