Quotes are Not Notes: Creating a Zettelkasten of Ideas
One of the most common missed steps in a note maker's zettelkasten workflow is the "put it into your own words" step. To understand why this phase is so important, let's look at the process as a whole.
A basic zettelkasten workflow based on Niklas Luhmann's practices for capturing ideas coming from source material (books, articles, podcasts, etc.) looks like this:
- Read / Watch / Listen to content.
- Take brief reference notes on this content as you're experiencing it, making sure to cite page numbers / timestamps / etc.
- At some later time (relatively soon), go through these references and see if there's anything you have further thoughts on.
- Consider whether these thoughts relate to other thoughts you've recorded in your zettelkasten.
- When possible, create new notes based on your own interpretation of the captured ideas, in your own words, in conversation with the other notes already stored in your zettelkasten.
- Note the connection by linking this note to its preceding note, further establishing a train of thought.
- Add additional links to other notes to create other idea threads. Add context for why you have made these connections.
It's very common for new zettelers to skip steps 4 and 5. They read something they agree with, cut and paste the passage of interest into a new note, give the note some metadata, tag it, drop some links in, and call it a day. While this is probably more than most other people do, it still misses one of the most important steps in the process: interpretation.
Luhmann did not capture information and drop it into his zk. When creating a zettel, he considered the notes he already had and, as often as he could, wrote his new idea in reference / context / response to another note. This is how his zettelkasten built up arguments to be used later. It's also how a zettelkasten provides writers with endless content to build off of when they go to write.
In short, in order to go from capture to creation in a zettelkasten you need to interpret what you're taking in, in your own words, in relation to other notes you've already created. Quotes are not notes. Notes are what you have to say about the quotes.
For lil encouragement on what not to do, CLICK ⤵️: