If you’re having trouble writing a book — or writing anything — I have one weird word for you:
No, it’s not a curse by a Teutonic troll. It’s an approach to note-taking and knowledge cultivation that the late sociologist Niklas Luhmann used to write more than 70 books and almost 400 scholarly articles.
Seventy books. What is this sorcery?
The Zettelkasten method (hereby just “Zettelkasten”) has many adherents and almost as many variations. Here’s the way I sum it up:
- Read — constantly, voraciously and catholically;
- As you read, translate each important nugget you read — “important” being the stuff that pushes forward one of your own lines of thought, or contradicts it, or spawns a new thought altogether — into an individual note written in your own words (not quoted verbatim);
- Connect these notes (typically through hyperlinks these days, although Luhmann used a numbered system and a file cabinet);
- Conduct daily reviews of connected note strings and look for connections and ideas you can use as the basis for your writing;
- Write, at a volume and creativity of which you couldn’t have imagined yourself capable.
Zettelkasten sounds banal written out that way. So why has it achieved cult status? Why did Luhmann call it his “second brain”? What makes it so effective?
Everyone who uses Zettelkasten goes on about the power of linking your notes — how chaining together conceptually related notes catalyzes connections and ideas on a regular and seemingly magical basis. And it’s true. The more time you spend with your notes (ideally, at least daily), the more connections unfurl.
But few Zettelkasten adherents talk about the first step of Zettelkasten: how it changes the way you read. Good Zettelkasten demands aggressive and deeply engaged reading — reading in dialogue with not just the author and the text, but with your own projects and potential projects. You’re translating what you’re learning into material you might immediately use in your writing. You are writing and thinking all the time. The notes drive more writing, with sharper and more creative analyses.
Why am I telling you this? Zettelkasten is very popular among researchers for research projects. But doing Zettelkasten for my reading on Zettelkasten led me to realize: Every researcher I’ve ever worked with who does significant public engagement has some form of Zettelkasten for that engagement. They all do some form of note taking — often public — that captures the productive friction between the world, their research, the literature and their evolving ideas.
Your public Zettelkasten could be in your Twitter threads. Your blog. Your weekly emails, weekly videos, podcast or Clubhouse room. Most likely, it’s in a combination of these.
Whatever it is: It is a fire that you never allow to go out. It is the essential habit that precedes media training, presentation training, op-ed training, social training — and without which those trainings are only marginally effective.
Public engagement requires reading the world as an endless text, one you are always in dialogue with as an expert, creating notes that turn into useful analysis. Zettelkasten is the mindset of that expert.