(Originally posted on twitter)

I owed dSebastien a thread on how I handle my notes. Unfortunately, it’ll have to be ‘how I handled my notes back when I was organized’ as I’m between systems and in a mess atm, but maybe this will help me pull it back together.

While I was trying to figure out how to diagram it, this popped up on my feed:

Love his graphic! The process is not what I do but it captured one key feature that all my attempts failed until I accepted: Drop the ephemeral notes on the floor, do not keep.

Total Capture focused ephemera are a drag, are not in think or seek order, and are worth the productivity boost to literally physically destroy.

But like I said, I don’t do that diagram. It captures less than half the flow. Because, and here I’ll go back to anything from ‘How to Take Smart Notes’ (not awesome, but lets roll with it) to Eco’s book on thesis writing. The point, is output, and let me be really emphatic:

Your Zettelkasten is not an Output ««

That interlinked mesh of notes and ideas is fantastic for teasing pieces out of. But when you make an output from it, that requires choosing a route and adhering a narrative; it requires making literary choices dependent upon medium and audience.

I tried to express this when it came up in another thread, and didn’t do very well, but I like the terminology I hit upon.

Everything has to go through drafts, by which I mean a sequence of messiness, some interior representations of which may be worth keeping as their own thing if they represent phases after coherency but prior to tuning for an output format.

Even a pull quote, requires a drafted frame for contextualizing it. But it’s much worse when you’re talking about calculations - the same one typically has to be expressed repeatedly from different angles before even being sure it worked, let alone that it looks readable.

During which side questions arise that go off and become their own thing with their own chaos levels… anyway. There’s a pipeline of chaos coming in and there’s a pipeline of presentation going out, with a concept mesh in the middle and no clear boundaries between these.

One thing remains clear though: Directions of linkage, leading from the literature and calculation drafts to the outputs. Even the outputs that come, perceptually, off the side such as literature reviews.

It was a huge shock to me last year to learn that people give related, or even the same, talks more than once. That people regularly reuse their own material. And thus that having material prepared in advance, on any subject of extensive interest, was a vital part of the game.

The idea that our professional selves, what we bring to the game, includes our personal notes and slide decks was perspective changing for me. Every little polished output, prior to the need for output, is an ability to jump faster and more elegantly on opportunity.

It’s not just what we understand (the center of the Zettelkasten). It’s what we can accurately cite (the literature links and notes) and what we can effectively explain (the prepared outputs). An output oriented tier structure gives that, while leaving room for creative chaos.


There is also a tree-format version of this thread and the comments on it generated by Colin Wright which you can find here.