Sönke Ahrens describes his method for writing an article with a zettelkasten. Writing should not start with a blank sheet of paper, but emerge from the bottom up through conversation with one's notes. Writing does not begin with a blank page.
- Make fleeting notes on what you read
- Put them in one place (an inbox) and process them
- Make literature notes, documenting briefly what you don't want to forget or might use later
- Make permanent notes, outlining how the literature notes are relevant or might inform your own thinking and research, creating one note per idea
- File your permanent notes and link them to other relevant notes
- Develop your ideas based on what you see emerging in the zettelkasten
- Turn your notes into a rough draft, translating them into a coherent manuscript
- Edit your manuscript
The translation phase is critical; an essay that is assembled from modular notes—no matter how well-written—will probably sound like it has been pieced together from fragments. It will lack unity of form and content. It's not as simple as just pasting together a series of zettels or fragment notes and adding transitions. Flaherty points to the example of some of Emerson's essays, which were put together in just this fashion: the voice is flat and the arguments suffer for the lack of unity.
- Narrative sequencing informs meaning - The sequence in which the zettelkasten forms ideas may not make for a good reading experience
- Good research starts with a good question - Look to the zettelkasten first to see how it might inform your answer and guide your subsequent research
Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Sönke Ahrens, 2017.
Flaherty, Francis. The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing. Reprint edition. Harper Perennial, 2010.