Writing with a Zettelkasten

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.

Ahrens' process:

  1. Make fleeting notes on what you read
  2. Put them in one place (an inbox) and process them
  3. Make literature notes, documenting briefly what you don't want to forget or might use later
  4. Make permanent notes, outlining how the literature notes are relevant or might inform your own thinking and research, creating one note per idea
  5. File your permanent notes and link them to other relevant notes
  6. Develop your ideas based on what you see emerging in the zettelkasten
  7. Turn your notes into a rough draft, translating them into a coherent manuscript
  8. 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.



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.