How To Work Through And Present What You Now Think


Wednesday, 6.02am

Sheffield, U.K.

The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have known since long. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

In the last few posts ( 1, 2, 3 ) I’ve talked about ways of collecting information, from the stuff you just write every day to quotes and passages that you note down for later reference.

We’re awash in information, however, so at some point you need to figure out how you’re going to make sense of it all.

But, of course, before you do that you should work out why you might want to do that in the first place.

Are you an artist?

The only right answer to that question is yes, you are.

Whatever you do is an art – it’s something that you pay attention to and work at and refine and improve.

Some arts need physical skills and dexterity and practice and some need you to empty your mind and just flow and others need you to use your mind and create.

And it’s the ones that need you to use your mind that we’re most interested in, the ones that involve thinking and concepts and arguments – the Art of Letters, for example.

Really.. just the art of writing.

If you want to explain something – to yourself or to someone else – you’re going to have to do some writing.

It’s unavoidable, it’s the only way to discover what you think – other than talking it through, of course.

But writing is permanent – you can look back on what you think and that frees you up to think around those thoughts and build on them some more.

Reading and taking notes

One name you will come across sooner or later when you look into this space is Niklas Luhmann, and the place to begin is with two translated essays where Luhmann talks about his method called the zettelkasten, or slip box.

First, Luhmann says, you need to read and take notes, “not excerpts, but condensed reformulations of what has been read.”

The next, and longer essay, is Communicating with slip boxes, which describes his particular setup for doing this work.

How Luhmann’s zettelkasten works

You start by taking notes on slips of paper, half a letter size, or A6.

Luhmann tore full size sheets in half for his system, and used normal paper rather than index cards to keep bulk down.

You then take notes on each slip of paper.

Each note is given an id based on its position rather than content or topic.

Luhmann’s system of numbering is interesting – you simply number notes in order 1,2,3 and so on.

If you later write a note that you think should be next to 1, you give it the code 1a, switching from numbers to letters and go 1b, 1c and so on.

If you later write a note that is related to 1b then you can insert it between 1b and 1c giving it a number of 1c1.

This way, you can simply branch and insert and extend your notes indefinitely.

And then you put your notes in your slip box.

This raises a couple of points for me.

One is that the original content is still important, where does this live?

One place could be in your commonplace book, where you copy out the extract itself, or of course you could have a stack of papers somewhere.

Luhmann tells us to keep a separate slip box of for a bibliographic references, so on the notes you take you can note down the source and then either go to the original or look it up in your commonplace book.

Two more things, then.

Because the slips have a number which you can’t just remember you need an index, a list of keywords and entry points so that you can go into your slip box and get the relevant slips later.

And the other thing you can do is have the slips refer to other slips, so while you might use the index to enter the box, the references to other slips will let you move through your boxes finding related information.

These elements – the notes themselves, a way to refer to each note, an index or register, relationships or links and a bibliography of original sources – are what you need to get started with your zettelkasten, your partner in research.

Thinking in systems

Creating a zettelkasten requires effort, and anything that needs effort will wear us out, so we have to make things as easy for ourselves as possible.

One approach that people like is to go digital – all the tedious numbering and referencing and linking can be done much more easily in an app – and so if we use software the mechanics of maintaining such a system become easier.

But the purpose of the slip box is not to accumulate and manage information – it’s to help us think and we know that thinking is done better when we use a pencil, when we can write and draw and dream and there is still nothing better than paper for that kind of work.

The thing with a system like the zettelkasten is that it needs to be fit for purpose.

Do you have to number everything, for example?

Probably not, as long as you number the main branches so you can get into the right section of your slip box to start searching.

I think perhaps it makes sense to take notes first and leave space for numbering later when you’re trying to work out where to file the notes.

Update 25 Sept 2020 I’ve realized after trying to file a set of notes that the numbering system is actually very convenient and lean – but you have to stop relying on memory to remember the numbering approach.

That’s because there are two ways to start working on something.

Either it’s something completely new.

You check your main index of subjects – the list of top level numbers – and if there isn’t one there that fits what you’re about to write you start a new number.

For example, if you’ve got 10 subjects so far and you’re about to start a new note on computing – a new subject – you’re going to start with 11.

If you’ve continuing work on something you’ve already done some work on – then the first thing you do is go and find the most relevant note or notes in your slip box and take a look at them.

Your next note will continue or branch off from one of these – and your numbering is easy from then on.

End of update

The important thing is not about following a system but making the system work for you.

Thinking in programs

A different way of looking at the collection of slips, or your collection of notes in general, is the program you follow when you use it.

So, your notes and slips may tell you how to work with the notes and slips, how you want to navigate through them.

For example, you could write a slip that tells you which slips to go to next, or has a comment on how two other slips relate to each other.

When you put together these simple elements you’ll find that there are interactions, unexpected links and discoveries.

Reading through your notes, you find a thought that links to a collection that sparks an idea which makes its way into a book.

Pirsig and Lila

Luhmann is famous for this method, but if you are interested in this it’s worth also reading a bit of Lila, by Robert Pirsig, where he describes his approach to research and writing.

He used slips of paper because they were better suited to organize information in small chunks, and provide random access.

Information came in so fast that the first thing was to simply collect it, and when things stopped coming in that was the time to process and organize.

And his approach to organizing is simple, you compare two slips and ask what comes first, and eventually the slips self organize into collections and topics and can be labeled as such.

You can see the overlap with Luhmann – who discarded the idea of labeling by topic in favor of a reference system and there are pros and cons to each.

The fixed reference means that things don’t move and you use your index to go where you need to go while the topics mean you can move things around but you could spent all your time reorganizing your notes rather than working on them.

There are two other things Pirsig talks about – one of which is the idea of a PROGRAM, slips that tell you what to do with the other slips.

The program is data, just like everything else.

The other bit that Pirsig mentions brings together this idea of extracts and notes, with the line, “He left the mountains near Bozeman with boxes full of slips and many notebooks full of quotations…”

Working out your flow

I think perhaps there is a progression, where you move from free form to a more fixed position as your ideas start to firm up.

Take notes, keep original material, keep logs of what you do.

Review what you have and summarize them on slips of paper, get out the core ideas, the thing you want to think about.

You might want to move slips around, put them in a loose order, reshuffle, rearrange, rethink, rewrite.

For example, my first book project, which I still have to edit, was structured entirely on slips of paper – which made it quite easy to write.

This project, the one I am working on right now, started the same way but the posts I’m writing have branched off somewhat, as I discover what I want to write about.

The fact is that pre-determined structures rarely work for all the complexity we experience in real life.

Rather than imposing references on every slip at the start, perhaps we should add them when we’re ready to file stuff and make things easy to do because the harder you make it to work with your system the sooner you will give up.

Making sense and making stuff

Now, what I’ve described in this post is a heavy duty system for making sense of things – it’s the kind of approach that will let you create books and papers throughout your life.

It helped me create 70,000 related words with a minimum of angst when I had a first pass at using it.

But you don’t need to wheel this out for every project you do, there are simpler and quicker tools for conversations and business meetings.

Let’s look at some of those next.


Karthik Suresh

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