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A Zettelkasten is a physical slipbox of note cards.

Zettelkästen enabled these researchers to do a couple of new things with text, but we don’t need them today.

Entering text in a non-linear way

I.e. going back and entering text before other text.

This is something any digital notepad app or wordpressor can do, from the MT/ST in the sixties through notepad.exe in the nineties down to almost any textfield, including the numpad based T9 text entry on a dumbphone.

Weirdly enough, I think this was the biggest mindblow and productivity enhancer for these researchers. It’s non-linear editing, baby! You can go back to before an earlier paragraph and just add another paragraph in there! Holy smokes! This is one of the key parts why Zettelkästen made these researchers so productive. That wasn’t possible before without cramped margin notes or tedious rewriting.

And, compared to some specific Zettelkasten systems, like Luhmann’s 1a1 indexing, the humble notepad apps of today can do something even more mindblowing: actually reorder paragraphs, not just insert new stuff before old paragraphs! Now, historically, there were systems that could do that, that did allow more loosey goosey reshuffling of cards. Processes often used by movie screenwriters, for example, who’ll use forty cards on a corkboard to layout their films. But Luhmann’s specific card id system gave each new card a strict position in the linear sort.

Just imagine the power! … that we’ve all had every day since the spread of the microcomputer a couple of generations ago.

I find that this, editing, is great. Careful editing and reordering (and deleting selective exporting) can beat any organization method of just slamming immutable snippets in there in productivity for 90% of what you wanna do. And outline editors are even better.

The second part of their wonder juice was:

Linking seems to me like it was a distant second compared to the life-changing magic of arrow keys but it’s the part of these systems that people are most interested in today, for good reason, because we aren’t always familiar with tools to help us do them, backlinks especially.

They didn’t have good tools back then, either, even with a Zettelkasten. They would have to go find the other card (and if it has an ID other than a plain name, they had to dereference it), and if they wanted to add a backlink, they had to physically grab that old other card and add it to it.

If that level of effort is acceptable you don’t even need a Zettelkasten to add some links. Bullet Journal, for example, is pretty strict about always having a table of contents in front of your paper notebooks and maintaining that.

I used a table of contents for my short-lived Starforged attempt (well, maybe I’ll give Starforged another go one of these days) and it made a world of difference in how accessible (to myself) my paper notes became. Having a table of contents and numbered pages so I could find and reference other pages easily. Jolly good.

But there’s a third thing that we have that they could only dream about:


I love the saying “A short pencil beats a long memory”, but there’s something that beats even a pencil since it can help you if you forget where you wrote it down. That’s right! Good old Ctrl-F! Their crusty old paper boxes can’t grep this.♥︎

First of all, searching can help us do editing and linking more effictively. That’s the key benefit. Searching can also help us find connections that we didn’t even know about. A great index or linking system can make us find specific cards that we have deliberately referenced. Searching can make us find things that we had forgotten about entirely.