Everything I needed was already in my notes!

After several months’ detour, converting my existing notes to a Zettelkasten(ish) format using the Obsidian app, and lots of deep reading to add yet more notes to my ‘vault’, I’ve finally got back to, you know, actually writing words for the book I’m supposed to be writing.

Rather appropriately, the topic of my current chapter is the twenty-or-so years Darwin took between coming up with the idea of natural selection and actually telling the world about it. I used to think that was a long time, but the rate I’ve been going with this book of mine lately, it now sounds positively speedy.

I had a really good day’s solid writing today. One of my best day’s writing ever, in fact. I’m still buzzing. I’d done my research, I had a detailed chapter outline with links to appropriate research notes, I had a big mug of Yorkshire Tea, I was raring to go, and suddenly the tremendous faff of converting all my notes started to pay off: I was writing about complex, interrelated ideas, and the words just flew from my keyboard.

But the best bit of all came when I hit a bump in the road. About a third of the way into my outline, I suddenly realised there was a gap in my preparatory work. My outline said I should include a paragraph or two about Darwin’s need to explain the evolution of social insects. But when I consulted my note on that topic, it was very basic. So, not wanting to disturb my flow, I skipped that section, deciding to return to it once I felt my energy flagging, when I would spend an hour or two reading up on the subject. But, when I got to that point, the necessary research took me less than 10 minutes… Everything I needed was already in my notes! All I needed to do was link a few of these existing notes together.

This is exactly how Zettelkasten(ish) systems like mine are supposed to work: you fill your filing system with lots and lots of short notes, linking as you go, then, when you finally decide to write in detail on a chosen topic, most of the work is already done for you.

I’ve known it from the start, but this new way of making notes is perfect for the way I tend to work. It’s what I’ve been looking for all these years. I just wish I’d started using it twenty years ago… Who knows how many notes I’d have by now, and how much more stuff I’d have written?

By Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Website · Facebook · Twitter · Newsletter · Book

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