Evergreen notes

Evergreen notes are written and organized to evolve, contribute, and accumulate over time, across projects. This is an unusual way to think about writing notes: Most people take only transient notes. That’s because these practices aren’t about writing notes; they’re about effectively developing insight: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”. When done well, these notes can be quite valuable: Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work.

It’s hard to write notes that are worth developing over time. These principles help:

This concept is of course enormously indebted to the notion of a Zettelkasten. See Similarities and differences between evergreen note-writing and Zettelkasten.

Implementing an evergreen note practice

See:


References

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

Many students and academic writers think like the early ship owners when it comes to note-taking. They handle their ideas and findings in the way it makes immediate sense: If they read an interesting sentence, they underline it. If they have a comment to make, they write it into the margins. If they have an idea, they write it into their notebook, and if an article seems important enough, they make the effort and write an excerpt. Working like this will leave you with a lot of different notes in many different places. Writing, then, means to rely heavily on your brain to remember where and when these notes were written down.

Luhmann, N. (1992). Communicating with Slip Boxes. In A. Kieserling (Ed.), & M. Kuehn (Trans.), Universität als Milieu: Kleine Schriften (pp. 53–61). Retrieved from http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes

Last updated 2023-07-13.

Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented

It’s best to factor Evergreen notes by concept (rather than by author, book, event, project, topic, etc). This way, you discover connections across books and domains as you update and link to the note over time (Evergreen notes should be densely linked).

The most straightforward way to take notes is to start a new note for each book, each project, or each research topic. Because each note covers many concepts, it can be hard to find what you’ve written when a concept comes up again later: you have to remember the name of each book or project which dealt with the topic (by contrast: Evergreen notes should be atomic).

When you read another book which discusses the same concept, you’ll write a new note on that book. With this approach, there’s no accumulation (contra Knowledge work should accrete). Your new thoughts on the concept don’t combine with the old ones to form a stronger whole: you just have a scattered set of notes on the concept, perhaps referring to it by different names, each embedded in some larger document.

It’s not just about accumulation. There’s also no pressure to synthesize your new ideas on the concept with your prior thoughts about it. Is there tension between them? Is some powerful distillation only visible when all these ideas are considered simultaneously? Understanding requires effortful engagement

If we read two books about exactly the same topic, we might easily link our notes about those two together. But novel connections tend to appear where they’re not quite so expected. When arranging notes by concept, you may make surprising links between ideas that came up in very different books. You might never have noticed that those books were related before—and indeed, they might not have been, except for this one point.

Organizing by concept makes note-taking a little harder, but in a useful way: when writing new notes, we have to find where they fit into the whole. So we explore some part of our prior web of notes, which may lead us somewhere unexpected.

Over time, we accumulate notes which we can combine in increasingly complex ways (Evergreen note titles are like APIs) to produce novel insights (Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate).


References

Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Zettelkasten • Zettelkasten Method

When you’ve taken two texts apart already, a Zettelkasten will help you draw connections between them, see their similarities and oppositions. Thereby, you’ll be able to distill a bunch of texts and find out something new for yourself with time.

you’ll generate new ideas by following connections and exploring a part of your web of notes. The non-apparent connections are generally more beneficial to creative thinking than the obvious ones as they generate greater surprise.

when you analyze a text, you decompose its web-like whole into pieces and keep track of their relations to one another.

Luhmann, N. (1992). Communicating with Slip Boxes. In A. Kieserling (Ed.), & M. Kuehn (Trans.), Universität als Milieu: Kleine Schriften (pp. 53–61). Retrieved from http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes

We could try to generalize the experiences of Paris, Florence, New York under general concepts like “art” or “exhibitions,” or “crowding” (inter-actionistic), or “mass,” or “freedom” or “education,” in order to see how the slip box reacts. Usually it is more fruitful to look for formulations of problems that relate heterogeneous things with each other.

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

In the old system, the question is: Under which topic do I store this note? In the new system, the question is: In which context will I want to stumble upon it again?

Fleeting literature notes can make sense if you need an extra step to understand or grasp an idea, but they will not help you in the later stages of the writing process, as no underlined sentence will ever present itself when you need it in the development of an argument.

Many students and academic writers think like the early ship owners when it comes to note-taking. They handle their ideas and findings in the way it makes immediate sense: If they read an interesting sentence, they underline it. If they have a comment to make, they write it into the margins. If they have an idea, they write it into their notebook, and if an article seems important enough, they make the effort and write an excerpt. Working like this will leave you with a lot of different notes in many different places. Writing, then, means to rely heavily on your brain to remember where and when these notes were written down. A text must then be conceptualised independently from these notes, which explains why so many resort to brainstorming to arrange the resources afterwards according to this preconceived idea.

Last updated 2023-07-13.

Literature notes are secondary and separate

Because Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented reference-specific notes should be both brief and clearly separated from the note archive. They primarily exist to help you write durable notes.

Literature notes are typically a lightweight synthesis of observations collected while reading (see How to collect observations while reading). We can keep a quick summary of the work and those observations around for later literature lookup, but the bulk of the value will already have been absorbed into our lasting notes (see How to process reading annotations into evergreen notes). The reference-specific notes are mostly useful for their links into those lasting notes (Are literature notes necessary if we have automatic universal backlinks?).

There’s an important philosophical reason why we should keep these literature notes separate from our durable notes. The archive of lasting notes is the place where you Do your own thinking: you’ve interpreted others’ ideas into your own structure of knowledge. Direct quotes are fairly rare; durable notes are intentionally expressed in your own words. By contrast, literature notes are often mostly the author’s thoughts. They tend to lean on direct quotes, and even when our interpretation is offered, it’s in the context of the author’s ontology and claim system. It’s hard to hear yourself think, so we should clearly separate the space where we do our own thinking from these more direct representations of others’ thoughts.


References

Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers, 2017.

You need to take some form of literature note that captures your understanding of the text, so you have something in front of your eyes while you are making the slip-box note. But don’t turn it into a project in itself. Literature notes are short and meant to help with writing slip-box notes. Everything else either helps to get to this point or is a distraction.

Fleeting literature notes can make sense if you need an extra step to understand or grasp an idea, but they will not help you in the later stages of the writing process, as no underlined sentence will ever present itself when you need it in the development of an argument.

Luhmann, N. (1992). Communicating with Slip Boxes. In A. Kieserling (Ed.), & M. Kuehn (Trans.), Universität als Milieu: Kleine Schriften (pp. 53–61). Retrieved from http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes

I always have a slip of paper at hand, on which I note down the ideas of certain pages. On the backside I write down the bibliographic details. After finishing the book I go through my notes and think how these notes might be relevant for already written notes in the slip-box. It means that I always read with an eye towards possible connections in the slip-box.

Last updated 2023-07-13.

How to collect observations while reading

It’s important to Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply, but it’s distracting to switch back and forth between reading and writing polished notes. Instead, collect insights in a lightweight way while you read. You can put them in A writing inbox for transient and incomplete notes. That'll Close open loops, and you’ll process them later (see How to process reading annotations into evergreen notes).

Annotations—even inline marginalia which include your own writing—have very little informational value. They’re atomized; they don’t relate to each other; they don’t add up to anything; they’re ultra-compressed; they’re largely unedited. That’s fine: think of them as just a reminder. They say “hey, look at this passage,” with a few words of context to jog your memory about what the passage was about.

Since you’re going to write lasting notes anyway, annotations need carry just enough information to recreate your mental context in that moment of reading. You wouldn’t want to rely on that long-term, since then you’d just have a huge pile of hooks you’d have to “follow” anytime you wanted to think about your experience with that book.

When processing these observations, you’ll want to be able to see the big picture and see clusters of ideas, so it’s helpful to collect annotations in a manipulable fashion.

Concretely, the approach I’m trying:

  • Physical books:
  • Web articles:
    • Copy+paste interesting excerpts into a single working note in my writing Inbox.
    • Or perhaps use the Bear excerpter, in combination with the marker tool.
  • Digital books and PDFs:
    • Use in-app highlighters
    • Export all highlights into a working note in Inbox to cluster

==TODO==

I find the digital solutions quite unsatisfying: it’s slow and heavy browsing between annotations in these solutions.


References

https://zettelkasten.de/posts/making-proper-marks-in-books

The text inspired a thought, and the inspiring part is already marked in the text.

https://zettelkasten.de/posts/create-zettel-from-reading-notes

taking notes on my Mac while reading just doesn’t work for me. My state while typing is too different from the state I’m in when I read print. Going back and forth requires heavy switching of mental gears. First, this wears me out after a while. Second, this switching ruins the focus: I cannot follow the text properly. That’s why I take notes on paper and mark the passage I want to refer to with a little * in the page’s margin.

Last updated 2023-07-13.