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 note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work

If you had to set one metric to use as a leading indicator for yourself as a knowledge worker, the best I know might be the number of Evergreen notes written per day. Note-writing can be a virtuosic skill, but Most people use notes as a bucket for storage or scratch thoughts and Note-writing practices are generally ineffective.

A caveat: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”


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.

If writing is the medium of research and studying nothing else than research, then there is no reason not to work as if nothing else counts than writing.

Focusing on writing as if nothing else counts does not necessarily mean you should do everything else less well, but it certainly makes you do everything else differently. Having a clear, tangible purpose when you attend a lecture, discussion or seminar will make you more engaged and sharpen your focus.

Even if you decide never to write a single line of a manuscript, you will improve your reading, thinking and other intellectual skills just by doing everything as if nothing counts other than writing.

Last updated 2023-07-13.

Executable strategy for writing

A naive writing process begins with a rough inkling about what one wants to write and a blank page. Progress from this point requires an enormous amount of activation energy and cognitive effort: there’s nothing external, so you must juggle all of the piece-to-be in your head.

By contrast, if you’ve already written lots of concept-oriented Evergreen notes around the topic, your task is more like editing than composition. You can make an outline by shuffling the note titles, write notes on any missing material, and edit them together into a narrative. In fact, because you can Create speculative outlines while you write, you might find that the first of these steps is already accomplished, too. And writing each note isn’t hard: Evergreen notes permit smooth incremental progress in writing (“incremental writing”).

Instead of having a task like “write an outline of the first chapter,” you have a task like “find notes which seem relevant.” Each step feels doable. This is an executable strategy (see Executable strategy). But beware—don’t let this strategy “poison” the initial note-writing process: Write notes for yourself by default, disregarding audience.

I describe two approaches here: an undirected version, in which writing projects emerge organically from daily work; and a directed version, in which you’re trying to write about something specific.

Undirected version:

  1. Write durable notes continuously while reading and thinking. (Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work)
  2. Each time you add a note, add a link to it to an outline, creating one if necessary (Create speculative outlines while you write).
  3. Eventually, you’ll feel excited about fleshing out one of those outlines. (Let ideas and beliefs emerge organically)
  4. Write new notes to fill in missing pieces of the outline.
  5. Concatenate all the note texts together to get an initial manuscript
  6. Rewrite it.

Directed version:

  1. Review notes related to your topic (and a step or two beyond those—Notes should surprise you)
  2. Write an outline
  3. Attach existing notes to each point in the outline; write new notes as needed.
  4. Concatenate all the note texts together to get an initial manuscript
  5. Rewrite it.

One other nice benefit of this approach: Evergreen notes lower the emotional stakes in editing manuscripts.


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.

Preparing Fragments Helps You to Ease Into Writing • Zettelkasten Method

To see with clarity if your research backs up your text’s structure sufficiently, the next step is to assign notes from your Zettelkasten to the items of your outline. When an item of your outline seems to be neglected because you don’t have enough notes that fit, you can continue your research, focusing on the missing pieces. As soon as you’re confident you got enough coverage for a start, you string the notes’s contents together according to the outline. Thus you create the very first draft. That’s all it takes to move from a plan to outline to manuscript. Then you begin to re-write, organize the material and start to make the text coherent.

There’s no magic involved in writing texts with the help of a well-fed Zettelkasten. To compile a first draft you put the contents of selected notes at the appropriate places in the outline, putting meat on the bones of your text’s skeleton. That’s how a Zettelkasten helps you complete your first draft.

Last updated 2023-07-13.