Simple Markdown ZettelkastenEvan Travers
Update: I’ve updated my recommendation to use YML frontmatter instead of MultiMarkdown. More here.
As I’ve lurked productivity twitter I’ve noticed that a lot of the digital Zettelkasten1 systems that I’ve seen fall into two categories: ones using markdown plain text files, and ones using a dedicated tool like Roam/Notion/Evernote. Systems using markdown files can differ wildly given the needs of the particular user, and their favorite text editor.
As I’ve tried to build my own system my goals were simplicity and portability. I want files that are compatible with different apps and editors, so that I can easily take my knowledge-base anywhere.
After intense research I discovered my “new” idea is an old idea2. Here is a modified version of what the experts at Zettelkasten.de say is be the most compatible markdown format for plain-text Zettelkasten files:
--- title: Pursuit of perfection causes anxiety tags: #stress, #effort, #mindset, #cool --- Many people believe that perfection should be effortless. This unreasonable expectation causes stress. > A report from researchers at Duke University sounds an alarm about the anxiety and depression among female undergraduates who aspire to “effortless perfection.” They believe they should display perfect beauty, perfect womanhood, and perfect scholarship all without trying (or at least without appearing to try). [^mindset] I wonder if this is related to the popular trope that "cool guys" don't care, or don't have to try. Over and over in 80s movies you have characters that do not seem to exert any effort to win, it just comes naturally. [[cool-people-are-bored.md]] [^mindset]: Dweck, Carol S. _Mindset: the New Psychology of Success_. Ballantine Books, 2016.
There is more detail about the parts of a simple markdown zettelkasten over at zettelkasten.de. Edit: There is more argument for using YML frontmatter in a later post.
In the original paper implementation3, notes relate to other notes by proximity, and by a ID-powered link.
In a digital format you have a couple different ways to relate notes: Folders, Links, and Tags. I won’t concern myself too much with folders in this document… I will probably have a very flat file structure, only occasionally using folders for very specific domains (work vs. home, etc.)
Markdown has a syntax for making a link via
While this is great, I have found that it’s nice to have a separate syntax
specifically for the in-archive links between notes.4
Although it’s not part of the official markdown spec, it seems a fair number of
major editors5 support “wikilink” or “freelink”
style links (e.g.,
ones that don’t6 are more prose-writing centric rather than notes databases,
so I feel pretty comfortable continuing down this path.
Some of these editors prefer links without the file extension (just the filename/title), and some support the file extension. For maximum backwards compatibility, I recommend the full filename and extension.
There are many different ways to represent a tag7, but using
inside of MMD/YAML front matter is the most compatible implementation.
The incredibly organized @sirupsen is using #hashtag style in the body of the zettel, but that can conflict with the markdown syntax for a header, so I’m worried about the ramifications8. Putting the hashtags into the frontmatter dodges this issue by keeping them outside the normal markdown, while still letting some apps search for and take advantage of the common hashtag format9.
Its just files
I am constantly distracted by lovely tools 😈. One lovely thing about implementing zettelkasten as flat text files is that you can technically work it by hand…
Since I’ve been paralyzed too long by trying to build/discover the perfect tooling, I am going to just start building my “archive”. By hand. Then I will slowly develop tooling to enable what I do most often. On desktop, I am perfectly able to use vim to create, edit, and search files quickly. I’m just going to start, and build tools as I need them.
I’ve been scouring my own old wiki for references… here are links I used while researching and putting this together.
General Information about what is a Zettelkasten
There’s a thing called “Zettelkasten”, and then there’s you using it. The former is the toolkit, the latter is your application of a method.
Required Reading. If any of this intrigues you, this is where I think you should start.
A review of a book about a particular implementation of a Zettelkasten system for taking notes. There’s some key points in here about how to run this system.
This article helped me understand what it is that I’m trying to build, and largely influenced the direction I’m headed in.
A popular medium post about zettelkasten. Generally good infio.
The importance of identifiers in the Zettelkasten archive.
Not only good advice for writing ZK, but generally technical writing.
A helpful flowchart of when to write a new note, when to split a long note, etc. Interesting context for how a zettelkasten works in practice.
There are other ways to build a inter-woven linked archive. Here’s one.
If you don’t already have a preferred text editor, but this idea fascinates you, you should probably just use nvALT. Very helpful for anyone thinking about setting up a ZK.
Very cool package built on top of fzf and vimwiki.
A very robust package for sublime text. Popular on the zettelkasten.de forums.
A look into how one zettelkasten fan uses his system to expand his learning power. Some links to some very customized viml scripts to make his system flow.
How zettlr (an OSS note taking app) can be used for ZK. Obviously by the name, it’s designed a little bit for this.
A great post on how this writer uses iA Writer to build his ZK.
Supported Zettelkasten-Specific Editors
Being markdown plain text editors, all of these “support” all the features… but which ones have built-in tooling to search? This is by no means an exhaustive list, just the ones that I tested.
If there’s ones I’m missing, feel free to message me and I’ll add them to the table. I know there’s some org-mode/emacs afficiandos out there who have some amazing stuff.
|Editor||Link Styles||Tag Styles||Notes|
|nvim + vimwiki||✅||✅||❌||❌||
||Vim being vim, you can adjust or grep for any string, so #tag or front matter will work, it’s just not built in.|
|nvim + vimwiki + vim-zettel||✅||Vim’s capability||❌||❌||
||Pretty robust… especially for the backlinks.|
|sublime text 3 + sublime_zk||✅||Vim’s capability||✅||❌||Seems super well put together… very cool.|
|Drafts.app||❌||drafts:// URLscheme||❌||❌||Built-in tags||More for capturing information than storing it, but you could do it if you wanted. Drafts.app lists documents by the first line in the document, so while it supports MMD front matter, it makes the title look strange.|
|Bear.app||✅||✅||✅||✅||n/a||Honestly… as this app seems to check so many of the options, I’m surprised I haven’t given it a better go.|
|nvAlt||✅||✅||❌||❌||Stores tags in database||The search and interface is very good.|
|nvUltra||✅||urlScheme||❌||✅||n/a||Still in beta… seems very promising. Has a super powerful “related notes” feature that I think is nearly ideal for this.|
|The Archive.app||✅||❌||✅||❌||The OG zettelkasten application.|
|Zettlr||✅||n/a||✅||❌||This seems like a cool tool.|
|obsidian||✅||❌||✅||❌||Supports a graph mode like roam research.|
I’m not really an expert, I only know as much as can be known by reading blog posts on the subject. I haven’t taken a course or read the book. ↩
It makes searching for in-archive links a lot simpler… imagine you want to write a regex for searching for all notes that link to the current note… it’s a lot easier if you can assume that all in-archive links follow freelink syntax. Some editors go a step further and the text within a freelink is actually more of a search than a file link. (I think The Archive does this.) ↩
Editors that don’t support [[free links]] include: Drafts, Vim’s default markdown syntax, iA Writer, and Ulysses ↩
In my current files, I have been lightly using vimwiki style tags (I think they get them from mediawiki?) They look like
:this:. I don’t like writing the regex for these tags, and I can’t find anything but vimwiki that supports them. ↩
NvUltra uses MMD style front matter for tags, and offers syncing them to OS X metadata so you can search in spotlight, which is very cool. 1Writer uses the #hashtag format for it’s built in tag search. I stole my solution from prolific ZK blogger Christian uses a combo of MMD and hashtag, which I may adopt since 1Writer is pretty nifty on the iPhone. ↩
2021-02-04 16:00:39 +0000
Update: Link the new zettelkasten recommendations
2020-06-26 18:16:03 +0000
Add obsidian to the list
2020-06-18 19:26:02 +0000
Move everything to CST
Don't know why I didn't do that before. It caused _no_ end of
2020-06-14 20:51:50 +0000
Update articles with series and series partials
After the refactor, needed to move the series metadata to the actual
2020-06-14 14:56:03 +0000
Move zettelkasten files to their own series
2020-06-08 17:34:07 +0000
Hack together more series pages
2020-03-17 19:37:01 +0000
:tag: comes from org-mode
2020-03-13 16:38:32 +0000
Post: Simple Markdown Zettelkasten