This page is under construction. Pardon the sketchiness for now.

What do you want to do?

  • Take research notes for a paper in order to be able to search them for … anything.

  • Follow the traditional (and ever-valid) methods of writing a note with a title, some keywords (tags), a note (with comment or summary if desired), and some bibliographical information (book or article title and page number[s]).

  • Find particular notes on particular themes and issues.

  • Send those particular notes to a file that will be the basis for a portion of your outline or draft.

All of these basic research, organization, and writing steps are steeped in traditional methods.

  • As researchers and writers of papers, articles, books – from grade school, high school, college, graduate school, through our professional writings – as well as teachers and editors of countless efforts by others, we know the game. Indeed, we are the coaches and referees and main players of the game! And our own coaches taught us how to do it right!

  • On the basis of this experience, we made ZettelGeist to do the most important, fundamental steps of research and writing as clearly and directly as possible, based on the methods that our mentors used to write great books before personal computers came into being.

  • But because we are ourselves computerized (having come into professional life just as the pc revolution occurred and, therefore, having played that game ever since), we have here merged these techniques into the computer world more directly than any program has before. (Believe us: we know! We have tried and deployed every option out there, from 1980 until yesterday – as a matter of professional need.)

  • Since we know the frustration that many so-called “notetaking programs” cause, we have made a fundamental decision to ensure that the basis for all of this is already in the computer you own and the internet sites you have access to.

  • You don’t have to go and buy anything new. You already have supercomputers that earlier great writers could never have imagined. This system will just help you to take advantage of these machines in ways consistent with the key principles of research and organization that the great writers developed, but most computer programs have left out.

  • This is the Research-Writing-Computer Singularity we have been waiting for!

The first thing to know is that with ZettelGeist you can do ALL of the above by starting (and finishing) your writing with ANY SOFTWARE YOU WANT TO USE!! The ZettelGeist program works with and between your preferred word processors.

  • Many programs suggest they are “app-gnostic” (agnostic or indifferent about which app you use), but that usually just means you can save your work into another format (docx, pdf, txt, etc.).

  • ZettelGeist is truly app neutral in the sense that you can make notes (zettels) with any software, as long as you make them according to a certain pattern (indicating note section, title section, etc…) and save or download them in good old “.txt” format.

  • The “pattern” is exactly what you would use to write out a notecard in the traditional way (by hand, or typed on paper or computer), so it really isn’t that big a deal. Plus, once you make one card (or zettel), you can just edit the same card to make any necessary changes for the next card (change the note, change the page numbers, etc.) then save the new card with a new filename, eg. “note02.txt” and move on…

  • You can do this with ANY word processor you want to use: Google Docs, Microsoft Word, LibreOffice. In fact, you could just use one of the most basic editors that are already residing on your computer, or easily installed for free: Notepad, Wordpad (on Windows), TextEdit (Mac), Vim, Emacs, etc.

  • If that last sentence confuses you, don’t worry. Just use Google Docs or Word or whatever you are used to. (The surprise is that you don’t actually have to buy any word processor at all because the above basic text editors come with your system and ZettelGeist would allow you to use those for free to research, organize, and write any great work you need to produce – but let’s set that issue aside for the moment.)

Let’s try it out with Google Docs since we all have access to that.

  • As you can see on the “Get Started” and “Note Format” page above, a note in ZettelGeist is just a set of information put together in sections marked with a colon, like title: or note: or tags:, etc.

  • There are a number of those built into the system (see Note Format page) because, as researchers, we know you might also want to “comment:” or write a “summary:” or add bibliographical information such as “bibkey:” and “pages:”, and so on.

  • BUT this is completely up to you. You can add any of these elements, or only one or two, in any order according to your needs. A completely valid note would just start with “note:” and then just consist of the text of your note in the following line surrounded by quotations, including all the information you want to produce or record right there. That would work just fine. You could then save it as “note-01.txt” and it could be processed in ZettelGeist without a problem (after a minor change to the filename so it can be searched and used in the system – more on that in a minute).

  • If you want the other elements, like title: summary: or comment: great, just add them too. As long as you name sections according to the list on the “Note Format” page, or listed in “zettel –help”, you can create notes however you prefer, with sections in whatever order you like. Basically, you are making up your own notetaking system (based on these universally valid “fields”) and can treat any “file” as a blank notecard, just as you do when you buy a pack of 3 x 5 notecards at the pharmacy and make flash cards for a high school class. Fill them out as you like!

So, with that flexibilty in mind, let’s make your first note.

For now, just go to Google Docs (or Word, or…your choice – but we will use Google Docs for this example since we all have access and some familiarity with this editor.)

  • Start a new Doc.

  • Then take one step that will help with this experiment.

    • Go to “Tools>Preferences” and uncheck most of the automatic styling elements.

Uncheck "Automatically capitalize" "Use smart quotes" "Automatically detect lists" and the main "Automatic substitution."

  • We want the simplest and plainest characters possible (most programs add fancier “unicode” characters with these features – but we don’t need them and they actually mess up searching and finding later).

  • You can always turn these back on later, but you probably wouldn’t miss most of these anyway.

  • Close preferences and then just look at your plain Doc page. But now you can think of it a little differently. This is now a notecard (right out of your 3 x 5 package)! Even though it is on a supercomputer in the “cloud” linked to the internet, it is just a “card” now. Let’s just fill it in as we would by hand.

  • Let’s say you want to give it a title (remember, it’s up to you whether you need a title, but this will remind you what this field and other subsequent ones in this research session are about).

  • So, type:

title: Reading notes on The Great Gatsby

  • Ok. That’s the top line of your note, just like on the “red” line of your good old notecard.

  • Now, let’s put in something about the book you are reading, for instance (you could be taking notes for anything including your own novel or writing poetry or writing a shopping list, but we are thinking research paper for now).

  • Make a new line and type:

note: "This is a note about The Great Gatsby, a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Written during The Jazz Age, it is a masterpiece of American Literature."

  • Notice that I put the text part of this note: “inside quotation marks.” This is necessary when you write longer notes because it means you can put quotes and colons and multiple lines into your plain text card. Just a formality, but not a big deal. If you just write a single line without colons and other such things, you don’t need the quotes. But it works better with them if you are making notes this initial way with GDocs or another word processer.

  • For now, let’s just stop there and see what we can do with that very first note.

  • Let’s name the file, on Google Docs, by simply clicking in the file name box above (as usual – you know) and typing “Gatsby-Note”.

  • Now let’s download it to your computer so we can soon make it into a zettel for research processing.

  • Click “File>Download as” and select “Plain Text (.txt)”.

  • Immediately, it will save to your computer (into the directory set by your browser for downloads – usually Downloads).

  • If you want, you can click on the download tab at the bottom of your browser to open it, or go into the directory to see it there. It will look just like your original, but maybe a little simpler in a plain text editor (which is retro-cool).

But let’s make a couple of more notes (zettels) before we do any more.

  • All you need to do to make your next note(s) is edit your existing Google Doc! You don’t have to create a new one or anything. You already saved your first card, so it is safe. Now just edit your next one on the basis of this start, and save the new iteration as the next note.

  • We can leave title: the same… So no changes there.

  • Let’s change the note: (obviously). Just highlight from the first quotation mark to the last, delete the original note, and write another.

note: "The novel opens with the lines 'In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. 'Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.' (Gatsby, 1)"

  • We just added a quote from the book. So you might want to write something about that citation (your own opinion of its importance, etc.) as well. (Teachers want to hear your voice, and you want to remember why you took the note.)

  • That’s simple: You could just add something to the “note:” section itself:

"The novel opens with the lines 'In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,' he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.' (Gatsby, 1) Comment: This is a famous first line and my teacher says that we should analyze it carefully."

  • See the “Comment” at the end? That would do it. As a result, you have title, note, citation-page (Gatsby, 1), and a comment (inside that last quotation mark). All the elements of a traditional notecard are there, just within the “note:” field. So let’s save that as a second note.

  • Just click “File>Download>Plain Text (.txt) again. It will automatically download (and get a new name with “(1)” added by Google Docs) – so you don’t have to do anything to change the filename, etc. Just click.

  • Cool. Two notes are now in your research “card stack” for processing. If we did pull them into the system, they would be completely searchable and usable. Again: you could just take notes with “notes:” or “title:” and “note:” and that will do the job.

  • But, you can do a lot more if you want to. ZettelGeist allows you to break up these elements of research notes into each of the traditional elements listed on the “Note Format” page!

So let’s go back to our GDocs page and adjust this note to make a third with a little more…zing!

  • Highlight “Comment: This is a famous first line and my teacher says that we should analyze it carefully.” Then cut that (not delete).

  • Make a new line and paste it. Then make the capital “C” into a lowercase “c” and put your comment in quotations, resulting in:

comment: This is a famous first line and my teacher says that we should analyze it carefully."

  • You just set up a new “comment:” field that can be searched separately if you want. This is not necessary (as above) but it does allow you to separate, let’s say, the quotes you take from the source (in “note:”) and your ideas (in “comment:”). It’s up to you, but just in case you like it, it’s that easy to add more fields (per the “Note Format” page).

  • Now, let’s do something else that is key to research. Add “tags” to the note. This is another traditional part of any notecard system. It allows you to mark each note as being relevant to a theme or a keyword or a part of your paper (Intro, Body 1, Body 2, Conclusion, etc.). Adding tags is also really easy with the ZettelGeist method.

  • Continue with the existing GDoc.

    • (See? Making new “cards” just means editing and then re-saving your existing card in .txt format with a new name – done automatically in GDocs. But the process is essentially the same for Word or whatever editor you are using – just give each new “save as” a different number: Gatsby-Note-01.yaml, Gatsby-Note-02.yaml, Gatsby-Note-03.yaml, etc. The existing elements just get reused over and over as you save every new version to your “stack.”)
  • To add tags, start a new line under the “comment:” line.

  • Type this:

- My first tag
- Gatsby note
- First line of book
  • Could it be simpler? Ha! “tags:” is the new section, just as above. But each tag is separate, so you just start the line for each tag with a hyphen to indicate this is the case. That’s all!!! (BTW: This is why we turned off “automatic lists,” because that feature would make those hyphens into bullet points. We just want clean hyphens.)

  • Let’s save that fancier note, just as above: “File>Download>Plain Text.”

Your research stack is growing! Let’s do one more, adding one more feature. Again, it isn’t necessary, but “It’s there!” So what the heck?

  • Edit the GDoc again.

  • Let’s find a new citation from the book and put it in the “note:” section (between quotes) and write a new “comment:” Just zap the old material and add the new, adjusting only what is necessary for the new note, resulting in something like:

title: Reading notes on The Great Gatsby
note: "Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart."
comment: "In second paragraph, Fitzgerald begins to suggest Gatsby's cynicism and hints at fact that he was a veteran of the First World War"
- Gatsby note
- Cynicism
- Impact of WWI
  • You can also change the tags for this next note, as I did here.

  • Obviously, you could save this to the “stack,” go on to the next, and be fine.

  • But notice that this time (for demonstration purposes) I didn’t add an bibliographical indicator like “(Gatsby, 2)”. Most of us would just put that MLA element in and be fine. In fact, for 99% of users, that’s enough. Just keep track of which books you are using and add the notes or footnotes when you pull things together later. No problem.

  • But if you are into “bibtex” and plan to build your paper with zotero and pandoc (for more advanced users) you could also use this system to keep track of your bibliography. That just involves adding the following at the bottom:

  bibkey: fitzgerald_gatsby_1925
  page: p. 2
  • That’s all. If you don’t know what “bibkey” means right now, don’t worry about it. (Just use MLA as above.) But if you do, you can add it and link this to your .bib file and when you build with pandoc all will be well. Just notice the spaces before bibkey: and page: Don’t use tabs to indent – put in two spaces.

  • Now let’s save this new card, as above.

  • OK! Now we have a “Stack” of cards in our “Downloads” directory, each named “Gatsby-Note….txt” You could write a million more. Just change the elements that need to be changed and save the new version as a new card: copy or type out new quotes from your book; add comments; just write out notes; change tags; change page(s); change title if you want, etc.

    • Quick tip: copying and pasting from electronic sources can be a little tricky because you don’t know about the “fancy characters” that will end up in your note. It’s best to just type out a quote (and paraphrase more than quoting, as the masters say). But if you do this, then highlight the whole note and click the “Clear formatting” button to zap weird characters (as much as it will). Also make sure you are pasting things are inside those quotation marks). You might end up, after processing below, with some strange charcters like “\u201" in your notecards. They can be deleted, but are a little bit of a pain (and why plain text writing emphasizes plain text).

Let’s process our notes.

  • Anyway, based on our start, let’s begin to process the notes we have made. (Just think about how you would start shuffling or organizing a stack of notecards you have written on paper.)

  • This is actually where the real power of this system starts.

    • Remember, the idea is to make a notecard for every idea for your project, then be able to find them, select the ones you need, then print them out for your paper or for each section of your paper, according to themes or keywords or…

    • This is waaaaaaay different from having all of your notes in a single document or having them on a few “Onenote” or “Evernote” pages, but then having difficulty selecting the particular cards or notes you need in particular. This is where the ZettelGeist system becomes an electronic version of “moving the cards around” when you start to outline or write the paper.

  • First, think about whether you want to keep working in the directory where your browser saved the cards, or somewhere else. It’s probably best to move them.

  • If you want to move them out of Downloads, make a new directory called Gatsby-Paper and move the notes there.

  • Now, we just need to rename these “.txt” files so they are understood as “.yaml” files by the system. That’s the “format” that the ZettelGeist system needs to work with.

    • This can be done a number of ways. Since we only have a few cards now, we can just do it with File Manager (or whatever) individually. You can also do them in bulk with some File Managers (on Mac) or with a command in the terminal. But for now, just change them by hand.

    • So, in your new Gatsby-Paper directory, change the names of each “.txt” file to “Gatsby-Note.yaml”. For GDocs users, you might also adjust the numbers automatically added, removing the parentheses but not the numbers. So, Gatsby-Note (1).txt becomes Gatsby-Note-1.yaml. It’s just neater that way.

  • When this is done, you are ready to rock. Now you can do everything that is demonstrated with the “test” materials on the “Getting Started” page, but with your own research notes written in GDocs or Word or…

  • Everything from this point on assumes you have installed ZettelGeist and have your zenv environment working as explained on the Installation page.

  • This can be done right in the same directory you are working in.

  • First create a database name.

zcreate --database gatsby.db

  • Then import all of the new yaml notecards (or zettels) into your database.

zimport --database --dir $(pwd)

  • The output will show each of your notes being pulled into the database.

  • Once that is done, you are ready to start searching and organizing your notes.

  • Of course, with only a few it isn’t super exciting. But if you have taken notes on every thought you had when reading The Great Gatsby, the game would really be on!!

  • Let’s search for something in our stack. To do this, you use “zfind.” To see all the elements of zfind, you could type “zfind –help”. But we will keep things simple now.

  • Let’s search for the card that had to do with the First World War.

  • To do that, at the command line, type:

zfind --database Gatsby.db --query-string 'comment:"First World War"' --show-title --show-note --show-comment

  • When you enter this, the output will be the card that included the “string” First World War in the “commment:” field. See?

  • There are a zillion things to be done now that you have this searching ability. Again, it really comes into play when you have a bunch of notes and want to search on them. But this is the start. Let’s do one more.

zfind --database Gatsby.db --query-string 'tags:"First Line"' --show-title --show-note --show-comment

  • Take a look at what each of those commands is doing. zfind is starting the search engine. It is looking in the --database Gatsby.db. It is searching for particular strings of letters in particular fields --query-string 'comment:"First World War"' and --query-string 'tags:"First line"'. Then, for each card that has those elements, it is showing the title, showing the note, and showing the comment. That is what is showing up on the output.

  • The real power of zfind (searching in ZettelGeist) comes from combining these things (in as many ways as you want to use for your purposes). Here is an example. Let’s search for both of these elements in your cards: those with tags with First Line and those with commments with First World War. To do that, you just use the “or” command (the vertical bar created by [shift-backslash] in the query string, as in:

zfind --database Gatsby.db --query-string 'tags:"First Line" | comment:"First World War"' --show-title --show-note --show-comment

  • Hit enter, and both of those cards will flash by (or the parts you specified: title, note, and comment – though you could have asked for tags and cite and… any elements you include).

  • You have just searched and found the two notes that met those requirements. Not such a big deal out of 4 notes, but out of 100? That’s cool.

But, you want to use them for a portion of your paper on those themes, right?

  • To do that, just add one more basic element into your search command: “> search-results.txt” That’s all you need. The “>” sign (like an arrow) means “send that output into a file” – as in, your results file… Or your Gatsby-results.txt file… Or your “Gatsby-Body-Part-1.txt” file, depending on how you want to arrange your information.

Let’s do the last one:

zfind --database Gatsby.db --query-string 'tags:"First Line" | comment:"First World War"' --show-title --show-note --show-comment > Gatsby-Body-Part-1.txt

  • Hit enter, and in an instant you will have a file with all the searched data under that name. Open Gatsby-Body-Part-1.txt with your editor. Or upload it to GDocs and open it there. It will have your notes on those issues all in one place for you to put into your paper document where you need it.

  • THAT’S how to use the notecard notetaking system to take notes, mark them for particular content, find them, collect them, and then pull them into your paper – all using the computer instead of paper notecards (not that there is anything wrong with paper notecards, they still rock, but we are digital writers now).

  • ZettelGeist has been made to make this great, traditional, powerful way to do research (on anything) or just write or just make lists or… as immediate as possible, but without trapping you in one word processing system OR trapping your notes (etc.) in a onenote system or an evernote system. (Nerd joke: EverNote keeps your notes, forever: like a black hole, once the information goes in, it never comes out.) ZettelGeist allows you to put your material in (according to some classic rules) and then GET IT OUT in the bits and pieces that you actually need.

  • The zfind feature can be modified in many ways to get more “fine-tuned” material from your electronic card stack(s). Also, you can break things up into the various fields we have discussed. BUT, again, you could also just take notes as “note:” and be fine, including whatever you need in that field alone (in quotations to be sure there aren’t processing issues) and then search for strings in all the “notes” sections. It can be that simple, or as complex or professional as you want. It is completely up to you.

  • It is as flexible as paper notecards were, but as powerful as any supercomputers are. That’s what we are talking about!!!!

In conclusion, for GDocs users…

Your notetaking system is still there, ready and waiting for you to continue with your project! Just take a look back at the GDocs page you were working on – the master “card” is ever-ready for you to edit and save your next idea, and your next, and … (Fractals, baby!!)