Since I first started doing research, now over five years ago, I have been searching for ways to optimize my research workflow. Last summer, I discovered the Zettelkasten method, which seemed to tick all the boxes, especially when combined with a reference manager and plain text writing (because f*ck Microsoft Word). Many of the examples I came across were more suitable for personal knowledge management rather than academic writing, and for STEM or quantitative analysis than for theoretical or qualitative research. As a Ph.D. student in the Humanities—my research focuses on the representation of gender and space in Oscar Wilde’s short fiction—I have to deal with a wide array of primary and secondary sources, historical as well as literary figures and events, concepts and fields with long histories, etc.
This post serves as a hub that breaks down all the parts of my current workflow. In case you are not familiar with some of the methods and software I am about to mention, you can read this post on my methods and tools for a Humanities PhD. for a brief overview. If you know a bit about the Zettelkasten method, the note-taking app Obsidian, the reference manager Zotero, and the document converter Pandoc, you can dive directly into any and all of the posts of the four steps in my workflow:
- From references to fleeting notes: Zotero and Zotero plug-ins
- From fleeting notes to literature notes: Obsidian
- From literature notes to permanent notes: Obsidian
- From permanent notes to a manuscript: Pandoc
That’s it! I realize that, for some, this method contains a lot of friction—i.e. that it requires too much effort. In my experience, the amount of effort needed to create fleeting, literature, and permanent notes with this much amount of effort BY FAR outweighs the benefits: for years I only highlighted texts and wrote half-illegible notes which I quickly forgot about, and I have mountains of literature notes which are practically worthless because I was not careful enough to record the source’s metadata correctly. The enormous amount of information I went through, which forms the foundation of my dissertation, is in many ways wasted: it exists, somewhere, unrealized in my mind but my memory is very unreliable and my thoughts are prone to confirmation bias (amongst other). Having “wasted” so much time and resources, however, has made me realize that many of the “rules” that govern this workflow, are not tiresome steps but rather simple techniques which will make my life easier: making good fleeting notes guarantee good permanent notes; embedding paragraphs and ideas from my literature notes into permanent notes, even when it is not directly relevant for my current research, basically equates to having a strong basis for good permanent notes, and, in turn, for a manuscript; finally, inserting cite keys in my fleeting notes takes literally less than two seconds, but saves me the trouble of double-checking everything later on. Although it is important to remove friction in as many aspects as possible, the amount of time spent on reading and writing should never be reduced for the sake of so-called productivity.