This post summarizes my experience using Drafts for a Zettelkasten.
A Zettlekasten is a method of taking notes best described in the book “How to Take Smart Notes” by Ahrens. I first learned about it from the web site:
That site is run by the developers of the Mac application The Archive, an application specifically designed for use with Zettelkastens. If you are interested in learning more about Zettelkastens, their site is the place to go.
Bearing in mind that I am by no means an expert – the essential differences between a Zettelkasten and a standard note-taking system are:
Wiki-style links between notes. The assumption is that insights (new knowledge) emerge from a group of notes inter-connected with links. Adding more linked notes creates more knowledge. By contrast, adding more unconnected notes creates an increasingly useless pile.
Use of “structure notes” that consist of links forming a table of contents (or index if you prefer). Structure notes provide entry points into a web of inter-connected notes. A Zettelkasten might have multiple structure notes depending upon the system’s size and complexity. In addition to links, structure notes may contain brief explanatory text. The Drafts Scripts Reference provides an example of how structure notes work.
Focus on “atomicity” of notes. Atomicity encourages notes to be short, each devoted to a narrowly defined subject, making them easier to link to other narrowly focused notes.
Notes based on the user’s appreciation of a subject, not (exclusively) based upon clipped or quoted information. Creating notes based on my understanding of an issue is different from my typical activity with Bear–i.e., assembling an ever-growing and increasingly less useful pile of clipped web articles.
When Version 20 of Drafts added linking capability, I imported (my first) Zettelkasten from The Archive. My principal reasons for making the switch:
(1) I wanted a system that worked with both macOS and iOS. If I was going to spend time developing a Zettelkasten I wanted to be able to carry it with me, in the same manner that I carry my calendar, contacts database, and task manager with me. In addition, I frequently encounter Zettelkasten-related information while not in front of my iMac. The Archive’s macOS-only limitation in this regard may be a result of its origins–use cases where information is largely obtained from books and journal articles in an office setting. The Mac-only approach rules out numerous other possibilities such as a birder recording sightings, a school principal evaluating teachers, a field engineer inspecting a facility, an eighth-grader with an iPad but not a Mac, a salesman making client calls, a personal trainer making notes about clients in a gym, etc.
(2) Note creation and management is dependent upon operations that Drafts can streamline without reliance upon third-party solutions such as Keyboard Maestro or Alfred. Much as I depend upon Keyboard Maestro and Alfred for other purposes, they don’t work on iOS, and they are not needed to manage a Zettelkasten in Drafts.
In Drafts, each Zettelkasten exists within a workspace. You can create more than one Zettelkasten, each using its own workspace. Structure notes can be flagged and set to sort at the top of lists where they can be immediately found. An Action Group containing Zettelkasten-related operations can be assigned to one of the two action group defaults for the workspace.
This group of Zettelkasten-related actions works on my iPhone and iPad as well as on my iMac.
- Start from a draft, typically a structure note. The action prompts for a title and tags for a new note, with the tag(s) used in the structure note suggested as a default. The action then creates the new note using an easily configurable template embedded in the action. It also creates links from the structure note to the new note and vice versa. This is a frequently used action and it is very efficient.
- Start from a draft and display all drafts within the workspace. Choose one. The action uses the selected draft’s title to insert a link in the starting draft.
- Go back to the last draft.
- Prompt for a new title for an existing draft. The action changes the title and then searches the workspace, updating any links that depend on the old title. This action makes it unnecessary (IMO) to employ the 12-digit UID (yyyymmddhhmm) used by The Archive to ensure that changing a title does not break links. For the unconvinced, a UID can be created in Drafts as easily as it can in The Archive.
- Display all drafts that link to the current draft.
- Create a link to Bear using the title of a Bear note in the clipboard. While plain text has advantages, easy incorporation of other file types is not one of them. Links to Bear largely solve that problem.
- Create a standard Markdown link using a url in the clipboard.
- Create a draft from scratch, using what I consider to be my “standard template”.
- Create a draft from scratch, using a template that I prefer to use when capturing and commenting upon text from the web.
- Rename a tag.
A frequently-voiced concern re Drafts in the Zettelkasten community is that drafts are stored in a special database, making their long-term viability suspect. In the thread “Error sending Drafts docs to iA Writer” I discovered two actions written by @davenicholls that export drafts to iCloud where they can be accessed by iA Writer – and also by The Archive. Links and Markdown formatting are preserved. In the Actions Directory, see:
Send to iA Writer
Send multiple to iA Writer
These two actions (and there may be similar functionality that I have not discovered) should ease concerns about the long-term viability of a Zettelkasten created in Drafts.
When I first imported notes from The Archive to Drafts I was concerned that “date created” was not preserved. All creation dates were the date of import. After using Drafts for a Zettelkasten for a few months, I believe that my concern was mis-placed. IMO, it is more important to focus on date accessed than date created. If a draft/note has not been accessed for months, one of two things is probably true: (a) It has no value and should be deleted, or (b) it has been overlooked for too long and deserves your attention. Any note actually created in Drafts (versus imported) will have the “correct” date created.
On the Zettlekasten Forum there are numerous discussions regarding the optimum template to use with notes. IMO, there is no optimum. The information needed by a birder recording a sighting is much different from the information needed by a therapist or a field engineer. Drafts easily accommodates multiple templates.
There are four other considerations that I think bear on a decision regarding choice of software for a Zettelkasten: (1) The exceptionally high quality as well as the depth and breadth of documentation that Greg provides. (2) The extraordinary speed with which Greg is providing new functionality. (3) The amplifying affect of a community that uses the extensive scripting options available in Drafts to enhance the application’s utility. (4) The fact that a Zettelkasten is only one of a large number of functions that Drafts supports. Using Drafts for one function develops expertise useful for others.
Bottomline: If you want to try using a Zettelkasten and already use Drafts, you need look no further.