Active Reading with Roam Research

Featuring the Zettelkasten Method

I’ve recently become more deliberate about interacting with the content I read. I’ve consumed hundreds of books, but have never been able to accurately retain what I’ve learned from them. Thankfully, I read a book called How to Take Smart Notes, which presented a solution: the Zettelkasten note-taking method. 

In this post, I share how I use the Zettelkasten Method in Roam Research to store notes and ideas from what I read.

I use templates extensively in my Roam Research workflows and talk about them in this post. If you’d like to read more about how I create and use templates, check out my short post here.

Zettelkasten Method

If you’re interested in improving your note-taking, especially if you plan to use your notes to write, I would recommend reading How to Take Smart Notes. For now, here’s my short summary of the Zettelkasten method and the benefits it provides.

The Process

  1. Create a “slip-box,” for permanent notes. Permanent notes are big ideas that you generate and collect over time.

  2. While reading a book or article, take notes in your own words. These are called literary notes. Extract permanent notes from your literary notes and store them in your slip-box.

  3. After creating a new permanent note to add to your slip-box, identify related permanent notes already in your slip-box and comment on how they fit together or contradict each other. You’re connecting old knowledge with new knowledge, old ideas with new ideas.

  4. Add keywords to your permanent note, which represent cues to invoke it from your slip-box.

The Benefits

  1. Taking literary notes will push you to understand what you’re reading.

  2. Tying your new permanent notes to existing ones will help you connect new knowledge with existing knowledge. You’re creating a network of ideas, wherein one idea can trigger other ideas it’s connected to.

  3. The keywords for each permanent note will help you retrieve all permanent notes connected to a topic or theme. This will help you retrieve evidence and research for a topic you’re writing about.

Zettelkasten Notes in Roam

Slip-Box

To use the Zettelkasten method in Roam Research, you first need to introduce a slip-box, ie, a “container,” for your permanent notes.

Create a page called “permanent notes.” This page will act as your slip-box.

Creating a Permanent Note

A permanent note contains the big idea you’d like to store in your slip-box, along with useful reference data that will help you find the note later.

Define a permanent note reference template on your permanent notes page with the following fields:

Create a new page with the idea as the title, and use the template above by either copying and pasting it to your new page or by using Roam’s block reference functionality.

Add #[[permanent notes]] as a keyword to your new note. This will create a bi-directional link from your new note to the permanent notes page (your slip-box). You can think of adding the #[[permanent notes]] keyword as adding the note to your slip-box. Alternatively, as shown in the screenshot above, you can add the #[[permanent notes]] link as a part of the template. That way, when you copy it to use on a new permanent note, it will already be included.

Your permanent notes page will now contain the permanent note template definition and all notes that reference the page.

Finally, add questions, comments, and links to existing permanent notes in the “PN Notes,” section.

Here’s one of my permanent notes:

Permanent notes are the true rewards of active reading. Creating a permanent note requires questioning, elaborating, and revisiting existing notes in your slip-box; it pushes you to think deeply and learn.

Literary Notes

Literary notes are notes you take as you read something. Literary notes are derived directly from the source material whereas permanent notes are your own ideas derived from literary notes, personal experiences, and random strokes of inspiration.

Source Data

I use the below template to populate source data for every book or article I read. You can use the same template or create a similar template.

When you start reading a new book or article, create a new page for that source and replicate the template you defined.

Add your literary notes in the page body after this form.

Here’s one of my source pages:

When you reference a source, you can link to the source page you created in Roam instead of directly to the source material. This makes it easier to skim through its main points without having to re-read the source material.

Literary Notes vs Permanent Notes

Literary notes and permanent notes serve different purposes. You don't need to take literary notes in order to create permanent notes, and you don't need permanent notes to make literary notes more useful.

Literary notes are directly tied to the book or article you derive them from. Think of them as comprising your summary of the book or article.

Permanent notes, though they may have been inspired by what you've read, should stand on their own. A permanent note isn't meant to summarize something you’ve consumed. It represents a standalone idea that is added to your existing network of ideas.

I usually take literary notes while I read, and when I come across or think of an idea that strikes me as interesting, I add that idea as a permanent note to my slip-box.

Conclusion

I keep finding new ways to improve my Roam note-taking system as I use it for new use cases. I’ve changed my templates and workflows at least five times overall (I even changed it once while writing this blog post!), and I will probably change them again within the next few weeks. While you don’t have full control over how you retrieve information from your brain, you do have full control over your Roam Research workflows. I recommend experimenting with the way you store and retrieve data in Roam to find new ways of “thinking,” with your second brain!

If you don’t like taking notes as you’re reading, check out my post on syncing kindle highlights with Roam Research.

Any questions or ideas? Please comment below!

Thank you Richie Bonilla, Josh Mitchell, Michael Shafer, and Compound Writing for helping me edit this.