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Writing from the bottom up

Heather Dyer

Do you construct a piece of writing from the top down, or the bottom up? The top-down approach is recommended by most study guides: decide on your question, hypothesis or argument, make a rough outline, then start reading to gather evidence. Top-down planning is useful to an extent, but sticking too rigidly to a pre-determined outline can restrict your thinking. It’s also not much fun.

The Zettelkasten method

Working from the bottom up using the Zettelkasten method can be a more creative way to grow a project. You write notes as you read, filing each new note among related notes to create a rough draft as you go.

The Zettelkasten method was pioneered by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann in the 1960s, who filed his notes on index cards in a Zettelkasten—a ‘slip-box’. Sönke Ahrens, an advocate of this method for researchers, says that Luhmann’s slip-box ‘became his dialogue partner, main idea generator and productivity engine. It helped him to structure and develop his thoughts’. (Ahrens, 2017, p. 13)[1]

Here’s how it works:

1 Write a note expressing each idea

As usual, you might highlight and annotate or take brief notes on whatever you find most interesting. Then, expand on these preliminary notes and write a more detailed note, explaining the gist of each idea clearly and concisely in your own words. Write a separate note for each idea you want to capture; this might mean distilling a book into a single sentence or writing several notes from one article or paper. Make sure you record the reference details and perhaps a short quote, if you will think it will be useful.

This process requires more effort than conventional note-taking—but it saves you time in the long run:

1 Converting your annotations or brief jottings into coherent notes allows you to externalise what you’ve read.
2 The process of reflecting on your reading in writing forces you to make ideas explicit, reveals any holes in your understanding and raises further questions.
3 These notes provide all you need to create your first draft.

Says Ahrens, ‘watching others reading books and doing nothing other than underlining some sentences or making unsystematic notes that will end up nowhere will soon be a painful sight’. (Ahrens, 2017, pp. 146–148)

2 File each note among related notes

Whether you’re writing your notes on index cards in a slip-box, or as entries in a database like Evernote, don’t file your notes by their source or general subject area. Instead, file each note according to its content.

Ask yourself, ‘in which context will I want to stumble on this particular idea again?’ or ‘which existing note is this most closely related to?’ You can also link notes to other notes and attach keywords to your notes so you can easily find them again.

As your collection of notes grows, lines of thought and clusters of related information appear. Gaps become apparent. New connections, relationships and paradoxes arise, all of which will prompt further reading. Eventually, the final question or argument you choose will emerge naturally out of your collection of notes, which itself will have arisen naturally out of your reading.

In short, once you have filed a note, you can stop thinking about where it might fit in the scheme of things. When you’ve finished reading, you already have the material for your first draft in front of you. Then, you need to assemble the relevant lines of argument into a linear structure and, if gaps are still apparent, do any further reading required to fill them.

Avoid writing problems

Working from the bottom-up in this way can avoid many of the problems writers often face:

  • Being overwhelmed by the size of the task at hand
  • Finding a structure
  • Settling on a topic or argument
  • Trying to work out how everything will relate
  • Not knowing where to start when trying to organise thousands of seemingly unrelated notes
  • Resistance to the blank page—you’re never starting from a blank page as you already have your notes written and assembled.

This way of working can also be more motivating because you get better at writing and processing what you’ve read. It’s rewarding to see how each note fits into your growing scaffold of existing notes, and you’re motivated by the insights and questions that arise from connections that you may not have recognised if you had stuck to the traditional ‘top- down’ approach. Why not see if writing from the bottom up could benefit your writing process?


[1] Ahrens, Sönke (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking—for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers, Kindle Edition

30 September 2021

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