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A Slip-box for Fiction

When I’ve been playing with the DDJ, I’m thinking a lot about the idea of a slip-box, which is a note-taking system also known as zettelkasten, which is German for slip-box.

It was original designed by Niklas Luhmann, a sociology professor who used it to write an amazing 58 books and hundreds of articles over 30 years.

The concept behind it is to use index cards or slips of paper to capture individual ideas, one for each slip of paper, and place them into your slip-box (Luhmann’s slip box appear to be the drawers of a library catalogue). These individual notes are then linked together through references and links of other cards.

The beauty of the system is that nothing ever falls into The Void (that collection of notes and ideas that you write down and never reference again.) Instead, by linking them together, they generate clusters that represent your interests and passions, which you can then turn into research papers or essays.

The other valuable idea is that the slip-box isn’t to be our storage, but to facilitate real long-term learning. Notes are the thinking process, not a record or storage. It is our system to think with. It can remind us of long forgotten ideas and trigger new ones.


I also think the slip-box could be a fantastic way to generate fiction—a creativity machine.

I see this occurring in two way:

  1. Pursuing academic research around non-fiction topics. By chasing what interests me becomes research, which eventually develops and informs the narrative.
  2. Build a slip-box collection around the topic, filling it with bits and pieces and allowing them to generate steam and grow into something larger. They could be parts of the book or biographies of characters, descriptions of places, moments in the story, etc…

Once you have enough, you could use the notes to outline a world and make connections.

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