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How to Take Smart Notes

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

by Sönke Ahrens

read in August 2020

book info on goodreads

At first, Ahrens' book "How to Take Smart Notes" appears to be just another self-help book for writers. However, the fact that Ahrens shifts the writing focus just a tiny little bit makes this book interesting. He argues that the most important part of writing, the one that we do not pay much attention to, is the everyday writing of notes, drafts, and jots.

"Writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium of all this work. And maybe that is the reason why we rarely think about this writing, the everyday writing, the note-taking and draft-making. Like breathing, it is vital to what we do, but because we do it constantly, it escapes our attention."

Ahrens argues that this everyday writing is crucial for other long form types of writing. It breaks down the amorphous task of writing a book or paper into many smaller steps (or notes). By breaking the writing down and clearly defining intermediate steps, writing becomes more interesting and motivating. At the same time though academic writing cannot be sequenced into a linear process because one has to constantly jump between the parts. I feel this is especially the case for writing qualitative papers, where once you get to writing the discussion section you have to already rewrite the introduction and background sections. It is probably because of this cyclical process that productivity systems such as GTD have never really caught on in academia. While structured planning is useful in professional practice, academic writing requires more flexibility than planning. A clear workflow as described in the book based on the German sociologist Luhmann's concept of the Zettelkasten promises to provide such a system that is at the same time clearly defined but also offers flexibility to let insights emerge.

The key idea of the smart notes system is about having a set of clearly defined, interconnected writing tasks with intermediate writing output (i.e., notes) that offer immediate feedback and that can be flexibly performed.

To get a good paper written, you only have to rewrite a good draft; to get a good draft written, you only have to turn a series of notes into a continuous text. And as a series of notes is just the rearrangement of notes you already have in your slip-box, all you really have to do is have a pen in your hand when you read.

Because of the many small steps that make up the smart note taking workflow it could benefit from a compounding effect. The more notes one adds to the system the more links can be made. More links ultimately lead to the emergence of idea clusters. These clusters can serve as starting points for new ideas to write about.

The smart notes approach offers a deliberate writing practice because it provides immediate feedback when writing by testing our understanding. Writing and linking notes always requires us to ask questions of how new information fits into our existing understanding. When trying to link and combine ideas in the smart notes system it will uncover flawed arguments and gaps in our thinking. The conventional, linear process of academic writing comes with few such learning opportunities, because feedback is usually only received when we have written a full draft.

The "Smart Notes" approach clearly emphasises creating new information over storing existing information. That is one of the key differentiators from personal wikis or "second brain" approaches. Smart notes are more of a "tool for thought" rather than a tool to archive information. Not trying to replace our brains, like "second brain" approaches seem to suggest, it is rather the correspondence between the note taking system and the brain that supports writing as a facilitator for thinking.

"Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have. Notes build up while you think, read, understand and generate ideas, because you have to have a pen in your hand if you want to think, read, understand and generate ideas properly anyway."

Because smart notes are meant to create new ideas, Ahren's book also emphasises the idea of working in public or, in academic terms, publishing what you create. Putting ideas in writing as part of taking smart notes is the necessary first step to publish. While the traditional academic approach would be to publish ideas written up in the form of papers in journals or books, advocates of Zettelkasten and digital garden approaches have taken the idea of working in public to the extreme by even sharing their working notes online.

Ahrens' argues that personal inertia are the most dominant inhibitors for independent and novel thinking. The smart notes approach is supposed to help overcome our own orthodox thinking habits. But does not the approach also introduce a kind of filter bubble or confirmation bias?

Coming up with creative ideas or theorising is about building connections and bridges between existing pieces of information. The structure of the smart note taking approach with its flat hierarchy and linked notes provides enough structure to build up complexity. At the same time it gives the flexibility to change direction at any time. This flexibility is what allows notes to freely mingle with other ideas in the system and enables a creative way of playing with ideas.

The slip-box is as simple as it gets. Read with a pen in your hand, take smart notes and make connections between them. Ideas will come by themselves and your writing will develop from there. There is no need to start from scratch. Keep doing what you would do anyway: Read, think, write. Just take smart notes along the way.

Overall, the idea of a deliberate writing practice in the form of smart notes sounds attractive. Especially since the approach does not seem to require many changes to the common workflow of academic reading and writing it is something that can be easily implemented. To me the smart notes approach can be a good habit to practice writing in your own words based on what you read. Whether it can really help me come up with new ideas by thinking in the smart notes system remains to be seen.

Julian Prester © 2022