How to Take Smart Notes


  • Writing is a tool for learning, not a product of learning
  • How to Take Smart Notes provides a framework to make learning and writing more efficient
  • I have implemented a note-taking strategy to improve my own learning
  • Note-taking is a superpower for capturing ideas and writing about them

I used to think of nonfiction writing as an end product of a long stretch of focused research. In my mind, a person chose a topic at the beginning of their journey, gathered sources about their subject, performed research in that field, then wrote the paper or book that they set out to write at the beginning. After reading Sönke Ahrens’ book, How to Take Smart Notes, my view on writing is changed. Writing is a tool for learning, not the end product.

Ahrens’ book provides a road map used by Niklas Luhmann to take notes and to write while performing his research as a Professor of Sociology at Bielefeld University from 1968 to 1993. During this time, Luhmann wrote more than 70 books and almost 400 scholarly articles about a variety of topics in sociology. This incredible level of production is often credited to his note-taking system. In How to Take Smart Notes, Ahrens provides evidence-based detail about why the system is so effective.

I suggest you read the book or do research about Luhmann if you’re interested in implementing a note-taking system of your own. That being said, this is a wildly simplified version of his slip box system:

  1. Always read with a pen in your hand to take fleeting notes when an idea strikes you.
  2. At the end of each day, turn these fleeting notes into permanent notes.
  3. File the notes into a single slip box near notes about a similar subject
  4. Use the slip box notes as a way to revisit old thoughts and make connections between old and new ideas.
  5. Once the notes on a specific topic have reached a critical mass, write about that topic.

The permanent notes described above should be written in complete sentences and describe complete thoughts. Luhmann used 4×6 inch note cards for his permanent notes. This restriction of space and standardization of format removes choice and forces you to be concise in your writing. This consistency allows your brain to focus only on understanding the idea about which you are writing and describing it in the most efficient way possible.

Luhmann filed all of his notes together in a single slip box but placed them in a numbered order among notes that he thought shared similar topics. By revisiting old notes to determine where a new note should be filed, he consistently revisited his previous ideas. He also created an index of keywords that would lead him back to old ideas when he went looking for them. This interplay between human and slip box each day provided Luhmann with the opportunity to continue learning and sharpening his ideas long after they had been thought of and forgotten.

I have tried to implement these ideas into a note-taking system of my own. I am currently using Evernote, a free note-taking application that allows for keyword tags and organization into different notebooks. This app can be accessed online and on your mobile phone. As I’m reading or when an idea occurs to me, I pull out my phone and write down the idea and save it in my “Fleeting Notes” notebook. If I see an interesting article, book, white paper, etc., I’ll save a link to that and any notes taken while reading it into a “References” notebook. Once I’m able to go back and revisit my fleeting notes and turn them into permanent ones, I place tags on them and move them into a “Permanent Notes” notebook.

I’ve only been using this system for the few weeks, and I surely haven’t ironed out all of the kinks. Despite the short time, I am seeing the advantages it provides. It has provided topics and ideas about which to tweet and to write blog posts without spending any time on brainstorming. There is no more wracking of my brain to think of a subject about which to write. Taking notes and writing about the books and articles that I’ve been reading has forced me to go deeper into thought to understand what the author is saying and how it applies to my learning journey. This understanding is translated into my permanent notes that I can draw on later when writing. A note-taking system is a must for anyone writing nonfiction or doing research.

Do you have a system to organize your notes and ideas? Leave a summary of your system in the comments!

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