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Book Review: How to Take Smart Notes

One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens

Suraj Deshmukh

7-Minute Read

Introduction

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens is a small (171 pages) non-fiction genre book. The book is a manual explaining Zettlekasten method designed by Niklas Luhmann. Sönke has used straightforward and simple English to explain the concepts. For anyone who is a knowledge curator or wishes to publish non-fictional content in any form (text, video or audio), this book is a must-read. I came across this book when I was watching a video by Ali Abdaal named “How I Remember Everything I Read”. Here he explains various levels of note-taking, how this book has influenced his note-taking capabilities and the foremost reason for making the video. I saw the book wasn’t that huge, I bought it and started reading immediately.

Book Cover

What is Zettlekasten and who is Niklas Luhmann?

Zettlekasten (German of slip box) was a technique created by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. In physical terms, it is just a cupboard with multiple drawers holding slips. And in virtual expression, it contains knowledge storing framework similar to our brain. Luhmann used this framework of knowledge storage to think about ideas, and he created a plethora of books, articles and other published material. On average, he published at least two books every year until he was alive.

What is the book really about?

Suppose you are planning to research in some area. In that case, this book promises to give you techniques and tools. To build knowledge around that topic, keeping the references in an organised way, think critically on all aspects of that topic, form connections, draw pros and cons on your thinking and finally generate a manuscript based on the cluster of knowledge and ideas.

Nowadays, people are bogged down by the collector’s fallacy, and this book teaches you how to be a writer and not be an archivist.

The way people choose their keywords shows clearly if they think like an archivist or a writer. The archivist asks: Which keyword is the most fitting? A writer asks: In which circumstances will I want to stumble upon this note, even if I forget about it? It is a crucial difference.

Usually, the approach of note-taking many folks follow is to highlight in the book and write a couple of lines in the margin of the book. Some copy the highlights verbatim, and people forget what that highlights meant when they come back to it later, if at all, to read those highlights. In this book, the author teaches you a new way to take notes. The book emphasises on not highlighting but paraphrasing the content or insights in your own words. Put those insights into a temporary system (fleeting notes) and process these fleeting notes daily and put them into your Zettlekasten in the form of permanent notes. Once you have multiple permanent notes (in the author’s words, “critical mass”), you can link them in the form of a graph.

If you want to really understand something, you have to translate it into your own words.

The author tries to break the habit of traditional note-taking where the skeleton of notes is very similar to the content it was taken from, this format is linear. While the note-taking technique in the book is natural, identical to the way brain stores information in neurons. The data is stored with context links. The more contexts you have about specific information, the more you understand and remember it better hence the more ideas you can develop around such a topic. Ideally, your Zettlekasten should resemble your brain and thus help you form those context explicitly rather than you stumbling across such connections in the form of epiphanies. This way of note-taking makes developing insight a structured thing, unlike the usual messy approach.

By focusing on what is interesting and keeping written track of your own intellectual development, topics, questions and arguments will emerge from the material without force.

Internalising this technique takes discipline and unlearning old ways (which is the hardest thing). You have to be disciplined enough to take fleeting notes while reading the text and process those fleeting notes within a couple of days to form your permanent notes. Once you have a note which has multiple notes connected to it in the various context, you can create a manuscript out of it. So unlike the traditional method, you don’t need to start from blank paper to create content. You already have so much knowledge, facts, ideas and opinions built up, while reading and researching, that you just have to find a way to put it into a linear method on paper.

Style of the book

The author has a humorous style of writing; thus, it makes an exciting read for a non-fiction genre book. I found myself giggling in between. In the start, I was a bit confused about the Zettlekasten system and found it really hard to wrap my head around this whole notion of clustered thinking. But as I kept going, I started grasping the book. Like, in the later chapters, the author does a walkthrough of converting an insight read from the text into a fleeting note and then into a permanent note. This helped me a lot with understanding how to think while reading, what questions to ask when taking fleeting notes and how to approach while generating permanent note out of a fleeting note.

Since the author emphasises a lot on writing and its importance in thinking. So to corroborate his claims, he has given numerous examples of how it has been proven by various research that writing is critical to thinking and generating insights.

Personal Impact

While reading the book, I had one question that should I start taking notes on anything and everything? That will seriously slow my knowledge consumption rate? I found this answer in a book club meeting. Where Sönke answered that you don’t need to take note about everything you read but only about the topics you are doing research and want to build “critical mass” around.

Reading with a pen in the hand, for example, forces, us to think about what we read and check upon our understanding. It is the simplest test: We tend to think we understand what we read – until we try to rewrite it in our own words. By doing this, we not only get a better sense of our ability to understand, but also increase our ability to clearly and concisely express our understanding – which in return helps to grasp ideas more quickly. If we try to fool ourselves here and write down incomprehensible words, we will detect it in the next step when we try to turn our literature notes into permanent notes and try to connect them with others.

So while reading anything new like a blog, I start out without a presumption of taking a note. Still, if I find something interesting, then I take a note in notes app or on a paper notebook. And I process it later and put it into my notes system. After reading this book, I haven’t become a fanatic notetaker. Because there are some concepts and ideas, I just want to be exposed to and not necessarily do a detailed study on it.

I haven’t stopped highlighting in books. But taking notes in my own words has increased significantly. I am still trying to find a perfect tool for note-taking. But for now, I have started collecting notes in my Notion database. I think this will evolve as my experience with the system and content evolves.

For someone reading this book, having finished a couple of chapters, think about how you can take smart notes whenever you read something related to your research area. This exercise, although frustrating at first, will help you understand the rest of the book better. But again the book is worth coming back to, to calibrate your way of taking notes.

My personal take away in one line is “Writing is Thinking”.

Conclusion

If you are looking for a way to do personal knowledge management, then this book is not for you. But if you want to research a topic and later publish stuff, then this is a good manual. Go ahead give it a try, it is not a giant book to complete cover to cover.

Pointers

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I am a Senior Software Engineer at Microsoft, working on various tooling around container technology like Docker, Kubernetes, etc.