Are your notes all over the place? What is the best way to organize notes?
If you find it difficult to organize your notes, you should try the slip-box note-taking system. Slip-box is a method of taking notes and organizing them that fosters the creation and publication of original ideas.
Here’s how to organize your notes using the slip-box method.
Filing Your Notes
The best way to organize your notes is to put them in one of two places: a reference system or your slip-box.
1. File your literature notes in one place that’s separate from your slip-box, like a shoebox: Ahrens refers to this place as your “reference system.” When you file your notes, include the bibliographic information of each source. If you have three literature notes about one book, you’ll file those notes with the fourth note including all the book’s bibliographic information—anything you might need to include in your final published work.
(Shortform note: Despite calling the place you store your literature notes a “reference system,” Ahrens doesn’t present details as to why it’s a system and not merely a collection of references. It’s possible that Ahrens doesn’t provide further details on how this system might work because, as we’ll see later, Ahrens believes that a digital reference system is best—and digital systems all work slightly differently depending on which software you use.)
2. File your evergreen notes into your slip-box. To do so effectively, use the following system. If your new note connects strongly to an old note—like if it supports an argument—organize the new note behind that note. Otherwise, file it behind the most recent note.
Then, rummage through your slip-box and look for weaker or less obvious connections between notes you already have and your new notes. If you find any, create links between those notes. (For example, if Note #1 and Note #55 are connected, on Note #1, write down that it’s connected to Note #55, and on Note #55, write down that it’s connected to Note #1.)
(Shortform note: Matuschak advises avoiding the temptation to decide how you’ll link your notes before you develop your slip-box. He argues that if you try to force your ideas to connect in predetermined ways, you won’t be able to connect various nuances between the ideas; worse, you may not recognize a new subtopic (a series of connected notes) because it doesn’t fit into the structure you already have.)
Link Notes to Your Index
Once you have notes in your slip-box, the next step to organizing your notes is to link them to your index. This is any document with a list of topics with references to the notes on which those topics are mentioned. You use it to navigate the collection of notes in your slip-box so that you can find the right idea when you need it. You can link your evergreen notes to your index in one of two ways.
1. Create a new index entry whenever you notice that several evergreen notes in your slip-box all revolve around a single topic. This will consist of a keyword and the few notes most relevant to that keyword. Customize these keywords so they make sense to you and help you think: For example, a food writer with Note #30 that says “The best honey comes from Australia” might file that under the keywords “ingredient origins – honey.” An economist with that same note might file it under “beekeeping industry.”
(Shortform note: Similarly, Matuschak urges you to write your evergreen notes for your own eyes; they only have to make sense to you. Some people try to write evergreen notes as if they’ll publish them in an effort to save working time down the road—but doing this risks making the task so difficult that you never write them at all.)
2. Alternatively, link your evergreen note to an existing note (that’s listed in the index) instead of to the index itself. For example, if Note #31 reads, “Australian honey is very flowery,” you could link it to Note #30 using the method described in Step 5. Since Note #30 is still in the index, this technique ensures that you can still find Note #31—but it doesn’t overcrowd your index.
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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Sönke Ahrens's "How to Take Smart Notes" at Shortform .
Here's what you'll find in our full How to Take Smart Notes summary :
- Why traditional, prewriting note-taking methods don’t work
- How to use the slip-box system method of note-taking
- How to organize and file your notes