This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Take Smart Notes" by Sönke Ahrens. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Do you write for a living? Do you sometimes get bored or demotivated to write?
If you get bored writing, you might need to spice things up by taking a different approach. Instead of using the top-down approach (going from thesis to argument), try doing it the other way round.
Here’s how to spice up your writing using the slip-box note-taking method.
Why You Get Bored Writing
In How to Take Smart Notes, author Dr. Sönke Ahrens contends that most writers use a top-down method when working with their manuscripts. Normally, you read a little, come up with an original thesis, do further research on your thesis, then write your paper. In other words, you create ideas to support your existing thesis rather than developing a thesis that encompasses your original ideas. Ahrens argues that if you use the top-down approach, you risk growing bored with writing. This can happen in two ways (growing bored writing your thesis and only working on one project)—both of which you can combat by using the slip-box system.
Solution: Only Take Notes on Something That Interests You
First, you may grow bored with writing your thesis. This can happen if, while researching your already-developed thesis, you gain a new insight that counters or significantly alters your thesis—or even leads you in an entirely new direction. Now you’re facing a dilemma: Do you switch tracks and throw away all the work you’ve done so far, or do you continue with your current project—even though you’re no longer fully devoted to it?
(Shortform note: The sunk-cost fallacy suggests that you’ll continue with your project. In Ego is the Enemy, philosopher Ryan Holiday explains that when you’ve invested time, energy, and money (sunk costs) into a project that you later realize will fail, instead of admitting that those costs are irretrievable, you’re more likely to continue to work on the project trying to make those costs mean something.)
If you use the slip-box system, you never face this dilemma of boring writing. In the slip-box system, your thesis stems from ideas you’ve gathered in the slip-box. This guarantees that 1) it’s on a topic you’re interested in—since the slip-box contains only notes on topics that intrigue you—and 2) that it’s something you’ve thought through—since an idea only gains traction in the slip-box if you’ve thought it through significantly. As such, you’re less likely to change your mind about or lose interest in your writing halfway through your project.
(Shortform note: You may still face this dilemma if you use the slip-box but have to submit an early outline: Letting ideas arise naturally in the slip-box requires time, and if you don’t have a good idea by the time your outline is due, you’ll be forced to use the top-down approach. If you regularly work on manuscripts that require you to submit an outline, start collecting notes in your slip-box as early as possible.)
Solution: Work on Multiple Projects
Second, you may grow bored of writing the same piece since you’re only working on one manuscript at a time. Using the slip-box system reduces this possibility because you’re constantly working on multiple projects: You’re developing the slip-box with an eye for creating notes that connect in disparate ways instead of focusing your research on a specific argument. When you simultaneously work on multiple projects, you’re less likely to feel bored with a particular topic—and if you do, you have something else to work on.
(Shortform note: Working on multiple projects has several benefits: For example, some writers find that if they take a break from one manuscript for a few days to work on a different project, they have fresher ideas when they return to it. However, if you must work on one manuscript, try techniques to combat the boredom—like challenging yourself to write 1,000 words in an hour.)
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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