How to Take Smart Notes: Book Overview

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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What is Dr. Sönke Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes about? How does the slip-box system compare to the traditional methods of note-taking?

How to Take Smart Notes is an extensive guide to the best method of effectively organizing notes: the slip-box system. Ahrens goes into great detail on how to use the system to its full advantage and why it stands as the best against traditional note-taking strategies.

Here’s a brief overview of How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

How to Take Smart Notes

If you’re someone who publishes original insights for a living—like a non-fiction writer or an academic—how can you make your writing process as efficient as possible? In his book How to Take Smart Notes, researcher Dr. Sönke Ahrens presents a method for doing so: The slip-box system is a method of taking notes and organizing them that fosters the creation and publication of original ideas. In the original version of the system, writers took notes on index cards and organized them in a “slip-box,” or cabinet; today, a digital version is more common. 

Ahrens argues that since this slip-box system is specifically designed to help you both have and share original insights—and make the writing process easier overall—it has several benefits over the traditional writing process: For example, using it will make you more efficient and lead to more creative insights. 

(Shortform note: Most English-speaking users of the slip-box system refer to it as the Zettelkasten, its original German name. But Ahrens uses the term “slip-box system” because it’s the direct translation of Zettelkasten, and because he uses the term Zettelkasten to refer to a specific computer program by that name. To avoid confusion with this computer program, this guide will also use the term “the slip-box system.”)

The Origins of the Slip-Box System

In his book How to Take Smart Notes, Ahrens explains that the slip-box system was invented by Niklas Luhmann, an incredibly productive German sociologist. Not only did Luhmann publish nearly 60 books within his lifetime, but he also has several posthumously-published books to his name—thanks to the ideas he collected within his slip-box. 

(Shortform note: Writers before Luhmann, who was born in 1927, also used note-taking systems similar to the slip-box system. Notably, in 1921’s The Intellectual Life, French philosopher Antonin Sertillanges also describes a note-taking system where you take notes on uniform sheets of paper, label them, and relate them to each other with a classification system.)  

Luhmann was vocal about how the slip-box system helped his productivity. However, the system only gained popularity within a small niche, which Ahrens attributes to two main reasons. The first is primarily linguistic: Since Luhmann was German, most of the publicly available information about his system was in German. 

Second, as Ahrens argues, people misunderstood the system: They focused solely on the slip-box and not the overall workflow dictated by the slip-box. Since they didn’t understand how to use the slip-box system to its full advantage, they were never as productive as promised—and the system never gained the popularity it deserved. 

(Shortform note: It’s possible people haven’t focused on the workflow because it’s hard to see. Many modern users, notably researcher Andy Matuschak, have published their slip-boxes online. However, since they don’t publish the drafts of their publications, you can’t see exactly how the notes within the slip-box turn into a publishable manuscript—so it’s not as easy to understand how that part of the process works.)

How to Use the Slip-Box System

If the slip-box system is only effective when you know how to use it, as Ahrens contends, you must learn how to properly use it. After learning of the origins of the slip-box system, the How to Take Smart Notes book teaches you the specific steps to effectively use the slip-box system to create a publishable manuscript:

  1. Take Notes
  2. File Notes
  3. Link Notes To Your Index
  4. Develop Your Ideas
  5. Write, Revise, and Publish

Paper Versus Digital: Which Is Better?   

After explaining how the slip-box system works, the How to Take Smart Notes book debates whether paper or digital is the best version to use for your slip-box. While Luhmann used an analog system, Ahrens recommends a digital one. In this section, we’ll first discuss why Ahrens prefers the digital version of the slip-box.

Ahrens recommends having a digital system because it’s generally more efficient. You can access a digital slip-box anywhere; you can only access a physical slip-box if you’re standing next to it. If you go the digital route, Ahrens recommends Daniel Lüdecke’s zettelkasten: It’s free, user-friendly, and works across multiple platforms. 

However, using an analog system has undeniable benefits. Writing temporary notes on paper is generally the most efficient and portable method. Also, if you write them all in the same notebook, it’s easy to know where you’ve collected all your notes so that you can go through them at the end of the day. 

Similarly, one study suggests that handwriting improves your understanding of what you’re writing—so when creating literature notes, handwriting may help you clarify your understanding of the text. 

If you go the analog route, Ahrens recommends using A6 cards for each literature and evergreen note you create. You’ll also need a place to store your notes. Luhmann used a card catalog cabinet, but something as simple as a shoebox will also work. 

Whether you use a digital or a physical version of the slip-box itself, Ahrens urges you to keep your reference system at least partly digital: Even if you create your literature notes by hand, you should have their bibliographic information in a digital format because most academics and nonfiction writers draft their work on a computer. By using plugins like Zotero, you can easily collect bibliographical information with just a few clicks. Zotero also integrates with several word processing tools, like Microsoft Word, which can make tracking and editing citations within your final work much easier.

Why the Slip-Box System Is Superior 

You’ve now learned how to use the slip-box system, but why should you? Lastly, Dr. Sönke Ahrens dives into five specific features of the slip-box system that closes out his How to Take Smart Notes book.

  1. It requires you to write at every stage of the creative process
  2. It follows a bottom-up approach
  3. It breaks down your writing workflow
  4. It provides regular feedback
  5. It mimics your brain
How to Take Smart Notes: Book Overview

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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

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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