Mastering the Art of Giving Feedback in the Workplace

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 the slip-box system of note-taking? What are the benefits of the slip-box method over traditional techniques?

In his book How to Take Smart Notes, Ahrens argues that the slip-box system is specifically designed to help you both have and share original insights. The slip-box method has several benefits over the traditional writing process: For example, using it will make you more efficient and lead to more creative insights. 

Let’s look at the three benefits of the slip-box method.

The Slip-Box Method’s Benefits

Ahrens contends that in traditional academic writing methods, you don’t gain regular feedback. For example, you might jot down an idea you’ve learned from a book—but you don’t learn whether it’s useful until you try to include it in your paper several steps later. 

In contrast, Ahrens argues that the slip-box method gives feedback at each stage of the process. The system provides immediate and regular feedback in various ways. For example, by filing evergreen notes in your slip-box, you immediately learn whether a note is valuable: A note you can logically file behind another note and that connects to several other notes within the slip-box is probably a better idea than a note you find only a few connections to.

By providing regular feedback, Ahrens argues, the slip-box method provides three benefits that traditional academic writing methods don’t.

1. It Makes the Writing Process More Efficient

As Ahrens notes, in the traditional method, you might try to write about an idea you highlighted in a book—only to realize that you don’t understand the idea well and thus interrupt your writing to review the idea. Using the slip-box system provides this feedback earlier and thus avoids such interruptions. If you can’t clearly and concisely summarize an author’s idea in your own words in a literature note, this is feedback saying that you don’t understand the idea well—and prompts you to clarify your understanding of the idea when you’re taking notes instead of when you’re writing a draft. 

(Shortform note: While non-fiction writers don’t generally get feedback from themselves at the note-taking stage, there are several techniques they use to get feedback from others before writing a final draft of their paper. Notably, university students are often encouraged to talk to their teachers or visit university-sponsored writing centers at each stage of the writing process so that they can receive feedback on their ideas, outlines, and drafts.)

2. It Improves Your Skills

Specifically, Ahrens contends that using the slip-box method improves each skill necessary to write your paper—namely writing, reading, and thinking. Ahrens believes that deliberate practice is essential to improving any skill, and he believes that each step of the slip-box method is a form of deliberate practice. This is because 1) you receive immediate feedback regarding how good you are at each step and 2) you approach every step with a specific goal—for example, your goal when reading a book is to create literature notes that capture its most important ideas. Since each step is an opportunity to deliberately practice some skill, Ahrens argues, using the slip-box method makes you a better reader, writer, and thinker.

3. It Helps You Make Good Choices 

Ahrens contends that regularly using the slip-box method improves your ability to make good choices when working on your manuscripts. Ahrens explains that writers need to learn how to make good choices because writing often requires you to make judgment calls: For example, if you come up with an idea, you must decide whether it’s worth pursuing further research on or likely to be a dead end. 

(Shortform note: Ahrens focuses primarily on how using the slip-box method improves your ability to choose what ideas to pursue, but how do you make better choices about which words can best express those ideas? On Writing Well author William Zinsser recommends emulating the writing style of your favorite writers: As you copy them, you’ll naturally develop a sense of what works and ultimately make better choices in your own writing.) 

Ahrens contends that the best writers improve this skill by following their intuition, which they develop by repeatedly making and learning from their mistakes: The more mistakes you make, the better you become at detecting what not to do when some pattern arises—so the better you become at recognizing—or intuiting—what to do instead. Since using the slip-box method gives you constant feedback, you are constantly recognizing and learning from your mistakes: For example, if you regularly run into dead ends when researching ideas that arise in your slip-box, you’ll eventually start to intuit when an idea is likely to result in a dead-end. In this way, using the slip-box system hones the intuition you need to make good choices. 

The Slip-Box Method: Level Up Your Writing

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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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