How to Take Slip-box Notes in 5 Easy Steps

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 notes system? How does the slip-box note-taking method help you take better notes?

The slip-box notes system (also known as Zettelkasten) was created by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. The 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. 

Here you’ll learn the specific steps to effectively use the slip-box note-taking system to create a publishable manuscript. 

Step 1: Take Notes

Ahrens recommends taking three types of notes: temporary notes, literature notes, and evergreen notes. 

1. Create temporary notes, which Ahrens calls “fleeting notes.” Most of us have random ideas as we go about our day. Jot these down so you don’t forget them, and put them all in one place—an in-tray, or what Ahrens calls an “inbox.” 

2. Create literature notes. Always read with a pen—and whenever you come across interesting, potentially useful ideas, create literature notes. Using full sentences, summarize the text in your own words, making sure that you only include one idea per note. In each note, include information about the source material (like the book’s author, the year it was published, and the page number on which you found the idea). Place these literature notes in your in-tray. 

3. Create evergreen notes, which Ahrens calls “permanent notes,” by combining your other notes. Each day, go over the notes in your in-tray and any notes you’ve already collected in your slip-box. As you do so, think to yourself: How do these ideas compare with and connect? When you have an original thought about these connections, create a new note—ensuring that each original idea has its own note. Use full sentences, be as clear and concise as possible, and include citations. 

Step 2: File Slipbox Notes

Now that you have notes, it’s time to organize 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 a fourth note including all the book’s bibliographic information—anything you might need to include in your final published work. 

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—file 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 slipbox 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.) 

Once you have notes in your slip-box, the next step 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.”   

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. 

Step 4: Develop Your Ideas 

Now that you have your slipbox notes, you can use those notes to develop your ideas further. To do so, Ahrens recommends the following steps.

1. Review the slipbox notes and continue researching based on the questions that naturally come up: Ahrens argues that, as you create and regularly review several evergreen notes on similar topics, you’ll inevitably discover new threads of information you’ll want to follow. For example, if you’re a food writer researching Australian honey, one question that you may have—and should research—is what foods pair well with that honey.

2. Once you’ve created several notes, Ahrens argues, you’ll have enough notes to know what you want to write about. When this occurs, pull out all the notes in your slip-box related to that topic. Logically rearrange them: Ahrens contends that since all these notes are your own ideas, doing so will naturally reveal some form of argument. Critically analyze this argument: Does it still have significant gaps? How can it be stronger? Use the answers to inform further research. Eventually, when you pull out these notes, you’ll have the outline of a paper.

Step 5: Write, Revise, and Publish 

Once you have a de-facto outline, you can move on to the final steps. Turn your ideas into publishable form with the following steps.

1. Write a rough draft based on the slipbox notes you pulled out previously. Don’t feel married to the structure you laid out: As we’ll describe in further detail, you think as you write, so your ideas may change as you write your draft. Your notes are meant to help you develop your argument—they don’t necessarily have to be the argument. 

2. Revise your manuscript—repeating Steps 1-5 as necessary—then edit and publish it. Once this is done, return any notes you’ve removed to their respective homes: Literature notes should live in the reference system, while evergreen notes live in the slip-box.

How to Take Slip-box Notes in 5 Easy Steps

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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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