Sönke Ahrens: How to Take Smart Notes

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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Are you an academic or non-fiction writer? Have you ever sat in front of a blank screen and struggled to write a paper?

In How to Take Smart Notes, Sönke Ahrens argues that this happens because traditional, prewriting note-taking methods don’t work—and that you can avoid this issue by using the slip-box 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 take smart notes, according to Sönke Ahrens.

2 Steps to Develop Your Ideas 

You might already have your thoughts that you want to use for your paper or story. You can use those notes to develop your ideas further. In How to Take Smart Notes, Sönke Ahrens recommends the following steps to develop ideas:

1. Review the 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 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.

What to Do When You’re Stuck

In the process of developing your ideas, you may get stuck. One way this can happen is if a question arises that you’re not immediately able to research, or you have a half-formed idea that seems interesting but requires further thought. In this case, researcher Andy Matuschak recommends writing this question or idea as a prompt and placing it into your in-tray; this gives your brain time to work on the issue but also ensures you don’t forget it. 

You may also get stuck because you’re unable to pinpoint issues or gaps in your argument. This may be a symptom of an inability to criticize yourself: You may view criticizing what your mind created as a form of self-criticism. To overcome this, recognize that self-criticism can protect you in the long run: In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, motivational speaker Dale Carnegie notes that criticizing yourself teaches you that criticism can be helpful and prevents you from having emotionally charged reactions to criticism from others.  

Write, Revise, and Publish 

Once you have a de-facto outline after developing your ideas, you can move on to the final steps. Turn your ideas into publishable form with the following steps Sönke Ahrens highlights in How to Take Smart Notes:

1. Write a rough draft based on the 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. 

(Shortform note: In On Writing, author Stephen King also recommends prioritizing your own thought process as you write, and he advises writing a rough draft without help or advice from anyone else. He adds that you should write as quickly as you comfortably can to keep your enthusiasm high.)

2. Revise your manuscript—repeating Steps 1-9 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. 

(Shortform note: If you find returning notes to their respective homes tedious, you may put it off—but this is an essential part of the process. For example, if your notes aren’t where your index says they’ll be, you can’t use the slip-box effectively—which ruins the point of the whole system. One cleaning blogger contends that your laundry isn’t done until it’s put away; similarly, viewing returning notes as a non-negotiable step may encourage you to return them and prevent potential issues.)

Sönke Ahrens: How to Take Smart Notes

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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

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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