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How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning…

by Sönke Ahrens

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318864,760 (3.98)3
"The key to good and efficient writing lies in the intelligent organisation of ideas and notes. This book helps students, academics and nonfiction writers to get more done, write intelligent texts and learn for the long run. It teaches you how to take smart notes and ensure they bring you and your projects forward. The Take Smart Notes principle is based on established psychological insight and draws from a tried and tested note-taking-technique. This is the first comprehensive guide and description of this system in English, and not only does it explain how it works, but also why. It suits students and academics in the social sciences and humanities, nonfiction writers and others who are in the business of reading, thinking and writing. Instead of wasting your time searching for notes, quotes or references, you can focus on what really counts: thinking, understanding and developing new ideas in writing. It does not matter if you prefer taking notes with pen and paper or on a computer, be it Windows, Mac or Linux. And you can start right away."--Page [4] of cover.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
The Zettelkasten (aka slip-box) note-taking method, developed by the brilliant, prolific Niklas Luhmann, has recently garnered much popularity online. As a note-taking, information preserving, memory fearing individual myself, I couldn’t help but be curious. It's a simple and effective idea: form connections between your atomic notes to create a specialized and personal knowledge-graph from which you can gain further insight into chosen topics. Simple to grok, but not to put to practical use. I suspect it took the advent of the computerized world to popularize the method - I can't imagine many people would succumb to the tedium of cataloging physical note cards, maintaining the links between them, and storing them carefully in boxes, as Luhmann famously did.

This book seems to be the definitive explanation of the method and a little more. Ahrens does a great job of explaining the intricacies of the method, providing numerous psychological and literature-supported arguments why it works - although, at times, he divulges in topics that didn't quite convince me in their relevancy to the method. In these occasions, they came across as padding, conjured up no doubt from the depths of Ahrens' own Zettelksaten. The bit of advice that I took the most away from was on the habit of 'active reading' - having a notebook at your side while you read, jotting down whatever key ideas you take away, in your own words - ostensibly to transplant later into your zettelkasten.

Ahrens makes it clear from the get-go that this method particularly works its magic for those who aim to write academically or non-fiction, and offers much advice regarding this. This is disappointing; not all of us necessarily want to write non-fiction or produce anything out of the notes, but rather just want to hold the information well and in an organized fashion. I wanted to use it to store whatever interesting ideas I came across while traversing the vast info spheres of the internet, and also the light non-fiction reading I do sparingly. In this case, the advice seems slightly misplaced, so I'll have to experiment a bit with the method and make it my own. For now, I'm using the FOSS desktop app Zettlr, a simple and functional markdown based editor, though for a premium, the web-app Roam Research is a great option as well and is what Ahrens himself currently uses. The method definitely requires patience and discipline, and it might not be for everyone, but, regardless, I'm convinced: the Zettelkasten is the absolute best note-taking method. ( )
  cpalaka | Jul 14, 2021 |
What a long title for such a short book! A short book – but not an easy one. Ahrens is clearly an academic and this heavily footnoted book, full of citations and references, actually tells a simple story.

It’s the story of Niklas Luhmann, a German academic who was known for being incredibly prolific. He published 58 books and hundreds of articles during his 30-year academic career — and his work is considered to be serious intellectual work at the highest level. How did he do it? Luhmann used a system known as the “slip-box” — basically a lot of short notes that referenced one another.

That system has become the flavour of the month among personal productivity geeks who are ready to move on beyond “getting things done (GTD)”, the “seven habits”, “eat the frog” and the others. To give it its proper, German name — making the system sound more exotic and geeky — Luhmann’s system is called “zettelkasten” and there are web pages galore that give a more concise explanation than this book. ( )
  ericlee | Apr 17, 2021 |
This book teaches you how to become a more rigorous reader, writer, thinker, idea-generator, and researcher via a note-taking methodology that is slowly emerging out of German academia (where it has enjoyed legendary status but in obscurity) and now into the popular consciousness. It has come to the attention of the rest of the world primarily because of this book. That model of note-taking and knowledge-management is called Zettelkasten, or the slip-box method. Even if you don't adopt this methodology, this book is an excellent discussion of these themes and will give you lots of ideas for how you can incorporate better techniques of reading, note-taking, and introspection.

The target audience is academia, but this really is a tremendous resource for all learners. It is an exploration of how we learn and remember and how we can do better. How we can reduce the amount of knowledge, comprehension, and ideas that evaporate from our brains over time. But where this book really shines is as a how-to guide for the Zettelkasten methodology so you can better interrogate what you have learned over time combined with your current thinking and new ideas. It can help you follow paths of introspection and guide you to new ones.

This book is tremendous. It will make you better.

...

Criticisms:
The author at times uses unclear labeling (namely because you think he is labeling when he is, in fact, describing). You know this is an issue when review after review about and tutorial after tutorial associated to this book misdescribe the methodologies in the same way. I figured this out by deep note-taking (since this was a note-taking book) and using this book as a model to implement the techniques he described. If he ever re-edits this book, I would love to see him clear up some of the ambiguity. The description of how notes in the Bibliographical Slip Box are developed, written technically, and organized would be particularly helpful. He is especially vague there (you have to pick it out from several places in the books).

Also, the spine text is flipped, as is traditional in Eastern Europe. But the book I am reviewing is the English translation. The author or publisher should have also adjusted the cover to match the English-speaking world's expectations. Most annoying. Like really really annoying.

Still . . . a five-star book. Excellent. ( )
  ErrantRuminant | Feb 4, 2021 |
I am giving this book 5 stars not because I liked it, but because it has significantly improved my scholarship --- at least, in the last few days since I started reading it. We'll see if it continues!

The crux of the book is "write down insights you have, as you're having them, and then regularly reconcile these into a single place, and track insights you have while writing THOSE down. Rinse and repeat." It's been a very helpful framework for thinking about big thoughts; rather than trying to keep it all jumbled up in your head, or rather than trying to serialize it into a coherent piece of prose, just write down the idea. You can shape it later. It's an excellent tool for decomposing hard problems that require lots of moving machinery to get your mind around. When you're actively searching for, and reveling in insights, learning becomes fun, and spending time doing scholarship becomes the norm. Life pro tip.

The only other good thing I'll say about this book is that it's short. I got through it in two sittings. Really and truly, the only content here is that thing I said above. Have ideas and write them down. The rest of this book is a bunch of bad pop-sci that is sorta tangentially related. I get the impression that Ahrens was Taking Smart Notes on all of the bad pop-sci books he read, and couldn't help but write about them here as filler. The useful part of this book could be a blog post, but you can't sell a blog post!

Unrelatedly, I feel like I've read all the same bad pop-sci books as Ahrens. I'm not sure if this a failure on his part, or on mine :(

I'll begrudgingly recommend this as an excellent book I've read this year, if just for its information content, and not for the book itself. Feel free to skip any paragraph whose first sentence doesn't mention a slip-box; you won't miss much. ( )
  isovector | Dec 13, 2020 |
Most "productivity literature" is fluff, with ten pages of insights buried in 300 pages of anecdotes. "How to Take Smart Notes" isn't anything like that.

It's an argument for maintaining a curated personal knowledge database of your notes (a "zettelkasten") and using that to drive your writing, letting clusters and topics emerge organically from it. It's also full of useful and practical tactics for reading better, taking more useful notes, and actually using those notes to compile and write better articles.
  hrsii | Oct 9, 2020 |
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"The key to good and efficient writing lies in the intelligent organisation of ideas and notes. This book helps students, academics and nonfiction writers to get more done, write intelligent texts and learn for the long run. It teaches you how to take smart notes and ensure they bring you and your projects forward. The Take Smart Notes principle is based on established psychological insight and draws from a tried and tested note-taking-technique. This is the first comprehensive guide and description of this system in English, and not only does it explain how it works, but also why. It suits students and academics in the social sciences and humanities, nonfiction writers and others who are in the business of reading, thinking and writing. Instead of wasting your time searching for notes, quotes or references, you can focus on what really counts: thinking, understanding and developing new ideas in writing. It does not matter if you prefer taking notes with pen and paper or on a computer, be it Windows, Mac or Linux. And you can start right away."--Page [4] of cover.

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