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How to Take Smart Notes

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How to Take Smart Notes

One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers


15 min read
5 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Free your brain by using a “slip-box” system to store and connect your research information.

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  • Analytical
  • Innovative
  • Concrete Examples


Researcher and author Dr. Sönke Ahrens explores the meaning of writing and discusses how to write effectively using the “slip-box system.” He explains how to follow the lead of Niklas Luhmann, a prolific author and sociologist who produced 58 books in 30 years. Luhmann’s slip-box, note-taking system allowed him to connect notes he’d made from his readings with other information from a variety of contexts. Whether you follow this manual’s process or create a digital version, the concept remains the same. It starts with writing notes about what you read and tracking how they intersect, which makes this illuminating for students, academics, researchers, businesspeople and other writers. 


Your willpower has limits; your ability to think does not.

Many self-help books on writing focus on what to do when you confront a blank page. They overlook the potential of creating an information-gathering process that ensures your page isn’t blank when you begin. Most writing manuals omit an important part of academic, research, business or non-fiction writing: taking notes.

Bad note-taking has no immediate repercussions. The problems appear later, when you attempt to write a cogent work based on flawed notes. At that point, many people will reach for a how-to book so they can get on track. But by then, it’s too late.

You write daily. For many people, writing is akin to breathing. If you hit a snag when you begin to write, it may be because you’re trying to retrieve arguments and points of information from your head. Combining smaller points and referring to the material you have already written might make writing significantly easier.

To have these smaller pieces ready to use, you need a system that allows you to concentrate on ideas and arguments instead...

About the Author

Education and social science researcher Dr. Sönke Ahrens also wrote the award-winning Experiment and Exploration: Forms of World-Disclosure.

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