How to Take Smart Notes

In his book1, Sönke Ahrens describes two things to improve writing productivity:

  1. Routines for writing
  2. A system for organizing notes and ideas

He breaks down the daunting task of writing by pointing out:

  • Writing a book or manuscript would be easy if someone gave you the first draft.
  • Writing the first draft would be easy if someone gave you an organized set of ideas.
  • Generating the ideas would be easy if someone gave you a set of properly referenced notes from the literature.

Obviously, the “someone” in each of these scenarios is the same person. The routine comes from reversing the process, starting with taking a properly referenced set of notes – hence the title of the book.

The book has a lot of similarities to David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” in which Allen set up processes and an external system to enhance productivity.


The common paradigm in writing is to start with a hypothesis, find supporting research, then write on that topic. Sönke’s method follows a different order: first research while taking notes, connect the research notes into ideas then explore these ideas until you find themes upon which you write. These themes are not selected a priori; they emerge.

Taking notes

1) Take fleeting notes.

Fleeting notes are what’s written on scratch paper, highlighted passages, text scribbled in the margins or even on a napkin. These are temporary stores of data.

2) Summarize the fleeting notes into reference notes

Use the fleeting notes to summarize the text into reference notes. This should stay true to the author’s meaning without overlaying one’s own thoughts and ideas. They should also be written such that you can come back to this note years later, after the context of the original text has faded, and remember what the point was. Store the reference information with these summaries.

3) Contemplate on the reference notes and come up with idea notes

This is where the thinking occurs. Come up with ideas sparked by what you read and write those down. Look at old idea notes and see if the new ideas fit somehow. If so, link them together. This chain of linked ideas (each from different references) may later become a manuscript.

4) Develop topics

Review the notes and think about what other questions it generates. What information is missing? This generates ideas for new research (and hence more research notes). Fill in the gaps of ideas and go in new directions. Look for patterns. The idea notes grow as do the supporting research notes.

5) Write a first draft

Turn a developed idea note into a first draft. Don’t copy notes into the manuscript, but translate it into something coherent and embed them into the context of your argument.

6) Edit and proofread the manuscript

At this point you may have something that is ready to be submitted.

Externalizing Thinking

The other important concept of the book is to externalize your thinking by storing each of these notes in a trusted system. The prolific German social theorist Niklas Luhmann, on whose work this book is based, used index cards with indexed with alphanumeric tags linking everything together stored in a wooden “slip-box”. Technology gives us better options today.

1) Fleeting notes.

Always take notes while you read. Take them on the pdf, highlights, margins, in Drafts, or on small pieces of paper. Whatever. It doesn’t matter, this will be immediately discarded, but jot down important ideas before they are forgotten.

2) References notes

Summarize those fleeting notes into a blog post or text file. I like the idea of putting it online because it is easier to peruse search results in WordPress than DropBox. Tag these as #reference.

3) Idea notes

Review completed reference notes to generate ideas. Link them to prior ideas (stored in the slip-box). If this is a new idea, create a new idea note. Tag this as #idea. Put a link to the reference notes in the idea note.

Add any new ideas to the index.

4) Develop topics

From time to time read the idea notes to find gaps. Ask questions about where the gaps are and different paths to follow. These will be the springboard for future research. The questions stay in the idea notes. Future research goes in reference notes.

5) First draft

When topics are explored and developed, write a first draft. These should not be online.

6) Final draft

Also not online.


This note in itself is a reference note compiled from Kindle highlights and notes (fleeting notes). Ultimately this can spark the idea of distributed cognition prompting exploration of clinical decision aids, Getting Things Done and the book “An Organized Mind.” This would lead to a first draft.

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