Why take notes, anyway?

Recently I read Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes. It is about notetaking using the Zettelkasten method. The gist of the method is that you note each idea on a separate card. Then you organize the cards into a hierarchy and interlink them using a clever numbering system. This interlinking allows you to generate new ideas. Nowadays you can use a computer program to do the same, of course.

The book is thin on how the method actually works and focuses on why you should use it. I’ve never been great at taking notes and the book gave me insight into why is that: notetaking is part of a bigger process.

The purpose of Zettelkasten is not to remember what you have read. The purpose is to be able to write. The book is geared towards students and researchers in the academia and their main job is to write:

Studying does not prepare students for independent research. It is independent research. (p. 35)

The book asserts that the writing process starts when you read something and take notes about it. Zettelkasten is a way to convert what you’ve learned from reading into writing of your own: first you make notes of interesting ideas, then you develop those ideas by connecting them to your existing ideas, and then you put that together that into a paper. You do all this work using the interlinked note cards.

Now, I do not write papers, but I do have this blog, so Zettelkasten is relevant for me. I’ve never thought about the ideas-to-blog pipeline in this way, but it makes sense. However, if you do not read to write, or to speak, Zettelkasten might not be the right method for you.

The book also asserts that writing is thinking. This rings true even if writing is not the only way to think. To write about an idea, you have to understand it. To write an argument, you have to confront the gaps in it. If you want to think more or think better and you do not write much, you should try writing more.


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