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How to Take Smart Notes

A Book on Notetaking? It’s Not What You Might Expect

Amazon showed me Sönke Ahrens’s How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers about twenty times in sponsored posts before I finally broke down to see what it was all about. I decided to retrieve a sample chapter on my Kindle. I couldn’t put the book down and read it well into the night. My wife even asked me what in the world I was reading, to which I sheepishly confessed it was a book on taking notes.

This book is not about Reformed theology, church history, or even philosophy, but I’m confident many of you nevertheless will be intrigued. I loved this book so much that I ordered several copies to give as gifts to friends. I should say that two of the first five paperbacks I ordered were very poorly bound. These appear to be self-published through Amazon’s CreateSpace. The glue on the bindings did not hold well, and pages were falling out of the defective copies. I asked for replacement copies, and Amazon promptly sent them—even before receiving the bad copies in return. The new copies were fine. Whether or not they will hold up in the long run is an open question. To appropriate the profundity of Samuel Roy Hagar, “only time will tell if [they] stand the test of time.”

This book isn’t what you might expect. It’s not a self-help book with tips for becoming a better student, a better listener, or to improve your ability to capture thoughts for future contemplation and recall. I believe that following the model suggested in this book may in fact make you a better student and researcher. It will certainly help you to process your thoughts. But this book goes much deeper than a series of tips and tricks. It’s a proposal for a more disciplined—yet much more liberating—process of contemplation and writing.

I need to warn you now, that for some of you, what you’re going to hear next is going to send you down a deep, deep rabbit hole on the Internet, and what you find will affect many aspects of your life. Consider yourself warned.

The Heart of the Book

At the heart of Ahren’s How to Take Smart Notes is a somewhat idiosyncratic notetaking system developed by German sociologist Niklaus Luhmann. He used a system that is known as a Zettelkasten, or notes box. If you’re old enough to remember physical card catalogues, Luhmann used two of these. Ahrens proposes dividing your note-taking into three types.

  • Ephemeral notes (these eventually get thrown out)
  • Literature notes (write these as you read a book, but keep them separate from the next type)
  • Zettel (process your literature notes and write permanent notes—one note per idea)

Once written, you must then link a note to the other notes in your existing network of note-ideas.

In my conceptualization, Luhmann’s method is a form of atomic writing. You must force yourself to formulate your thoughts and write them as if writing them for someone else. This can be difficult, and you may find much personal inertia to this approach. That’s because you think you know the subject matter better than you do. Writing is the thinking process.

By using this method, Luhmann was able to write more than 70 books and 400 scholarly articles before he died at the age of 70. That is impressive. But perhaps even more impressive than his scholarly output is the nature of his scholarship. He was able to approach subjects in fresh ways, finding surprising connections among disparate disciplines. This was due in part to the unexpected connections made within his Zettelkasten.

Digital Approaches and Applications for Pastors and Biblical Scholars

Luhmann wrote his notes on cards and filed them in a physical catalogue. There is much to be said about the benefits of handwriting and the tactile qualities of this form of note-taking, yet there are also many limitations—particularly with linking and searchability. For those who are interested in a digital approach to creating a Zettelkasten, an entire ecosystem is developing around what generally is called Personal Knowledge Management (PKM). People not only use the Zettelkasten method and its variants for academic research and writing, but also for all types of creative work, personal journaling, and even for CRM (customer/constituent relationship management).

I am currently exploring how to link my thoughts as I read and contemplate Scripture. Intelligently linking all the Scripture references in my notes and sermons may prove to be immensely useful when approaching related texts in the future.

For Further Consideration

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Reformed Media Review is dedicated to reviewing books and culture from a Reformed and redemptive-historical vantage point. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

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