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How To Take Smart Notes: 10 Principles to Revolutionize Your Note-Taking and Writing

Nobody starts from scratch

We are typically taught to begin writing by picking a topic as the first step. But we can't decide if we haven't read about anything. And the decision to read comes from an existing interest.

Creativity never starts from a blank slate. We start researching long before, with rich material to work with. That is why an external note system is so critical: It makes the writing process possible.

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SIMILAR ARTICLES & IDEAS:

Note-taking: a powerful tool for learning
  • Notes extend your memories: writing can be seen as an external enhancement of your brain, allowing you to think more complicated thoughts and solve harder problems.
  • Notes enhance your focus: The act of taking notes ensures your mind isn’t wandering and facilitates deeper understanding of what you're reading.
Figure out your purpose

Ask yourself why are you reading:

  • What am I trying to remember? 
  • How am I going to use this information? (e.g. on a test, cited in an essay, etc.)
  • What do I plan to do with the notes later? Will you be studying off of them extensively? Or maybe you’re just taking notes to stay focused, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll look through them after?
Strategies for note-taking
  • Jot notes in the margin. These aren’t particularly searchable, but they allow you to reiterate the main idea.
  • Keep a small notepad on the side, take breaks each section to jot down the main ideas. 
  • Create flashcards. In the rarer situations where memorization of details is important, then a simple strategy can be to just create flashcards while you take notes. 
The Zettelkasten System Of Productivity

The Zettelkasten way or the ‘slip box’ method was pioneered by Niklas Luhmann, is an always-on, filing system that one can use to categorize and ‘slip’ any new insight or idea in a separate file or cabinet.

With this method, any new idea or insight now has a readymade home where it can be placed easily, with the growing collection facilitating new projects and cross-connections.

Zettelkasten: An Indexing System For Ideas
  • The way to collect ideas using the Zettelkasten Method is to use a branching card system, where numbers and letters are used to ‘address’ or pinpoint the sequence as well as the branching hierarchy of an idea.
  • A card address can be 1/1, or ½, or 1/2a based on the idea and connecting ideas it has.
  • Another method is to add references at the bottom of the cards, jotting down the addresses of ‘related’ ideas, making cross-referencing easier.
  • This method is similar to hypertext and URLs of the digital age, though in a completely analogue form.
Zettelkasten Method In The Digital Age

Many note-taking apps can mimic the functionality of the Zettelkasten system but have certain limitations like few backup options, and loss of insight links in case of a shutdown of the app. Others offer pristine functionality of the idea filing and linking system but have the same proprietary and database concerns.
The best way is to go manual and build a word file using hypertext links, notes and references.

One can try a mix and match approach, making sure that one is able to:

  1. quickly start a new idea or note.
  2. quickly link two or more notes.
  3. able to retrieve a note easily.
  4. is synced and is usable in multiple devices.
Note Taking - Starter Tips

Preparation steps before a note-taking session:

  • Try to get familiar with the topic that is going to be discussed, beforehand. This leads to better understanding.
  • Make sure you have adequate notepaper and writing material.
  • Stay hydrated and consume caffeine moderately.
  • Don't go in hungry, opting for a wholesome snack.
  • Have a positive attitude, and a willingness to pay attention.
  • If something is getting repeated in class or is indicated to be important, pay attention.
Outline Method

Taking a structured approach to note-taking is the best way. Put the outline notes by choosing four or five key points of the lecture, followed by in-depth sub-points. One way to review is to use the Cornell Method, which divides the note sheet into three sections:

  • Cues: It includes key questions and main points.
  • Notes: Which you write during the class using the outline method. 
  • Summary: Which you can write after class while reviewing.

The Mind Map

The mind map is a visual diagram of abstract concepts.

It works best in subjects like chemistry, history and philosophy, subjects having a neural network like interlocked and complex topics.