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8 Steps to taking smart notes

8 Steps to taking smart notes

This approach to note-taking was inspired by the 20th-century German sociologist Niklas Luhmann who was a prolific note-taker, writer, and academic. He developed a simple system based on paper index cards, which he called his “slip-box”, designed to connect any given note to as many different potentially relevant contexts as possible. 

It enables the note-taker to break down their notes into smaller, manageable chunks and organize them into a cohesive whole. This process allows the note-taker to gain a better understanding of their notes and to utilize them in further research and writing.


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4. Addition your new permanent notes to the slip-box.

4. Addition your new permanent notes to the slip-box.

Add the permanent notes you’ve created to your slip-box. Do this by filing each note behind a related note (if it doesn’t relate to any existing notes, add it to the very end).


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1.Fleeting Notes.

1.Fleeting Notes.

Fleeting notes are quick, informal notes on any thought or idea that pops into your mind meant to be a reminder of what’s in your head.


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5. Develop your topics, questions and research projects bottom up from within the slip-box.

5. Develop your topics, questions and research projects bottom up from within the slip-box.

With so many standardized notes organized in a consistent format, you are now free to develop ideas in a “bottom up” way. See what is there, what is missing, and which questions arise. Look for gaps that you can fill through further reading.


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6. Decide on a topic to write about from within the slip-box.

6. Decide on a topic to write about from within the slip-box.

Instead of coming up with a topic upfront, you can just look into your slip-box and look for what is most interesting. Your writing will be based on what you already have, not on an unfounded guess about what the literature you are about to read might contain. Follow the connections between notes...


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2. Make Literature notes.

2. Make Literature notes.

Literature Notes are meant to be incorporated in one’s own writing.

Guidelines in creating literature notes:

  • Be extremely selective in what you decide to keep
  • Keep the overall note as short as possible
  • Use your own words, instead of copying quotes verbatim


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8. Edit and proofread your manuscript.

8. Edit and proofread your manuscript.

From this point forward, all you have to do is refine your rough draft until it’s ready to be published.


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7. Turn your notes into a rough draft.

7. Turn your notes into a rough draft.

Instead of copying your notes into a manuscript, translate them into something coherent and embed them into the context of your argument. As you detect holes in your argument, fill them or change the argument.


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3. Make permanent notes.

3. Make permanent notes.

These notes are based on reviewing the fleeting notes and literature notes and relates to your current work on or interests. The purpose is not just to collect ideas, but to develop arguments and discussions over time.

Questions to ask yourself to create them: 

  • How does the new i...


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Reader. Writer. Minimalist.

Note-taking is like time travel—you are sending packets of knowledge through time to your future self.

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Luhmann's slip-box

Luhmann's slip-box

German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) designed his slip-box made up of index cards. They were thematically unlimited. His simple system produced a prolific output. Over his 30-year career,  Luhmann published 58 books and hundreds of articles while completing his two-volume masterwork, The...


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