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Summary: How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens

  • “How to Take Smart Notes” introduces the Zettelkasten method for note-taking and knowledge management.
  • The book offers practical steps for setting up a Zettelkasten and emphasizes the role of writing in learning and thinking.
  • It’s a valuable resource for students, academics, and nonfiction writers, but may initially appear complex to some readers.

How to Take Smart Notes (2017) is exactly that – an explanation of how and why to take smart notes. It explains how this simple, little-known, and often misunderstood technique can aid your thinking, writing, and learning. With the help of smart notes, you may never face the horror of a blank page again.

Researcher and author Dr. Sönke Ahrens explores the meaning of writing and discusses how to write effectively using the “slip-box system.” He explains how to follow the lead of Niklas Luhmann, a prolific author and sociologist who produced 58 books in 30 years. Luhmann’s slip-box, note-taking system allowed him to connect notes he’d made from his readings with other information from a variety of contexts. Whether you follow this manual’s process or create a digital version, the concept remains the same. It starts with writing notes about what you read and tracking how they intersect, which makes this illuminating for students, academics, researchers, businesspeople and other writers.

[Book Summary] How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

What’s inside?

Free your brain by using a “slip-box” system to store and connect your research information.

“To have an undistracted brain to think with and a reliable collection of notes to think in is pretty much all we need.” – Sönke Ahrens


Education, Teaching, Studying, Workbooks, Study Guides, Productivity, Writing, Self Help, Personal Development, Psychology, Time Management

Don’t leave this world with valuable knowledge in your head, notebook, or note‐taking application. Take what you’ve learned (or are currently learning) and turn it into something useful by adopting the “Zettelkasten” note‐taking system. The “Zettelkasten” note‐taking system was invented by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann used the system to write 58 books and over 500 academic papers in his lifetime by averaging just six notes a day.

The Zettelkasten system seems like a primitive system of index cards and boxes but is has a remarkable way of gathering and organizing notes so that writing the first draft of a book, academic paper, business plan, or article is effortless. Here are two primary reasons the Zettelkasten system is different and better than traditional note‐taking systems:

Advantage #1: Two=stage filter to prevent mediocre ideas from diluting existing notes.

Capture interesting information from books, lectures, articles, or podcasts, and ideas that come to mind throughout the day (stage 1). I use Evernote, but you can capture literature notes and fleeting notes in any note‐taking application you choose (Apple notes, Google Keep, Notion, or in a simple notepad in your pocket). Capturing fleeting and literature notes is like collecting interesting artifacts on a hike and putting them in your backpack to look at later.

Then, once a day (preferably at the same time each day), go through your metaphorical backpack of literature notes and fleeting notes from the past 24 hours, and determine which notes you should convert to permanent notes.

Ask yourself two questions when determining if you should make a note permanent:

  1. Does this note produce a similar level of excitement as when I first captured it? I often have brilliant ideas in a caffeinated state at a coffee shop, but when I review my notes at home in a non‐caffeinated state, most of the ideas I captured are useless.
  2. Does this note add value to other permanent notes? If an idea is not critical to your project or does not expand your understanding of a topic in your Zettelkasten system, do not waste time converting it to a permanent note).

If an idea or piece of information passes those two criteria (very few will), make it a permanent note by rewriting the note on an index card (I suggest using 4×6 index cards). When you rewrite a note, try to incorporate existing ideas. By finding ways to connect new ideas to existing ideas, you expand your web of knowledge, deepen your understanding, and boost your creativity. As Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” And when you are forced to handwrite notes on index cards, you’re forced to slow down, clarify your ideas, and express your ideas in as few words as possible (which will save you time when you write your first draft).

Advantage #2: Bottom-up approach to deepen understanding and generate new insights.

Most people take a top‐down approach to researching by outlining their book, article, or school paper, and then gathering information. However, having a structured outline too early will discourage you from exploring ideas outside your structure. The Zettelkasten system is a bottom‐up researching system that allows you to follow your curiosity and generate keywords as you gather notes. Overtime, your list of keywords organically turns into an interesting outline for your project.

Adopt a bottom‐up approach to your research and writing by adding three things to every permanent note:

1. A location code prefixed to the title

  • Prefix the title of every permanent note with a location code to easily sort and reference your notes. The first note you add to your Zettelkasten system will have a “1” prefixed to its title, and your second note will have a “2” prefixed to its title. If your third note builds on the first note, place it between notes “1” and “2,” with the code “1A” prefixed to its title. If you have notes, “1A” and “1B,” and wish to insert a note between those two notes, it will have the code “1A1.” And if you insert a note between “1A1” and “1A2,” its code will be “1A1A.” Notice a pattern?

2. A list of keywords in the top right corner

  • Keywords are like Twitter hashtags in that they group notes together and are used to quickly find relevant notes. Aim to add one to three keywords to the top right corner of every permanent note. Identify keywords by asking yourself: “What is one word or phrase that will relate this note to an existing note?”
  • When you come up with a new keyword or phrase, put it on your “Master Index” located at the front of your index card box. The Master Index includes keywords and phrases with location codes (like “3A1”) you can use when determining where you should insert new notes. Continuously update your “master index” with keywords and use your “master index” to outline your first draft.

3. Links to permanent notes in the bottom right corner

  • Often a permanent note will have many potential friends in your Zettelkasten system. For example, if a new note could fit nicely behind note “12A1” and have the code “12A2,” but it also relates to notes “2B1” and “24B,” don’t spend too much time debating where the note should go. Simply code the note “12A2” and write down location codes to related notes in the bottom right corner of the note so you can review these links when you write your first draft. Finding links to notes in other parts of your Zettelkasten system is a great way to expand your web of knowledge and spark new ideas that improve your book, school paper, or article.

When your research phase is over, go through your Zettelkasten system sequentially, one card at a time, and effortlessly write your first draft.

Final Summary

About the author

Dr. Sönke Ahrens is a writer and researcher in the field of education and social science, author of the award winning book “Experiment and Exploration. Forms of World-Disclosure” (Springer) and university teacher for philosophy of education.

Table of Contents

1 Everything You Need to Know
2 Everything You Need to Do
3 Everything You Need to Have
4 A Few Things to Keep in Mind
The Four Underlying Principles
5 Writing Is the Only Thing That Matters
6 Simplicity Is Paramount
7 Nobody Ever Starts From Scratch
8 Let the Work Carry You Forward
The Six Steps to Successful Writing
9 Separate and Interlocking Tasks
10 Read for Understanding
11 Take Smart Notes
12 Develop Ideas
13 Share Your Insight
14 Make It a Habit


Sönke Ahrens’ book introduces the reader to the concept of the Zettelkasten, a note-taking system that originated with the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. The Zettelkasten, which translates to “slip box” or “card index,” is a method that Ahrens presents as a powerful tool for boosting one’s writing, learning, and thinking abilities.

The book is divided into three main sections, each addressing a different aspect of the Zettelkasten method:

  1. The Foundation: Ahrens begins by explaining the principles and history of the Zettelkasten method. He emphasizes the importance of capturing fleeting thoughts and ideas in a structured manner, which is fundamental to the process of knowledge creation and synthesis.
  2. Building Your Zettelkasten: This section delves into the practical aspects of creating and organizing a Zettelkasten. Ahrens provides step-by-step guidance on how to take notes, link them together, and generate new insights from your collection of notes. He discusses the importance of thinking in writing and how the Zettelkasten method facilitates this.
  3. Writing with a Zettelkasten: The final section explores how a Zettelkasten can be an invaluable tool for academic and nonfiction writing. Ahrens discusses how to use your notes to craft well-structured and well-argued essays and articles. He also addresses the challenges and common misconceptions associated with this approach.

Review: “How to Take Smart Notes” has received widespread praise for its clear and practical guidance on implementing the Zettelkasten method. Here are some of the book’s strengths:

  1. Practicality: Ahrens provides concrete, actionable advice for setting up and maintaining a Zettelkasten, making it accessible to a broad audience, including students, academics, and nonfiction writers.
  2. Research-Based: The book draws on both the author’s personal experience with the method and the insights of noted scholars like Niklas Luhmann. This combination of practical knowledge and scholarly research adds credibility to the approach.
  3. Emphasis on Writing: The book goes beyond note-taking and underscores the role of writing as a fundamental tool for thinking and learning. It highlights how the act of writing, especially summarizing and paraphrasing, enhances understanding and retention of information.
  4. Cross-Disciplinary Relevance: The Zettelkasten method can be applied in various fields, from science to humanities, making it versatile and adaptable to different areas of study and research.

However, the book may have a few potential drawbacks:

  1. Complexity: Some readers may find the Zettelkasten method initially complex, especially when creating and managing a large collection of notes. It may take time to fully integrate this approach into one’s workflow.
  2. Limited Illustrative Examples: While the book offers practical guidance, some readers might benefit from more concrete examples to better understand the application of the Zettelkasten method in different contexts.

In conclusion, “How to Take Smart Notes” by Sönke Ahrens is a valuable resource for individuals seeking to improve their note-taking, writing, and thinking skills. It presents a well-structured system with a strong emphasis on the role of writing in knowledge creation. While it may require some effort to fully adopt the Zettelkasten method, the potential benefits in terms of enhanced learning and productivity are well worth the investment. This book is highly recommended for students, academics, and nonfiction writers looking to take their research and writing to the next level.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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