Everybody writes. Especially in academia. Students write and professors write. And nonfiction writers, who are the third group of people this book is aiming to help, obviously write as well. And writing doesn’t necessarily mean papers, articles, or books, but everyday, basic writing. We write when we need to remember something, be it an idea, a quote or the outcome of a study. We write when we want to organize our thoughts and when we want to exchange ideas with others. Students write when they take an exam, but the the first thing they do to prepare even for an oral examination is to grab pen and paper. We write down not only those things we fear we won’t remember otherwise, but also the very things we try to memorise [sic]. Every intellectual endeavor starts with a note.Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning, and Thinking — for Students, Academics, and Nonfiction Book Writers
I’m working to improve my methods for capturing, accessing, and utilizing information, and as a result I’m trying to get better at taking notes.
For years I’ve kept a quotation or commonplace book, where I sit down and copy out pithy sayings, phrases, proverbs, poems, and the like. When I’m looking for ideas, or I’m searching for insight, I’ll flip through and see what I’ve copied there. I also use Evernote and Google Drive in addition to pen and paper. I carry a small notebook with me. Lately, a Sharpie and Post-it notes have been my way of capturing ideas, putting them in front of me, and processing them one by one. I’ve also taken to Trello as a board to capture big ideas, and then pin accompanying images, links, etc. for later consideration and treatment. I use my blog as an archive for my thoughts, a place to put ideas I gravitate toward, write about them briefly, and then tag, categorize, and file for later exploration.
But I don’t have a great system. So I’m reading Ahrens’s book, cited above in order to learn how to do it better. As someone who writes about religion, spirituality, and faith, having a system that works is necessary. One of my seminary professors encouraged us to have a system, a way to capture, file, access, and utilize information. He shared his system. But he told us to glean what we could from the way he did it, and make it our own.
How do you take notes? How do you file and organize those notes, and then access them for later use? What works well, and what do you have trouble with?
Writing crystalizes and captures thought. Filing and organizing those thoughts makes them accessible, and when your thoughts are accessible you can put them to use. Some of us are great at writing things down, but terrible at filing and organizing and creating smooth channels for retrieval of information.
It’s one thing to make a note, and it is another to make a note that you can later use. Every intellectual endeavor may start with a note, but deep intellectual work requires systematization, organization, accessibility, and retrieval.
I’ve started creating project specific notebooks, or notebooks designated for particular areas of my life, such as a personal journal and a work journal. That’s one way I’ve tried to capture information in one place in order to keep it contained and accessible.
How do you do it?