Picture this: You have this feeling that you had a great idea recently about something related to the essay you’re currently writing, but you just can’t remember it. But what if you had a digital note-taking system with tags, where you have kept all such ideas? It would take you mere minutes to go through the tag “essay,” and voila!
When I was in high school, apart from what was needed for studying, I didn’t take notes. It wasn’t until I was in college that I began to take notes on a daily basis. It was a downward spiral from there.
I started to fill one notebook after another with notes of books I read, videos I watched, my own thoughts, or interesting quotes. This continued until a few months ago, when I realized something momentous.
My note-taking habit was ineffective.
Despite the many notes I took, I barely remembered what I had learned. I couldn’t recall the memorable quote and interesting story I’d written down when I needed it. Worse still, I had to start from scratch with every new writing project—research again while racking my brain for little details to back up my points.
I took notes the same way school had taught me—that is, writing down verbatim what I learned and keeping the notes in the same place, never to look back again except for exams. Only, in real life there are no exams, so I didn’t bother to revisit the notes at all. Thus, all the hard effort went down the drain.
I realized I had to adopt a new strategy.
In this post I’ll show you why the old-fashioned way of taking notes fails us and how switching to digital note-taking can save the day—boosting your productivity and helping you succeed in your writing goals.
At first glance, analog note-taking makes a lot of sense. For centuries, people have scribbled ideas, written novels, and made discoveries on paper. Shakespeare wrote the finest prose of the English language with only quills and paper. Newton formulated the law of universal gravitation before typewriters were a thing. Einstein typed up his theory of special and general relativity at the patent office. So why should analog note-taking be a problem now?
The problem is that modern consumption has grown to be more complex.
Half a century ago, people were limited to a few options for information—books, magazines, newspapers, TV, and radio. Nowadays, we’re bombarded with information of all sorts. From podcasts, audiobooks, and mobile apps, to YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, information is brimming in every corner of our life. We no longer need to search for information; it is shovelled at us 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The challenge now is to take better notes to separate quality information from junk and to keep only what’s relevant to our needs.
But this is what analog notes alone cannot do. One major issue of paper notes is that you can’t easily erase notes you don’t need. Sure, you may have to use a pencil eraser and strike through ink, but it isn’t as easy and neat as erasing on a computer, is it? Furthermore, there’s no way to retrieve certain information you need on command. You have to sift through all the pages manually, which is an excruciating process. Finally, it’s hard to spot the relations and connect your notes if everything is on paper.
If you still don’t want to believe that analog note-taking is dead, Niklas Luhmann, a German philosopher and writer, might give you some hope. The man wrote a staggering 70 books and 400 scholarly articles over the course of 30 years, with only paper, a typewriter, and his Zettelkasten.
The word “Zettelkasten” consists of two German components: “Zettel” (note slip) and “Kasten” (box), which gives it the English translation “a box of note slips.”
That is exactly what it is, only bigger than you might expect. It’s a piece of furniture six boxes wide and four boxes down.
This was Luhmann’s reservoir of knowledge. Whenever he felt compelled to write, Luhmann would jot down the idea on an index card and put it away in his Zettelkasten. When it was time to write a paper or a book, he visited the Zettelkasten again, searched for relevant notes, and assembled them into a complete work.
“I, of course, do not think everything by myself. It happens mainly within the slip-box.” (Luhmann, Baecker, and Stanitzek 1987, 142)
But merely sorting notes into boxes, as Luhmann soon found out, was not effective. How could he locate a certain idea quickly when he needed it? How could he connect one note to another to spark innovation? And, most importantly, how could this note-taking system produce work faster?
These questions weighed on Luhmann’s mind, so he kept improving the system until one day a brilliant idea occurred: Add tags.
Thus came the idea of numerically tagging notes that gained Luhmann enormous productivity in writing.
It looked like this:
The numbering tags don’t only show the locations of notes but also the connections among them. Every time a new note was added, Luhmann forced himself to find an old note to link to. This helped Luhmann strengthen his memory of the old note while expanding its context of use.
Sometimes, notes that are connected are not in the same categories. So the author must see things from a fresh perspective. This gave birth to many innovative ideas. Thus, the Zettelkasten is not only a place to keep notes but also a tool for creativity.
As impressive as the Zettelkasten may sound, it’s unlikely you and I would invest in such a system like Luhmann did. For one, our cluttered homes won’t permit it. Second, who has time to meticulously handwrite notes on index cards and tag them with numbers?
A better alternative (Thank God we live in the modern age!) is to adopt a digital note-taking system.
Digital note-taking simply means moving your notes from paper to digital devices. Instead of keeping everything analog, you can use an app or software to take notes as you read. You can still take paper notes, though it’s important you type them up later in your digital system.
The key is not to let your notes scatter everywhere but to put them in a central digital home. For example, you can jot down your random thoughts on the phone, highlight articles with desktop apps, and take paper notes for podcasts. But in the end, all these notes will go to one single place.
This is like building a Wikipedia resource on your computer. The difference is it will be more personal and relevant to your needs.
A digital note-taking system is cool, but how exactly does it help you churn out articles more quickly? Here are three benefits you can enjoy from such a system.
One important advantage of keeping your notes in a digital system is the ability to turn them into a draft quickly.
As David Perell, founder of Passage of Write once said in this Youtube video:
“Modern writing is not to write, but to assemble.”
Writing is a pain if you start on a blank page. If you don’t gather the supplies in advance, there’s nothing already there when you sit down to write.
With a note-taking system, you can have the supplies in stock. When it’s time to write, it’s no longer a burden to research and find ideas. Your only job is to assemble them in a logical way and then chisel your rough draft into a gem for publication. It’s like putting together Lego pieces.
Also, if you’ve taken your notes with care, the next time you write, you don’t have to do the thinking again. You can just place related ideas together, and they will flow naturally into a chain.
The hardest task is not physically writing the articles, but building your personalized library of ideas: a place to store any snippet of fact or detail you can use to put together an article.
This may sound hard, but all it takes is adding two to three notes per day into the system. You don’t even need to do it daily if you don’t want to. Just remember to capture ideas as you come upon them. WorkFlowy has a free basic plan and is a great tool for jotting down notes in bullet points so you can save time. Then block out a few hours on the weekend to filter out the best notes to put into your system.
Bill Gates is a remarkably fast reader. This documentary on Netflix shows how every week his secretary prepares him a basket of books, which he finishes by the end of the week.
Most of us don’t have such an impressive reading speed. Yet, we still want to impress others, don’t we? In terms of writing, we also want to quickly recall that quote, story, and fact to keep our flow going. So how can we do that with our “goldfish” memory?
Our best chance is to adopt a digital system to store information for us. A system that remembers all the facts, stories, and events so we don’t have to. One that lets us retrieve any information we need the second it pops into our mind.
That’s where a digital note-taking system comes in. With a repository of personalized knowledge, you’ll never lose touch of any information you’ve collected. You also free your mind of clutter to learn new things and be more creative.
The tricky part is not letting this turn into a dumping place for ideas. Keep only the best notes, those that are novel, unique, and hard to come by.
Smart note-taking is akin to having a smart communication partner. Now, you might be wondering how that helps your writing. Here’s how.
Imagine you’re talking to two people. One is a boring guy who just nods and agrees with everything you say. Each time you ask a question, he meekly gives you one-or-two-word replies and goes back to silence. No new information, no surprises, and the conversation just stalls out.
Now the second person is a charming guy with a great sense of humor. His adeptness at communication makes you hang on his every word. The more you talk, the more surprising the conversation turns out to be, and the more you get sucked in.
Can you tell which one is a smart conversation partner?
Easy peasy, right?
But what exactly makes the second guy a smart communication partner? His sense of humor? His tactfulness? His care for what you say?
Yes, all these play a big part. But the deciding factor is that he knows how to keep you curious.
Claude Shannon, the inventor of information theory, came up with the idea of “surprisal,” which says that how much information is present in a message depends on how surprising it is. So what makes a good conversation is the amount of surprising information in your message.
This is as true for writing as it is for talking. For what you say to be interesting, it must be surprising. For it to be surprising, it must contain new information.
How do you make sure your message contains something new?
Short answer: Stock it in advance.
Make a habit of capturing notes everywhere you go, from the news you read, conversations you have, podcasts you listen to, and books you read. Then at the end of the day, select the best ones to add to your digital note-taking system. In time, you will have a “smart conversation partner” who never runs out of interesting facts and stories. You can “talk” to it to extract any information you want and use that in your writing.
Note-taking is an essential part of any writer’s life.
But as information consumption becomes more comprehensive, analog note-taking is no longer enough. It’s time to take advantage of technology to make better notes.
In this post I showed you several reasons why you should build your own digital system for taking notes. Such a system will let you write faster, with richer and more surprising content. Moreover, you can expand your knowledge and become more creative during the process.
Naomi is a free-spirited soul who believes writing can be fun and stress-free. That’s why she started “Productive To Succeed”, a blog that helps aspiring writers to push back the writing block and create tantalizing content with ease. Her blog is also filled with authentic, experience-based advice about time management, writing motivation and self-improvement. Read more of her work here.