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Taking Intelligent Notes

How to think about notes

In our use of digital and analogue filing tools, we classify information through folders. An article about railway construction gets filed under ‘infrastructure’ or ‘transport’. In Evernote we tag it with ‘rail’ or ‘construction’. This is thinking like a librarian and not like a writer. We are classifying the information as an input. The reason you take notes as a writer is to produce content. It makes sense, then, to take notes in line with this goal.

Traditional filing like this tends to fail when you attempt to write your content. You are stuck trying to figure out which categories will be relevant for your proposal, paper or blog post. Interesting writing often comes from connecting separate fields through a common idea. By revealing the common denominator. By unifying two seemingly-contradictory ideas. How can you possibly achieve this if you’re looking in the same category for your information? The categories simply do not fulfil the function required by the writer.

Consider your outputs

The notes you take and indeed, the way you process information, should be with a specific project or idea in mind. You must classify information in terms of its outputs. When you take notes on a book, think about how this could apply to a specific idea you had or how it argues against a paper you read last week. The premise is that you should be organising by context and always trying to connect the dots between the content you're consuming.

I like to think of this as adding metadata to your notes. You know those details on an image file that tell you how much storage space it uses, how many pixels it is, where it was taken, etc? This provides context for the image. You can do the same with your notes—make bullet points for the key ideas and/or summarise a quote in your own words, for example.

Add further detail wherever you can, the idea is you want to connect this idea directly to your project goal. Try to do the hard work while it makes sense in the moment; coming back later to find the connections and context made clear makes all the difference for writing effectively.


Practically, what does this look like? Well, I can offer a few suggestions that have improved the way I consume content. These tips put a focus on consuming with intentionality and ensure that I am building a knowledge base effectively:

  • Read-it-later apps: I have found using Instapaper to be extremely helpful; whenever I come across an article I want to read I save the link to Instapaper and come back to it after 24 hours. This gives me the chance to re-assess if I actually am interested in the article or whether it was just impulsive reading.
  • Pre-reading: Directly related to the idea of removing impulse reading from my workflow, I have been implementing a process I think of as pre-reading. Here, I take just a minute or two to write down why I believe the article, book or paper will be useful to my current or upcoming projects. Specifically, I take a moment to run through the tagline, table of contents or abstract to guess what sort of information I will be able to glean from the content. I note down what kind of knowledge it could provide that would make me feel that reading it was worth my time. This brief activity often reveals that what I want to read tends not to be related to any of my ongoing projects—this is fine. Indeed, this often serves as the basis for a new project. I’ll often find myself wanting to read a number of articles or books about a similar field and this often leads me to investigating a new project as a result.
  • Cornell-style note-taking: Typically, this looks like leaving a margin on the left side of a page for keywords and comments, with the bottom quarter or so for a summary of each page of notes. Granted, this will not work with digital notes but I use a similar technique for long articles and papers that contain a large amount of information—I print these out physically and scale the pages down to around 70% of the page size, leaving large borders around the 4 sides of the content. In this space I write all the comments and possible connections I can see between related articles/papers and run highlighters through the work to colour-code specific types of data (green for formulas, blue for quotes, etc.)
  • Flexible digital systems: It really pays to use a flexible system that lets you capture notes and connect them in ways that make sense for you. For me, this digital system is my Are.na profile which uses ‘channels’ to classify data and allows me to throw images, plain-text notes and URL’s in as ‘blocks’. It is a great system that works very well for me, I encourage you to check it out!

Hopefully this provides a bit of a starting point for thinking about intelligently applying note-taking to your projects. My methodologies and understandings are still shifting after many years of trying to see what works best—take the time to discover what kind of system works well for you, it’s well worth your while.