Home / Writing / Taking Intelligent Notes
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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:

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.


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