2 Writing is Thinking

He who understands also loves, notices, sees…the more knowledge is inherent in a thing, the greater the love. Paracelsus (1493-1541)

Now, a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad, because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good, because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.
(The Zero Effect, 1998)


I’ve already said this, but it is a key point so I’ll repeat it here. In a very real way, writing is thinking. Neuroscientists believe we can only keep about seven thoughts in our attention or short term memory. Worse, they also say the “window of consciousness” during which we can focus on a particular thought is only about seven seconds. The exception to this limit, historically, has been when we are talking to someone else. In prehistory, before writing, talking was thinking. Today, writing has taken the place of talking. Some people see this as a loss, but it may be a bit safer. While it may  be possible to talk without thinking, it is probably more difficult to write without thinking.

Writing an idea down in a way that makes sense is how we determine that we have really understood a topic or a point. It is also the first step in making that idea our own. Although we will continue to give the originators of ideas credit with appropriate citation (just as they did, before us, with their source), when we can express an idea in our own words, it’s on the way to becoming ours.

You’ve probably often heard that the way to test your knowledge of something is to teach it to someone else. This is the same concept, but earlier in the process. There are several stages of this process and as you move through them the ideas will become progressively more your own, because you’ll be progressing from recording data to interpreting that information and making it relevant to your own interests or project.

Generally, the steps in the process of making information into knowledge are:


  1. Highlight a text, take notes on a lecture, video, or other source, or record ideas as they come to you;
  2. Summarize and paraphrase (and only rarely quote) this information into a Source Note;
  3. Engage with the idea and comment or elaborate on it in a Point Note.

I’ve capitalized the names of these notes because there is a lot of energy devoted to naming the different types of notes and the workflows they represent. As I mentioned, the sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) developed a technique called Zettelkasten, which is a German word meaning “box of notes”. He wrote a couple of articles about his process, and said in one of them, “It is impossible to think without writing.” He seemed to realize this was a reach, so he immediately qualified the statement and continued, “at least, it is impossible in any sophisticated or anschlußfähig fashion.” The German word can be translated as “connectable”, but many readers today say “networked”.

Several other scholars have written more about it since his death. One of these, an educational researcher named Sönke Ahrens, wrote a bestseller in 2017 that was titled How to Take Smart Notes in English but Das Zettelkasten-Prinzip in German. As you would expect from that title, the book is Ahrens’ attempt to translate Luhmann’s technique  into non-academic English, and also to make it compatible with a range of new digital applications. An entire genre of personal knowledge management has blossomed on YouTube, reddit, in blogs, and even in online courses, known by its fans as PKM. In addition to zettel, some of the other names used for various types of notes are, Fleeting Note, Literature Note, Reading Note, Permanent Note, Evergreen Note, Main Note, and Atomic Note.

A lot has been written about how each of these notes should be structured; most of which I did not find particularly helpful in helping me get to output. What has helped me get to output is being able to find the ideas I’m looking for and see how I have connected them to other ideas over time. Different types of output call for different combinations of evidence, argument, and narrative. I don’t think it is particularly important to know what type of note we are writing at any given time. We’re in a process of gradually turning ideas we discover in sources into our own thoughts. Some of the notes I write are more about the sources. I call those Source Notes. Some are a bit more about the train of thought I’m developing. I call those Point Notes. They live side by side in the same file drawers, and I use them in output when they’re appropriate.

Apps such as Zotero, Roam Research, Notion, Evernote, Obsidian, The Brain, mymind, OneNote, SimpleNote, Bear, Notability, MarginNote, and many others have jumped onto that “networked” statement Luhmann made and claim to be the best way to make and organize notes. Many of them are useful for particular tasks. None of them I have tried so far does everything I want to do. Sometimes excitement over the “shininess” of a new app has caused me to try to use it for things it really isn’t suited for or to try to change my workflow to fit the tool. This has always turned out to be a mistake. Finally, some critics of excessive automation argue that too much technology may actually get in the way of understanding and insight. I suspect the best toolset varies based on the specific job you are trying to do and your own preferences and tech skills. I’ll focus on demonstrating the workflow in the old-fashioned, paper-and-pen format and try to avoid taking sides. I still use several apps, but I try to use them only where they improve the quality of my output or my ease in creating output. Over time I think we will all find a combination of tools and develop a hybrid system that works best for our purposes.

Far more important than what these notes are called is what they do in helping you make the transition from acquiring information from others to making it your own. The most basic of these techniques is a simple highlight of what jumped out at you from a text. This is the first stage of filtering. Maybe the “To Be or Not to Be” speech in Hamlet didn’t really spark your interest that much, but the prince’s treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern left you with thoughts and questions. In the second stage, which I call a Source Note, you’ll summarize and paraphrase the passage that grabbed your attention. Occasionally you might quote a line or two, if they seem to especially capture the thought. But the point is to begin the transition to your own words, which is the transition to your own thoughts.

In the third stage, you will return to the Source Note and begin analyzing it, describing your reaction to the source material and how it relates to a problem you are working on or a question you’re addressing. As you write a new note, which I call a Point Note, the focus shifts from the source material to your own thoughts. This is where you begin taking real ownership of the idea, using the source as support for a thought you’re pursuing; a point you want to make.

Although it will vary widely depending on the content you’re working with, the ratio of these types of notes will probably contract sharply as you move from highlights to source notes to points and make them your own. In some cases, the reduction to be in orders of magnitude: you might distill a hundred highlights into ten Source Notes you want to preserve and one or two Points. This is a pretty good result, if after making note of a hundred items in a text that catch your attention you manage to achieve an important insight. And obviously, the more Source Notes you make, the more insights you can expect to gain.

So if the first step in creating new knowledge and then reporting on it is finding sources and learning from texts, the very first question of all might be, what is a text? For our purposes, a text can be any statement you run into in written, visual, or spoken form. One of the two epigrams at the beginning of this chapter came from a centuries-old book, the other quote is from a recent movie. Many scholars in specialized fields also consider images, artworks, or music to be texts they can analyze. At the very least, in the context of a class, anything you read in a textbook, an assigned reading, a primary source, or a lecture is a text. You can take notes on what the instructor says and review those notes later. Even a discussion can be a source of valuable notes, if people have prepared their arguments. All the material you’re putting into the “mill”, grinding up, analyzing, rearranging, thinking about, and turning into new knowledge, counts.

In today’s world, we can reasonably expect that the need to continue learning will be life-long. So we should be constantly looking for new information to expand our understanding; thinking about texts and analyzing them all the time. An important element of this is critical thinking. Try not to passively accept what you’re told or what you read. Ask questions, look for evidence that might corroborate or challenge claims, and compare what you’re reading or hearing with things you’ve heard before, things you’ve read, things you believe. And write your thoughts down, because, again, writing is thinking. And to be effective, thinking should be written down. We’ve probably all experienced an “Aha!” moment, when out of the blue, things we’ve been pondering suddenly fit together and make sense. But how often have we lost that insight, because we failed to write it down and then forgot it. Also, trust me on this: the “Aha!” moments become more frequent and rewarding, when you’re writing thoughts down.

Writing notes is really pretty easy, once you get the hang of it. And it’s a way of proving to yourself (and eventually, to others) that you’ve understood the text. Our notes can also provide us some clues into what in a text actually interested us. Where a source’s ideas really excite us, notes will cluster. Even so, we should try to write a separate note for each discrete idea. It’s not that helpful to have a three-thousand-word review of a book you’ve just read, when you are looking for a particular point. I say this from experience! Getting in the habit of recording one idea per note makes the ideas easier to find, and trains us to write succinctly, in plain language. Single-idea notes are also easier to mix and match with other ideas they agree with, disagree with, or modify in interesting ways. This is useful, because by the time an idea has made it into a Point Note, it has been well-filtered by our interests and is ready to be compared with other ideas. Some of the questions you can use are:

  • How is this new idea relevant to the question I’m considering?
  • Is this idea similar to or different from the others to which I’m comparing it?
  • Does it agree or disagree?
  • Are there other connections that may not have been mentioned in the source?

“Comparing notes” is a metaphor for talking through ideas for good reason. And it is often easier to compare ideas when we are looking at them on a page, rather than trying to work them out in our heads. Also, reviewing written notes helps us avoid several mental biases that can get in the way of understanding. A bias called the “Mere-exposure Effect” suggests that we often mistake familiarity for expertise. We also tend to prefer information we have seen more recently to information we learned a long time ago. Finally, because we seek confirmation, we often overlook inconsistencies and contradictions. Written notes can help illuminate these inconsistencies, as well as putting both “old” and “new” data on an equal footing. They can also remind us that we have changed over time, by providing a written reminder of what we thought in the past.

Sometimes the notes we make live in an in-between world where they are partly data and partly interpretation. This is okay. With practice, your Source Notes will become more like data and your Points more analytical. Sometimes this requires revisiting a note several times. I’m not a big fan of “spaced repetition”, because I’m not always trying to keep an idea in my memory. But I do think that reviewing notes is important and should be a regular practice. Source Notes and especially Point Notes should be written in a way that you will understand them out of context, without having to reacquaint yourself with the entire train of thought; or another reader will understand them.

Finally, new notes should be connected with an existing note when you add them to your system. I’ll describe this in greater detail shortly; the point for now is that linking a new thought to an existing train of thought seems to be a key to your note-making system working for you. Where does this new idea fit into your thoughts on an issue? Your questions about a topic? Your ideas about a puzzle you’re working on understanding? Disciplining yourself to make this connection can be a bit tough and time-consuming at first. It is worth the investment. Without understanding how these ideas that interest us fit together, all we have is a pile of unrelated trivia.

Once you’ve discovered a text you’re going to process for its ideas, analyzing the text is the same as analyzing any other mechanism. You take it apart so you can see what it’s supposed to do and how it does its job. Author W.H. Auden demystified both literature and criticism when he said, “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?” In the next chapter, we’ll dig deeper into the mechanics of making notes and working with ideas.



Share This Book