Introduction

Why should you read a book about Note-making and Writing? Why this book?

Photo of DanHi! I’m Dan Allosso. I’m a History professor, so it would be accurate to say that I make notes and write for a living. It’s my second career (my first was in technology), so it would also be fair to say it’s an avocation as well as a vocation. Something I do because I really love it; not just to pay the bills.

If you are a student, I hope you’re studying something that truly excites you and makes you happy at the same time it does some good in the world. If you’re older, I hope you’re pursuing something that interests you, whether for work or as a “hobby”. There’s a long tradition of people who did their music or art or writing in their spare time while holding down a “day job”. In either case, the techniques you’ll learn in this book will help you make the most of your efforts. And even if you’re not (yet) on a path where you’re following your own interests and are only looking for tips on how to get more from your work on school assignments, you’ve come to the right place. You might even find, once making notes and writing your thoughts becomes much easier and more effective, that it’s something you’ll return to just for the fun of it!

This book began its life as “A Short Handbook for Writing Essays in the Humanities”, written by my father, Dr. S. F. Allosso, a literature teacher at the University of California. It was designed to be a brief and practical tool to help his students read literature and write an essay. When he retired and I became a teacher, I picked it up and added some ideas and examples from History. Again, the idea was to help students who arrived in my classes with a wide variety of practice writing.

Over the last few years, one of the topics I’ve been interested in, outside of work, has been something called “personal knowledge management”. This is a set of techniques that has some people so excited they’ve begun calling it by the acronym PKM. Often, a lot of this excitement comes from the technologies people have developed to make note-taking more automated and efficient. As a former techie, I’m not immune to geeking out over a great new app. You’ll read about several in this book, that I use daily and also introduce to my students. The point of these tools, I want to point out, is not themselves and their capabilities, but the work they help us do.

The excitement over PKM has spilled over into blogs, YouTube channels, online courses, and books. Like other productivity hacks of the past (The One Minute Manager, Getting Things Done, etc.), techniques such as “Linking Your Thinking”, “Writing Smart Notes”, or “Building a Second Brain” contain a lot of useful ideas and have sometimes launched careers for their authors. These brand-name systems promise to pull together all the information you’re pursuing, organize it, and connect it to your life in ways that will make you more effective as a student or professional.

This is an admirable goal. I’ve read all these books and watched these videos with interest. I’ve found a lot of good material in them that has helped me improve my workflow as I’m reading, listening to podcasts, watching videos, attending meetings and conferences, and writing about what I’ve learned. I suspect, however, that not everyone is as excited about the details of PKM as I have been. Many people want to invest their time actually learning new things rather than trying new apps. Many students want to get better at remembering and understanding the things they’ve learned — and yes, writing papers about them. If you’re one of these people, this book is for you.

First, we’ll cover techniques (and a few tools) you can use to turn what you’re reading, watching, and hearing into useable information. This process has as much to do with taking ownership of ideas as it does with apps. Second, we’ll look at how you can organize and link ideas to make them useful to you and direct them at new questions. Third, and maybe most important, we’ll focus on how you get that information back out of¬†your notes and into a form you can use to share your ideas with others.

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