Big Brain Ideas

How to Take Smart Notes: Pre-Read

This post comes from an exercise I did to try Adler’s suggestions for systematically skim a book. I chose How to Take Smart Notes because it’s on the list of books I’m planning to read after finishing How to Read a Book.


Here’s a quick refresher on Adler’s suggestions for how to systematically skim a book:

As I mentioned in How to Read a Book, Chapter 4: The Second Level of Reading: Inspectional Reading, I’ve made a few changes to these to suit my personal preferences.


I love the title of How to Read a Book because it’s clear what the book is about. The same goes for How to Take Smart Notes. It’s a book about how to take notes.

The book’s subtitle is One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking. I’m always wary of phrases like “One Simple Technique,” but I’ve decided to withhold judgment for now.


The preface of How to Take Smart Notes was enlightening.

The problem the author is trying to solve is the idea that writing starts with a blank page. It doesn’t. The author’s point is that writing begins with the process of collecting and organizing notes. Once you’ve done that, the “writing” process is just organizing your notes into a coherent narrative. Editing a set of notes is much easier to do than starting with a blank page.

Table of Contents

The table of contents for How to Take Smart Notes doesn’t include much detail, so I didn’t get much useful information from it.

Ahrens broke the book into three parts:

The introduction is what you’d expect: it sets the context for the rest of the book. The introduction usually doesn’t spend much time talking about the book’s central argument, so I didn’t pay much attention to it in the table of contents.

These are all clever catchphrases, and I generally agree with them as advice, but they don’t tell you anything about what you should expect from each chapter. And since the table of contents had so few details, there was no additional context outside the chapters’ titles.

Again, all good advice. Reading for understanding is good. Taking smart notes is good. Developing ideas and sharing your insights are both good. But we still haven’t learned anything about how to take smart notes.

Overall I found the table of contents to be unuseful for this pre-read. I didn’t learn anything that helped me decide what the book is about or whether I should read it.


The index of How to Take Smart Notes is a detailed version of the table of contents instead of a traditional index. I didn’t find it helpful in understanding what the book is about or whether I should read it.

A few things made the chapter on developing ideas sound interesting, but it still wasn’t informative.


I bought the e-book version of How to Take Smart Notes, which doesn’t include a blurb. Instead, I used the description on Amazon. I figure it’s roughly the same as what you’d find on the book’s jacket.

I found this quote in the description:

The key to good and efficient writing lies in the intelligent organisation of ideas and notes. … Instead of wasting your time searching for notes, quotes or references, you can focus on what really counts: thinking, understanding and developing new ideas in writing.

The author is presumably talking about the organization system explained in the book. The description didn’t include any details about the organization system, but it’s good to know that there should be some concrete takeaway from the book.


In the interest of brevity, I won’t include my full notes from each chapter’s summary. Instead, I’ll aggregate my notes for each part of the book. Remember that, even though Adler suggests identifying and focusing on the chapters critical to the author’s argument, I chose to read every chapter’s summary. The chapters in How to Take Smart Notes don’t have explicit summaries, so I read the first and last paragraphs (sometimes more, for context) of each chapter.

Part 1: Introduction

The main argument of the introduction is that you should have a note-taking system that is simple, reliable, and external to your brain. The goal is to offset the limitations of the mind, such as memory limitations.

When you systematically take notes, writing becomes more like editing. The benefit of starting from a solid set of notes is that it makes the writing process easier and faster.

Part 2: The Four Underlying Principles

Ahrens makes several points in this part of the book, but they all revolve around an effective note-taking system’s principles.

One argument that I thought was interesting is that there is an alternative to the conventional wisdom of “writing starts with the idea.” Instead, focus on reading things that are currently interesting to you and take notes in the process.

Eventually, the collection of notes you built will tell you what to write. You’ll notice that you keep coming back to the same questions over and over again. That’s a useful heuristic that these questions might be worth going more in-depth on and writing about.

And focusing on what’s interesting to you right now will give you the juice to keep working every day. That’s important. If you want to learn, you have to put in the time. But time itself isn’t enough. You need to be using that time well and, to do that, you’ll need to enjoy the things you’re spending time on so that you can stay focused and engaged.

Another argument I liked was to pretend that writing is the only thing in the world that matters. Stop worrying about what you “should” learn and focus on learning what you need to know to move your writing forward. Come up with questions and then find the answers. This isn’t the first time this idea of a question-answer loop has come up for me, and it’s one that I’ve been practicing for a while now. I highly recommend trying it for yourself.

Finally, Ahrens points out that an effective note-taking system is simple. Simple systems are easier to understand and follow, and we don’t want to make using the system any more complicated than it needs to be.

We tend to think that big transformations have to start with an equally big idea. But more often than not, it is the simplicity of an idea that makes it so powerful.

Part 3: The Six Steps of Successful Writing

Looking at the notes I took for this part of the book, I’m struck by how often the notes don’t seem to align with the title of the chapter. That could result from building my own summaries instead of using ones provided by the author, but what I’m taking away is that this section of the book has many small tips that seem useful.

If you need a refresher, you can find the six steps in the “Table of Contents” section. I won’t repeat them here.

Here are some of the tips I found in part three:

Ahrens leaves us with this parting thought:

Watching others reading books and doing nothing other than underlining some sentences or making unsystematic notes that will end up nowhere will soon be a painful sight.

What next?

The goal of inspectional reading is two-fold:

As part of this exercise, I plan to read the book regardless of my thoughts on those two points. My goal is to come back to this post after reading the book and compare these notes to my thoughts after reading it. What was I right about? What was I wrong about? Ultimately, I want to calibrate my inspectional reading skills.

That said, here’s what I think:

What is the book about? At the most basic level, this book seems to be about learning a note-taking system that the author thinks will make your writing process more effective. While there are some ideas on what makes a note-taking system effective, my interpretation is that the author’s goal is to get you to learn their system and not teach you how to build your own.

Is this book worth reading? I think so. The book seems verbose, but I found some nuggets of wisdom that I believe will be beneficial even with an inspectional read. The real question is whether I will learn more by reading the entire book. Is there more to learn, or did my inspectional read give me the bulk of what I can take away from this book? I think the author has more to say and that I have more to learn, but, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m on the fence about that belief.

How to Take Smart Notes is the next book on my reading list after I finish How to Read a Book, so expect to see results soon.

In the meantime, I hope this gave you more insight into what inspectional reading looks like and that you found it useful. I also hope you go out and buy a copy of How to Take Smart Notes so we can compare notes (yes, pun intended) on Twitter.

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