I’m sure all of us know that feeling of sitting down to do your assignment and half an hour later the page has one word: “Introduction” Writing lengthy essays for College is not easy. This is especially true if you are a student of the Social Sciences (I don’t really know how Engineering or Medical Colleges work). For one, they don’t let you copy material from Wikipedia as you used to do in school. And yet they expect good content. How do you do it? Well I have a solution!
I believe that taking smart notes can significantly help you write better
Note-taking as a skill can help you write much much better, especially in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. This is because a lot of Social Sciences don’t rely on remembering exact facts but rather on being able to think through a lot of ideas, and write about them in creative ways. The default method of studying in India relies on memory – remembering key points, remembering facts, remembering definitions. This doesn’t work with Literature studies, Sociology, Political Science, or even education.
For such types of learning, relying on memory is a really bad idea. To be more precise, relying on internal memory alone is a really bad idea. Taking the help of external memory, and doing so in a smart way is one excellent tip for effectively studying the Humanities and the Social Sciences. In other words, take smart notes.
I have been coming across this idea through three main sources – Productivity YouTuber Ali Abdaal made a video on using Notion as his resonance calendar. That video directed me to the blogger Tiago Forte, who talks about building a second brain. Finally, I read a book titled “How to Take Smart Notes” by Sonke Ahrens. For those of you interested in digging around further, I recommend those sources.
1. Never start with an empty page
If I had a number of notes, I would never start with an empty page. I would always have material to draw from. Imagine if I were to take notes every time I read a book, an article, or when I watched a YouTube video, etc. Over a short period of time, I would have a significant number of really useful notes. If I’m asked to write an essay as an assignment today, I can easily go back to the notes I have been taking over the past few months and see if I already have some idea related to what the essay is about. This is the way I am writing daily posts on my blog as well. Whenever I read I make notes. When I have to write, I go through those notes to see what ideas are interesting and which few ideas can be combined together to construct an article.
2. Combine notes to write essays
Think of each note as a single lego block. You can combine different lego blocks to construct different structures. For example, I have a note on the Sociological idea of a looking glass self proposed by Charles Cooley. I got it from a class lecture. I had another note on how people perceive loneliness drawn from an article which appeared on The Guardian. A few days ago I was able to take these two different notes from two different sources and combine them together to write this blog post.
But How should I take notes?
Now that we have established why having notes are very useful, here are a few ideas on how to take notes
Take notes by highlighting text
This is the easiest way to take notes. If you read on Kindle, like I do, the process is a much much easier. In fact, most e-reader software would have some form of highlighting feature. Kindle even offers a notebook feature where you can access all your highlights taken in a single book. Highlighting an article from a PDF is equally simple.
Think about this. Last year, for many of my assignments I read a number of articles and papers before even finalizing my topic. Many of the articles I read were not relevant to my study and I had to discard them. But what if the ones that were not relevant were topics that could come in handy today? I already read them. Unfortunately because I thought they weren’t relevant, I’d already discarded them. For many articles that I did end up using, I honestly don’t remember much of it, and would have to go through the entire material again if I had to redo the essay. That is such a waste of time. If I had all the highlights I would be able to glance through them and know if there is something I have came across in the past that could come in handy today.
Limitations of Highlights and the Importance of Context
Highlights work great with less material and over a short period of time. This is because the context to a particular highlight might still be fresh in our minds. Over time, however, we could forget the context.
Consider this example. I have a highlight from the book “Atomic Habits.” It says, “Time magnifies the margin between success and failure.” What does that mean though? Why did I make that highlight? Without the context that surrounds a line, a highlight could sometimes become meaningless. Well, if I read the lines that surround the quote, I would know that the author is talking about habits. If I develop useful habits, over time they magnify and result in success. On the other hand if I repeat destructive habits, over time the small mistake would multiply and result in failure. If I wrote this explanation (maybe with the page number), rather than just highlight a line, I would be able to get the whole meaning without having to search for the book. In other words, I should write small de-contextualized notes, a.k.a. atomic notes.
These are the notes that can be combined with other notes to create essays. Because the notes are decontextualized, they would fit into new arguments. They would become a kind of generalized principle which could be applied to different contexts and situations. And by mixing and matching different notes from different sources, you can create new insights and new arguments. Here is an example of the kind of note I usually take. I first write them on a notebook. And later (at the end of the day or sometimes once in a couple of days) I convert type them onto a digital note-taking app.
The best time to start is now!
Sonke Ahrens in his book says that most students recognize the need for a good system often when their submission is due. This is too late. But I recently experienced this myself. If you are a smart person and you see the person in front of you fall into a pit, you would be wise to be careful and avoid the pit. So start taking notes now.
It is also possible that you might be feeling intimidated or overwhelmed by all this. Just remember to start small and take it one day at a time. Make 2 or 3 notes each day. I have been doing that for the past three months. And today I have around 150 notes. In fact, during many of those days, I just read for 15 minutes and took down a few notes in the next 3 to 4 minutes. So if you find it difficult to read, pick a book and read for 15 minutes each day. Make one small note or two about what idea you found very interesting. Note down the book’s name and the page number along with the note. And you’re done for the day. If writing down even that many notes seems like a lot, feel free to just highlight the text. After all, something is better than nothing. The challenge is to stick with the system for a long period of time.
If you need further help as to how to start and stick with a system, do feel free to reach out to me. Cheers! Happy reading and writing!