Tinderbox Meetup - Sunday, May 7, 2023 Video: Connect with Sönke Ahrens live, the author of How to Take Smart Notes

Tinderbox Meetup - Sunday May 7, 2023 Video: A Discussion with Sönke Ahrens live, the author of How to Take Smart Notes

Level Beginner
Published Date 5/7/23
Type Meetup
Tags 5Cs, 5Cs Knowledge Management, Note-taking, Smart Notes, Zettelkasten
Video Length 01:46:05
Video URL Tinderbox Meetup - May 7, 2023: A Discussion with Sönke Ahrens, author of How to Take Smart Notes - YouTube
TBX Version 9.5
Instructor Michael Becker
Chat chat.txt (22.5 KB)

In this session, Sönke Ahrens, the author of How to Take Smart Notes, joined us for a lively discussion. This was a lively discussion on how writing is thinking and the role of note-taking; it is NOT a discussion about any other particular tool or method, but rather a general approach to generating value for yourself through note-taking. The community provides tons of useful references and resources



  • Have a chat with Sönke Ahrens

Taking Notes From Readings

If you read something and don’t take the proper notes, thank you’re wasting your time. Taking a good note is putting it in your own words, to put discipline in yourself.

  • First, realize that not all source material warrants the same attention. Don’t treat is all the same. The art is knowing how much effort to dedicate to a piece.
  • When the material is new, you try to understand, so you may use “fleeting notes,” “literature notes,” and “commentary notes,” which you then may convert to “permanent notes” if needed
  • Your goal is to frame the arguments being made, summarize the perspective
  • With unfamiliar text, you’ll take literature notes, with familiar text you’ll just grab what you need to support/contradict your argumentt
  • Sometimes writing by hand helps, it slows you down, which is good for thinking; it also helps you be clearer but also less forgiving with errors (as the errors are not as easy to fix as they are with digital).
  • How does one avoid overwhelm? [Fidel] Asn: It is a problem. When you feel that you are overwhelmed, create a concept note; try to reduce the complexity again.
  • Question to ask yourself
    • how is this related to my work?
    • how is this important?
    • what is the counter-argument?

On Teaching Thinking

We don’t teach this in school very well, but we need to teach students,

  • how do they develop their own thoughts
  • Ask and quasar their own questions
  • Be comfortable with “making up their own mind.” They are the decision maker of what a note goes, how it is taken, and links; where or not something is the same idea, an extension of an idea, or new idea, or a contraction
  • the process of collecting, deconstructing, constructing, and reconstructing your thinking.


  • Different kinds of notes
    • Fleeting/Quick note
    • Literature Note, e.g., " “I’m getting that literature notes are more about capturing your understanding than transcribing (?) the author’s ideas.” [Jorge Arango]
    • Development note
    • Commentary note
    • Prominent/Permanent/Fixed Note
    • Laboratory notes
    • Index notes
    • Concept Notes, notes that point you in different directions.
    • Entry notes, a top-down/bottom-up approach to align on concepts.
    • Note sequences
  • Extended mind is different than the second brain
  • The tools will be different for different studies
    • Different kinds of links agree, disagree, clarify, example, exception
  • Pen and paper work well with “note sequences”
  • Zettelkasten is a research tool/method
  • When something is new, everything feels/appears useful. -
  • The overwhelm occurs when you feel that you must close all loose ends. This is impossible. Don’t try.
  • Thinking, ask a bunch of questions…how is the relevant to what I’m thinking about.
  • Incremental formalization (this was a new term for Sönke).
  • MAYA concept — go for the Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable solution.

Quotes/Paraphrased Comments

Qt- Writing was often talk as an afterthought for thinking, it should not be

Qt- You analog and digital aver different

Qt- The best solution is to leverage the power of the digital and use the analog as a background idea.

Qt- Literature notes tend to be commentary notes in Zettlekasten,

Qt- When I work with PKM tools I learn how my brain works much better.

Qt- The Zettelkasten method is not a tool that you can just pick up and apply; you need to learn the methods and adapt them to yourself. This adaption process helps you become more aware of your own thinking patterns and what you need from a note-taking system. You need to find what works for you.

Qt- “There’s a tension between collection information and building understanding; the digital tools available to us often lead us to constant activity in collecting articles, books, clippings, etc. I hear Sönke reminding us to build into time into our workflow to curate this information into notes that create understanding and lead to expression” (Paul Christy)

Qt- I like the idea of multiple inboxes, e.g., using iPad to collect notes and then bring them to Tinderbox

Qt- We can fix the challenges of highlights if we treat them like “fleeting notes” Qt- Lumhamn noted, Zettelkasten is “my communication” partner

Qt- Everyone has the same problem, but we all have our own way of solving it.

Qt- We need to be more aware of our thinking and how we structure them, and what tools work for

Qt- You need be forced to think about thinking

Qt- New tools can help you figure out how you think

Qt- I write things down when I go beyond my current understanding; I don’t focus on recording what I already know

Qt- Writing is about thinking on the borders of your understanding; if you are struggling that is, good, it means you are learning something new


Please comment

Please help with the development of future sessions by answering the three questions below.

  • What were your top 2~3 key takeaways from this lesson?
  • What do you want to learn next? Learn more about?
  • What exercises would help reinforce your learning?

@fidel (I’m presuming you’re the same one from the meetup on Sunday, if not perhaps someone might tag the appropriate person?), I was thinking a bit more on your question of using physical index cards for writing fiction. You might find the examples of both Vladimir Nabokov and Dustin Lance Black, a screenwriter, useful as they both use index card-based workflows.

Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977 leaving an unfinished manuscript in note card form for the novel The Original of Laura . Penguin later published the incomplete novel with in 2012 with the subtitle A Novel in Fragments . Unlike most manuscripts written or typewritten on larger paper, this one came in the form of 138 index cards. Penguin’s published version recreated these cards in full-color reproductions including the smudges, scribbles, scrawlings, strikeouts, and annotations in English, French, and Russian. Perforated, one could tear the cards out of the book and reorganize in any way they saw fit or even potentially add their own cards to finish the novel that Nabokov couldn’t. Taking a look at this might give you some ideas of how Nabokov worked and how you might adapt the style for yourself. Another interesting resource is this article with some photos/links about his method with respect to writing Lolita: The Notecards on Which Vladimir Nabokov Wrote Lolita: A Look Inside the Author's Creative Process | Open Culture

You might also find some useful tidbits on his writing process (Bristol cards/Exacompta anyone?) in:
Gold, Herbert. “Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction No. 40.” The Paris Review, 1967. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4310/the-art-of-fiction-no-40-vladimir-nabokov.

Carl Mydans photographed Nabokov while writing in September 1958 and some of those may be interesting to you as well.

Dustin Lance Black outlines his index card process in this video on YouTube: Creative Spark: Dustin Lance Black - YouTube

If you dig around you’ll also find Michael Ende and a variety of other German fiction writers who used index cards on the Zettelkasten page on Wikipedia, but I suspect most of the material on their processes are written in German.

Index cards for fiction writing may allow some writers some useful affordances/benefits. By using small atomic pieces on note cards, one can be far more focused on the idea and words immediately at hand. It’s also far easier in a creative and editorial process to move pieces around experimentally.

Similarly, when facing Hemmingway’s “White Bull”, the size and space of an index card is fall smaller. This may have the effect that Twitter’s short status updates have for writers who aren’t faced with the seemingly insurmountable burden of writing a long blog post or essay in other software. They can write 280 characters and stop. Of if they feel motivated, they can continue on by adding to the prior parts of a growing thread.

However, if you can, try to use a card catalog drawer with a rod so that you don’t spill all of your well-ordered cards the way the character in Robert M. Pirsig’s novel Lila (1991) did.

Possibly this: Exacompta Index Cards (Bristol Cards) | Exacompta Planners, Agendas, Journals and Portfolios?

qv Scrivener’s corkboard view.

If you’ve a rod to hand don’t overlook using it with edge-notched cards. As it happens, Doug Engelbart used such a type of card when writing his seminal paper Augmenting Human Intellect.

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I was foreshadowing the fact that readers of the Paris Review article would discover that Nabokov used Bristol cards, which are still manufactured/sold in many countries. They are on the expensive side compared to various alternatives however. ($0.10-0.15/card or more compared to $0.02/card)

Sadly the rods common in card catalogs are significantly too large in diameter to be used in most of the old edge-notched cards. I’ve got a small collection of notes on these cards for those interested in the overlap with note taking: Hypothesis Although, It is also a bit reminiscent of Sugano’s 2006 edge-marked index cards in his paper Pile of Index Cards/GTD system: Pile of Index Cards | Flickr

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This is pretty useful information and resources. Thank you!