Nobody Ever Starts From Scratch – Take Advantage of It

Imagine you do not start with a clean sheet. Imagine instead some friendly genie (or well-paid personal assistant – whatever is more likely for you to have available) prepared a rough draft of your paper for you. It is already a fully developed argument including all references, quotes and some really smart ideas. The only thing left to do is to revise this rough draft and send it off. Make no mistake: there is still work to do and it is more than just finding some typos. Editing is work that needs focus. You have to rephrase some sentences, delete one or two redundancies and maybe add a couple of sentences or even passages to fill some holes left in the argument. But at the same time, it is a well-defined task: nothing that couldn’t be done within a few days and certainly nothing you would have trouble motivating yourself to do: Everybody is motivated when the finish line is within reach. No problem so far.

Imagine now you are not the one who has to edit the rough draft and turn it into the final paper, but the one who has to prepare it. What would be helpful to achieve that quickly? It would certainly make things a lot easier if you already had everything you need right in front of you: The ideas, the arguments, the quotes, long developed passages, complete with bibliography and references. And not just readily available, but already in order, sorted by chapters that have descriptive headlines. Now that’s also a clear assignment. No worries about perfect sentences (someone else will take care of that), no worries about finding things and coming up with ideas (someone else already took care of that), you just focus on turning a string of ideas into a continuous text. Again, that is still serious work and you have to put some effort into it, if you want to make it great. You might spot a missing step in an argument and have to fill it, or you might want to rearrange some notes or leave something out that you regard as less relevant. But, again, this is not an overwhelming task and luckily, it doesn’t need to be perfect. No problem so far.

Equally manageable is the task of bringing already existing notes into order, especially if half of them already are in order. Searching through a file system with strings of discussions, plenty of material and ideas is, believe it or not, fun. It does not require the kind of focused attention you would need to formulate a sentence or to understand a difficult text. Your attention is rather at ease and it even helps to have a playful mindset. Only with a less narrow focus will you be able to see connections and patterns. You see clearly where long strings of discussions have already been built up – this is a good starting point. If you do look for specific notes, you have an index to turn to. No problem at all so far.

At this point, it should become clear that you don’t need to wait for a genie to appear, as each step is clearly not only within your abilities, but also straightforward and well defined: Assemble notes and bring them into order, turn these notes into a draft, review it and you are done.

Now, that’s all well and good, you might say, but what about writing these notes? Obviously, it is easy to write a paper if the main part of the writing is already done and only needs to be turned into a linear text. But isn’t that a little bit like saying: If you are short of money, just take what you need out of your piggy bank? Everyone can make things look easy by leaving out the main part. So, where is the genie for that?

Granted, writing these notes is the main work. It will take enormous amounts of effort, time, patience and willpower, and you will probably break under the weight of this task. Just kidding. It is the easiest part of all. Writing these notes is also not the main work. Thinking is. Reading is. Understanding and coming up with ideas is. And this is how it is supposed to be. The notes are just the tangible outcome of it. All you have to do is to have a pen in your hand while you are doing what you are doing anyway (or a keyboard under your fingers). Writing notes accompanies the main work and, done right, it helps with it. Writing is, without dispute, the best facilitator for thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas we have. Notes build up while you think, read, understand and generate ideas, because you have to have a pen in your hand if you want to think, read, understand and generate ideas properly anyway. If you want to learn something for the long run, you have to write it down. If you want to really understand something, you have to translate it into your own words. Thinking takes place as much on paper as in your own head. “Notes on paper, or on a computer screen […] do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavour easier, they make it possible,” neuroscientist Neil Levy concludes in the introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, summarizing decades of research. Neuroscientists, psychologists and other experts on thinking have very different ideas about how our brains work, but, as Levy writes: “no matter how internal processes are implemented, (you) need to understand the extent to which the mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.” (2011, 270) If there is one thing the experts agree on, then it is this: You have to externalise your ideas, you have to write. Richard Feynman stresses it as much as Benjamin Franklin. If we write, it is more likely that we understand what we read, remember what we learn and that our thoughts make sense. And if we have to write anyway, why not use our writing to build up the resources for our future publications?

Thinking, reading, learning, understanding and generating ideas is the main work of everyone who studies, does research or writes. If you write to improve all of these activities, you have a strong tailwind going for you. If you take your notes in a smart way, it will propel you forward.

(From the introduction of “How to Take Smart Notes”). Read the first chapter for free here.

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