Welcome Letter

March 5, 2017 Sönke

Dear friends, colleagues and members of the growing note-taking community,
Thank you for your interest in this project! I’m happy to say that “How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers” is now available on Amazon and can be ordered at all major bookstores in the US and UK. I managed to publish the German version, “Das Zettelkasten-Prinzip”, at the same time. And my website, takesmartnotes.com, is up and running.
When Niklas Luhmann published the two-volume book “Theory of Society” in 1997, he delivered what he had promised 29 and a half years earlier: To write a theory of society, “duration: 30 years. Costs: none.” This book was only the last chapter of his theory. In the years before, he wrote roughly 50 other books and more than 500 unique articles, each discussing another aspect of society or his theory. In terms of quality, insightfulness and originality, Luhmann’s work is, for me, still the best thing ever written in sociology. A friend of mine said that whenever he needs to remind himself of how proper thinking works, he picks up a book by Luhmann.
What he wrote about might be fascinating only to those interested in sociology or systems theory. But everyone who has ever attempted to write something of lasting value or thoroughly think something through will be fascinated by and curious about how he wrote that much. I certainly was – at least from the moment I learned that he never forced himself to do anything he didn’t feel like doing. He wrote with ease – hundreds of pages packed with insight every year. And while we might be tempted to put that down to the character trait of a genius, the truth is that he wouldn’t have been able to achieve anything remotely impressive without the help of his slip-box. There is no question that his productivity is due to his note-taking system.* Luhmann himself was outspoken about it: He always said all his work was due to the slip-box.
In the past, few have taken the technical side of his work very seriously, and many who tried to emulate his technique failed because of misleading descriptions of how it works. I couldn’t find a single comprehensive and proper description of it in English. The research the University of Bielefeld is doing at the moment provides us today with a thorough understanding of how Luhmann actually worked, and at least one program is available that properly emulates it in digital form (the links are on takesmartnotes.com). All that is needed now is to get the word out. Maybe Luhmann’s most influential achievement will not be his theory, but his writing technique. And this is what this project is about: To make his technique known and available to everyone with an interest in thinking, writing and learning. The tools needed are simple and do not have to cost anything. The time needed to set it up is shorter than reading my book on how to do it. There is no need to rearrange anything you have written before.
The biggest challenge is to convince the sceptics who believe that no technology, especially a simple one, could make much of a difference. Working with the slip-box helps enormously with staying focused and getting clarity. Even if most people are drawn to it because of its promise of getting more writing done, I hope it will have another, more important effect: To support fact-based, rigorous and open-minded thinking that can enrich academic and public discussions. Most study guides promote an approach to writing that is more like an invitation for confirmation bias – for example, they ask the reader to start with a hypothesis. This is just crazy! The slip-box turns this approach around and puts it on its feet: it lets the users develop ideas and interests bottom-up. It encourages them to search for disconfirming facts and constantly asks for clarification. Used properly, it can be a powerful tool to counterbalance our tendency to fool ourselves, which is, as Richard Feynman famously said, the main challenge for every scientist.
I promised to let you know when I made progress on the project. It took longer than expected (yes, I do get the irony of delaying a book on the organisation of writing, thank you), but I am delighted to announce that the books are ready to order, both in English and in German, either as a paperback or ebook. The ebooks are DRM-free and can be converted into any format for all devices. Make sure to order it in the marketplace of your country to avoid shipping or currency exchange costs.
Thanks to my efficient and incredibly supportive editor, Kathy Drouin-Keith, the English version turned out so well that you would be forgiven if you doubted that I spent months sweating and struggling over dictionaries to write in a language that is still pretty foreign to me. If you need something edited in English or content written by someone who is not only highly professional, but also a great pleasure to work with, you should ask Kathy. The cover design is made by the talented illustrator Oliver Ferreira from Hamburg. Last week, I described to him one of my favourite comic strips, which I read many years before I met him, and while I vividly remembered the strip, I couldn’t remember the name of the artist. He could – it turned out it was him! If you need something edited or illustrated, drop me a line and I will pass it on to Kathy or Oliver.
If you could help me to get the word out by letting people know about the book, post a link to it or encourage someone to write a short review on Amazon, I will be extremely grateful. I updated the website takesmartnotes.com and even set up a Twitter account last week. You can follow me at @soenke_ahrens – it is still a pretty intimate group!
Thanks again so much for your interest. I appreciate it. If you want me to keep you posted, you don’t have to do anything. I will write an email once in a while whenever I feel I have something useful to say about note-taking or an announcement to make about new content on the website. Maybe there will even be a book-launch party. If you prefer no further emails, you can unsubscribe anytime with a click at the bottom of these emails.
Please do not hesitate to contact me should you have suggestions, questions, comments or ideas you wish to share with me.


*This is also the conclusion of Johannes F.K. Schmidt, who is the leading researcher on Luhmann’s slip-box in Bielefeld.

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