Make Notes in Your Own Words

When we are reading a text, it can be difficult to identify and remember what is most important. Especially when reading theoretical texts, we must balance our short-term and long-term memories so that we can focus on what is truly important.

Reformulating what we read in our own words can help facilitate this understanding. Re-framing ideas in this way forces us to consider what is meant, and compels us to think about what is emphasized and what is left out in the text we are reading.

In contrast, verbatim copying of passages and quotation marks strips texts of their context and therefore their meaning. It short circuits your brain: you’ve skipped the step of interpreting and understanding. What’s left is a random assemblage of sentences that cannot cohere to one another. Better to engage with an idea, think through it, and process it. To understand it, we need to rephrase it and put it in our own language.

Reading, by itself, is not understanding. Copying notes in another's words tricks us into thinking we understand an idea by making it familiar. And that familiarity can even make us think we like an idea, even if we haven't engaged in it critically.

One of the benefits of the Zettelkasten method is that it involves multiple acts of translation. You translate the original source into your fleeting notes, which are then translated into your own thoughts and positions in the slip box. Then, these ideas are translated again as you write for publication. Each of these is a feedback loop that confronts you with gaps in your understanding and forces you to overcome them.



Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Sönke Ahrens, 2017.

Luhmann, Niklas. “Learning How to Read.” Translated by Manfred Kuehn. Two Essays by Niklas Luhmann. Accessed October 27, 2020.