Read to Write, Write to Learn

[Originally posted on Medium]

Four years ago, I had a reading epiphany. I realized I wasn’t retaining anything from the books I read or listened to and decided that drastic action was necessary. I came up with a process that I thought was sure to make my reading more productive: I started reading physical books, began bookmarking and highlighting liberally, and most importantly, turned those highlights into hundreds of pages of typed notes that I saved and shared with friends. Collectively, I’ve spent thousands of hours on that process. And last week, I realized that my process was failing me.

The catalyst was a short, self-published book called How to Take Smart Notes. This book provides a detailed system on how to read, take notes, and write using the Zettelkasten (slip-box) method developed by German Sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann used this system to generate prolific, high-quality output during his lifetime.

While the technical specifics of the slip-box system are interesting, the higher level principles were what truly resonated with me — perhaps because I’ve spent so much time doing things wrong, and this system clearly articulated my shortcomings. Fortunately, it focuses on the same goals I’ve always been seeking: using reading to improve my thinking and expand my ability to learn.

The goal of reading is writing

While I didn’t connect the dots previously, the biggest break-though idea for me is that writing should be the output of my reading. Writing demonstrates understanding. It is the ultimate medium and facilitator for research, learning, and study. You can’t think systematically without writing.

Completing a book feels good and hitting your Goodreads challenge for the year seems like a nice accomplishment, but without turning that reading into tangible output, you’re effectively running in-place — expending a lot of effort, but not making any forward progress.

Writing is the natural end-state of book notes. If notes aren’t to be used for writing, collecting them becomes a pointless chore.

Good notes are essential for great writing

“You can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back.” — Charlie Munger

Taking good notes is a prerequisite for great writing.

Over the past several years, I’ve made the mistake of copying down long quotes and passages. I thought that getting as much raw material into Evernote was going to benefit me in the long run. It seemed that by hoarding as many quotes as possible, I’d always have the perfect one, ready at hand.

Unfortunately, copying down someone else’s words doesn’t make them your own. The key to taking good notes is capturing ideas in your own words, and unlocking them from the context of their specific usage.

When you copy down quotes, you skip the step where you actually need to think about what something means. Rephrasing in your own words helps unlock the idea from that specific context, and ensures that you understand the topic. If a note isn’t decontextualized, you can never think beyond it; it’s cemented into that context forever and you can’t do anything to it. Copying quotes leads to a patchwork of ideas — not well-developed thoughts.

When notes are stripped of context and put into your own words, they can be elaborated upon by meaningfully connecting one idea to another, sometimes in novel or unexpected ways.

Notes belong in an external thinking system, not an archive

Once you take good notes, they need to go into an external thinking system. An external system (or external scaffolding) to think and organize your thoughts is critical; it overcomes the limitations of our brain, which is subject to the constraints of our memory and our ability to retrieve ideas. The external system becomes your idea factory where notes and thoughts go in, and ideas come out. There is also a powerful compounding effect because as we add more ideas, there are more possible connections, and more possible output.

It’s important that only high quality notes get put into this system. If you over-capture, you dilute the good ideas with insignificant ones, and never attain a critical mass of notes. This system is a tool for thinking, not an encyclopedia, so completeness doesn’t matter. Don’t build up an archive of isolated encyclopedic facts; build a network of ideas.

Otherwise, you’ll just have a pile of notes in an archive that are only useful in a single context — essentially a “graveyard for thought”.

Write bottoms-up, not linearly

Since writing is an open-ended process, it isn’t something you can be overly prescriptive about. If you pick a topic and then try to find evidence for it, you’ll inevitably ignore or dismiss any disconfirming ideas.

The beauty of the external thinking system is that topics can organically form as notes and ideas begin to cluster together. These topics and questions can then be analyzed and answered in the whitespace of daily life. And they can be further refined as we add more content and notes to our thinking system. This helps to avoid confirmation bias. It also helps us to come up with novel and exciting new ideas.

The best part of this system is that clusters of notes can be used to build out a rough draft. So that when you write, you can avoid the dreaded blank page.

Embrace the virtuous cycle

This process is a self reinforcing one. By becoming better at identifying good ideas from reading, we increase the quality of our notes and writing. This elevates our thinking and ultimately expands our learning opportunities. Which makes us better readers, with increased capacity for thought.

Instead of just accumulating knowledge, we can become truly different people.

Which to me, is the promise of reading fulfilled.