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How I take notes

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There are two types of notes: notes to collect information , notes to create knowledge . Both of them are valid. My common strategy for note taking is:

  • The first set of notes happens on paper, in the margins of whatever I read. Sometimes notes take the form of underlining, not of actual writing.
  • Underlining allows me to quickly skim through the text to find the bits that were more interesting to remember.
  • Notes on the margins are normally pointers to things that are not written. For example, if something does not make sense I would mark it with a ? , if something is a conclusion, I would mark it with a ! .
  • I also try to draw on figures to make the link between the explanation and the data.
  • Margin annotations are ephemeral notes , meaning that if I let some time pass by, they won't provide useful information
  • After that, I make a concept summary on the notes I've taken. If, for example, I read an interesting paper, after annotating on the margins, I create a note, not with the title of the paper, but for each one of its conclusions.
  • The reason to do this is because it becomes easier to find the information I need. Instead of remembering where I read something, I can quickly go for the conclusion or topic I am interested in.
  • By summarizing from the conclusion, it is easier to build backwards through the difficulties and hypothesis that support them.
  • Most likely each difficulty and hypothesis could deserve a note on themselves, and perhaps it even exists already, if I went through a paper focusing on the other side of the problems. Therefore, creating links is relatively easy. The connection between papers that share hypothesis or difficulties will slowly start to emerge.
  • I also take care of creating links to the techniques employed, because it is useful to get an overview of in which kind of works each technique is used.
  • Once I am done, I archive the paper in a folder indexed by the last author in case I need to retrieve it.

Technical Remarks

I do like reading on paper . I haven't found anything that remotely resembles the experience of underlining and taking notes directly next to the text. Perhaps tablets with Styluses allow to do this?

For digital notes, I use Obsidian or Zettlr . They both work on plain markdown files. If I were to do more systematic literature reviews, I would probably use more specific software, like Zotero , that allows to categorize papers and include notes that are easy to share.


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Aquiles Carattino
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