How to process reading annotations into evergreen notes

It’s important to Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply. While reading, you’ve marked passages that seem relevant, and you’ve scribbled notes with your thoughts (How to collect observations while reading). Now we’ll process all that into lasting notes.

First: what notes should even get written? We’ll write Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented, so what are the key concepts? You need to take a step back and form a picture of the overall structure of the ideas. Concretely, you might do that by clustering your scraps into piles and observing the structure that emerges. Or you might sketch a mind map or a visual outline. The structure you observe does not have to match the book’s structure: it’s whatever makes sense relative to your own personal ontology (Do your own thinking).

Once you have a picture of the concepts at play, you’ll begin an iterative process of note-writing. Here I’ve summarized Christian Tietze’s process, which I’m presently adopting / adapting:

  1. Write a broad note which captures the “big idea” of one of your clusters.
  2. Write finer-grained notes: Look through the individual scraps in that cluster. Write notes which capture more nuanced atomic ideas within that cluster.
  3. Connect: Search for relevant past notes which relate to these new notes. Link, merge, and revise as necessary to represent your new, synthesized conception of those ideas.
  4. Revise: Return to the broad note and improve your summary based on what you’ve learned writing the detailed notes and the details you’ve unpacked, if it’s possible to do so without muddying their focus. Remove detailed notes that are no longer necessary; update others based on what you learned writing your updated broad note if appropriate.
  5. Loop


Create Zettel from Reading Notes • Zettelkasten Method

Second, I find out if a cluster’s main point has too many prerequisites to stand alone. It might be a conclusion which draws from lots of assumptions or from complex models I’d need to explain. I prepare the conclusion first and then branch off into other notes to capture all the necessary ideas. This is where links come in handy: the details point back to the concept note and the concept note mentions its detail branches.

Clusters don’t lean onto the book’s outline. A book’s index for example collects references, not caring about the table of contents or the flow of ideas. For definitions of terms a similar approach is useful: collect usage examples in the text and definitions themselves to get a clear picture of the term’s meaning. Clusters can be topic-based, too, just like an index.

This is what I call ‘orthogonal to the content’: they don’t adhere to the succession of pages and sections. Instead, clusters form themselves around any purpose you deem fitting.

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

Making sure you will be able to find this note later by either linking to it from your index or by making a link to it on a note that you use as an entry point to a discussion or topic and is itself linked to the index.

Last updated 2023-07-13.