On Note Taking, Writing, and Competitive Advantage

On Note Taking, Writing, and Competitive Advantage

Do you want to think better? If so, writing is a good first step. A way to write better is to have a simple system that allows you to to take notes in a systematic manner, letting complexity bubble up from there (Beinhocker, 2006). This system will allow you to accumulate and compound insight, which Sonke Ahrens explains in his book: How to Take Smart Notes.

This system, known as a Zettelkasten, consists of two main components: literature notes and permanent notes. When you read something, have a pen in your hand to take notes on the content, summarizing what you think its important and what you don’t want to forget. You should then capture the bibliographic details in these literature notes so you have something to refer back to. Taking literature notes, in your own words, is a powerful test of concision and comprehension.

In the next step, you should make a permanent note, which is an elaboration or extension of your literature notes. When you do this, look at the literature notes you have just taken, and ask yourself, how can this idea contribute to different contexts (Ahrens 2017, 15), or why did I choose to write this down (84)? Other good prompts for developing permanent notes include: does this contradict, support, correct, or add to what I already have; can I combine two ideas to generate something novel; and what questions come from these ideas?

Over time, taking permanent notes is about making connections to other things you know, which comes from a mix of the theories, rules, mental models, and narratives you know today. Additional probing questions for permanent notes include: how does this fact fit into my idea of (x); can this be explained by theory; do these ideas complement or contradict one another; what is this argument similar to; have I heard this before; and what does (x) mean for (y) (Ahrens 2017, 60)?

When composing literature and permanent notes, I’ve found it helpful to use ideas from George Gopen’s Readers Expectations Approach, or REA, covered in his books: The Sense of Structure: Writing From The Reader’s Perspective & Expectations: Teaching Writing From the Reader’s Perspective. Your notes (both literature and permanent) should pass Gopen’s simple test of good writing: was the message delivered by the writer to the reader? If it was, then the writing was good; if it wasn’t, then the writing wasn’t good (Gopen 2014, 8).

Gopen’s focus on the stress position is also very useful for composing permanent notes as it helps clarify your thinking. He defines the stress position as the part of the sentence, usually at the end, that you most wanted to emphasize. For example, after reading the sentence you just composed, you may realize: there is more than one candidate for the stress position, implying you may be conflating or juxtaposing two separate thoughts; what you wanted to emphasize was not in the sentence, but in an implication hanging above it; or, you may realize nothing was worthy of emphasis, and as such, the sentence (or note) should be reduced to a phrase or clause (Gopen 2014, 14).

When storing a permanent note, don’t use topics and subtopics — you want to keep things as simple as possible and let complexity build from the bottom up. Identify notes in the context within which you may like to see them again, whether those words are in the note or not (Ahrens 2017, 38).

Why is any of this important? I believe both taking notes and good writing, enforces good thinking and can be a competitive advantage. As the world transitions to knowledge work, exercising this writing muscle is essential. Not only can writing confer an individual competitive advantage, but it can do the same in businesses.

For instance, in the book Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secret from Inside Amazon, the authors explain how Amazon relies on the written word and have banned Powerpoint (Bryar & Carr, 2021). They point out that Powerpoint, due to its format, prevents ideas from connecting to one another and makes an audience more passive (83). Amazon instead has its teams draft a six page narrative, complemented by tables, graphics, and numbers, that is read at the beginning of meetings, which they believe allows them to think through issues more deeply, foster better discussions, and finally make better decisions (Bryar & Carr 2021, 83). As the work becomes more complicated and relies more on human capital as an intangible moat (Wu, 2021), writing is must.

Even when it develops new product, Amazon uses a document in the form of a press release and frequently asked questions, known as a PR/FAQ, to develop new products. This is a living document used to ensure a new product will benefit customers, determine whether its feasible, and whom you are reliant on to introduce the product.

In another example, Twilio, in its annual report, writes the following in the context of how it makes decisions: “Write It Down. Our business is complex, so take the time to express yourself in prose (emphasis mine)—for your sake and for the folks with whom you’re collaborating.”

In conclusion, if you want a leg up for yourself, develop a note taking system and take the pains to write clearly. Also, pay attention to organizations that prioritize writing — they may actually have an superior competitive advantage to those that don’t over the long term.

I would love feedback on this and any other examples of companies that focus on writing. Thank you.