There are three steps to effectively taking notes while reading:
- At the end of each chapter write a few bullet points that summarize what you’ve read and make it personal if you can — that is, apply it to something in your life. Also, note any unanswered questions. When you’re done the book, put it down for a week.
- Pick up the book again and go through all your notes. Most of these will be garbage but there will be lots you want to remember. Write the good stuff on the inside cover of the book along with a page number.
- (Optional) Copy out the excerpts by hand or take a picture of them to pop into Evernote. Tag accordingly.
I’ve been asked to how to take notes while reading a lot. Often what people are really getting at is how can I better focus, retain, and use what I’m reading. And taking notes while reading can supercharge all of these things if you do it right. However, when we’re taught how to read read, we’re not allowed to write in books. So we never really learn a system for taking notes that we can use as adults.
The first step to taking notes is to figure out why you are taking notes. If you’re studying for an exam your notes are going to look different than if you’re reading for entertainment. The way you take notes depends on the reason you’re taking notes.
Learning something new as an adult is a function of consuming information (what you read and how you read), the information you retain, and your ability to put what you learned into practice (recognize patterns). For this, I use a simple three-step note-taking process that scales up to 150 books a year.
Like almost everything in life, there is no magical answer that fits everyone. You’ll have to do a bit of trial and error and take what works for you.
Taking Notes While Reading
Step One.The first thing I do when I pick up a book is read the preface, the table of contents, and the inside jacket. Often, I’ll glance over the index too. This doesn’t take long and often saves me time, as a lot of books do not make it past this filter. Maybe it doesn’t contain the information I’m trying to gain. If it seems crappy, I’ll flip to a few random pages to verify.
This filter is a form of systematic skimming. This isn’t my term, Mortimer Adler, a guy who literally wrote the book on reading, came up with it. Adler says there are four levels of reading. I tend to blend inspectional reading and analytical reading together for most books.
This way, when I start reading a book, I have an idea what it’s about, the main argument, and some of the terminology involved. I know where the author is going to take me and the broad strokes of how they will bring me along. That’s very useful information.
While reading, I take notes. I circle words I need to look up. I star points that I think are critical to the argument. I underline anything that strikes me as interesting. I comment like a madman in the margins. I try to tease out assumptions, etc.
Essentially, I’m trying to engage in a conversation with the author. Maybe my questions will be answered on the next page or in the next chapter. Maybe I’ll need to find another book to answer them. Who knows. But I write them down.
At the end of each chapter, I write a few bullet points that summarize what I’ve just read. When I’m done, I write a brief summary of the entire book and then I do something few other people do. I let the book age.
I put the book on my desk and I won’t touch it for anywhere from a few days to a week. This is very important.
When I pick the book up again, I re-read every scribble, underline, and comment I’ve made (assuming I can still read my writing). Sometimes I can’t.
I’m not the same person I was the first time I read the book, two things have changed: (1) I’ve read the entire book and (2) I’ve had a chance to sleep on what may have seemed earth-shattering at the time but now just seems meh.
If something still strikes my interest, I write a note in the first few pages of the book, in my own words, on the topic. Often this is a summary but increasingly it’s ways to apply the knowledge. I index this to the page number in the book.
Sometimes, and this depends on the book, I’ll create a sort of mental summary of the book’s main arguments and gaps. Sometimes I’ll cross-link points with other books.
Step 3 (optional but highly effective).
Wait a few days. Then go through the book and copy out excerpts by hand and put them into your repository or commonplace book. I use these notes to connect and synthesize ideas as I read.
To aid recall, connect the ideas to something you already have in your mind. Is it a continuation of the idea? Does it replace an idea? Is it the same idea in a different discipline? I add these connections to my notes and percolate them in my mind. Often I turn out to be mistaken but that’s the process.
Most of the time, you get to see the ideas on Farnam Street. You can see how I connect and contextualize ideas, linking them across disciplines. I find writing about the ideas really helps me develop my understanding.
Even if you don’t share your thoughts with millions of people you can do the same thing with Evernote, which is searchable, easy to use, and free. Personally, I do not use technology as a substitute for the non-technological approach mentioned above but rather as a compliment.
I rarely listen to books but if you are listening to a book, create a new note for that book and type in notes as you are listening. I know a few people that do not take notes as they are listening because they listen in the car on the way to work. They find that sitting down right away when they get to work and typing up notes is an effective way to improve recall although the notes are less accurate.
If you liked this article, you’ll love our helpful guide to reading better.