September 8

How to Take Notes When Reading a Book

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Most people take notes when reading a book by highlighting, underlining everything, and capturing their notes in a note-taking app like Notion, Evernote, or Mem. There are several problems with this approach:

  • First, this approach doesn’t help you remember or take action on what you’ve read. 
  • Second, you capture information, don’t cultivate knowledge or wisdom. If you want to build a collection of notes that will help you study for a test, write a paper, or work on any other intellectual endeavor, you have to think Like a writer, not an archivist.
  • Third, you don’t ask questions that encourage elaboration, which enables you to take knowledge in new directions and Turn What You Read into Something New.

Whether you’re a college student writing an essay, a blogger who wants to create content, or just a casual reader, learning how to take notes on a book the right way will help you get far more out of your reading efforts.

How We Learned To Take Effective Notes

take notes when reading

Unless they are avid readers, most people learn how to take notes while reading to write book reports and pass tests. So they don’t remember most of what they read. 

Cliff Notes on books are great for memorizing the contents to pass an exam. But just because you’ve memorized or read something doesn’t mean you’ve learned or understood the material. The only way to do that is to read the entire book and take notes in your own words.

As Sonkhe Ahrens says in How to Take Smart Notes, “you need to thỉnk beyond what you read because you need to turn it into something new. And by doing everything with the clear intention of writing about it, you’ll do what you do mindfully.” Cliff notes on books don’t help you do that.

If you want to take more effective notes, you need a process that allows you to identify key ideas, capture what’s relevant, and externalize it, so you don’t have to depend on your memory. 

Physical Books vs Ebook Readers: Advantages and Disadvantages

In my personal experience, Physical books have several advantages over digital books.  

  • They are distraction-free by default. A thousand other things compete for your attention on an iPad or digital device.
  • You retain more of what you read.
  • It’s easier to be discerning about the content you absorb.

There are two main disadvantages to a physical book.

  • They take up a lot of space. Managing shelf space is a constant challenge for me.
  • Converting the ideas that come to you into a digital format can be tedious and time-consuming.

But the most successful authors I’ve ever talked to all swear by physical books. So I think the trade-off is worth it.

There are two significant advantages to digital books:

  • They don’t take up much space.
  • It’s much faster to capture ideas and export them into a note-taking app. 

After years of reading digital books, I’ve noticed two major drawbacks with them.

  • Because you’re reading on one device, it’s easy to get distracted (especially if you’re using an iPad with many other apps on it).
  • You can read more, but don’t retain as much.

This is a matter of personal preference. But I’ve found that I retain far more when reading paper books than I do when I use an ebook reader.

4 Principles for Taking Notes While Reading

Group of blank sticky notes on a desk

Below, I’ve outlined a process for how to take notes from a book which you can use for conducting podcast interviews, writing blog posts, and maximizing your creative output.

3 Formats/Strategies for How to Take Notes When Reading 

An effective note-taking method allows you to build a collection of notes that grow in value over time, overcome memory limitations, and take knowledge in new directions. 

1.Take Smart Notes

This method for taking notes while reading will enable you to build a treasure chest of smart interconnected notes that compound in value over time. Unlike copying quotes, taking smart notes is an active process. 

Using this method, the social scientist Nicholas Luhmann completed a Ph.D. thesis in less than a year, wrote 500 papers, and published 50 books. Once you learn how to take Smart Notes, you’ll wonder why you used any other method.

Types of Notes

There are four main types of notes you’ll take when reading a book.

  • Reference Notes: Your reference notes are the highlights from books, podcasts, etc. They would include the quotes you want to remember. You use them to create permanent notes and literature notes. 
  • Fleeting Note: A fleeting note is like a quick mental note you write down on a sheet of paper to help you remember an idea or quote you came across while reading. Summarize what you want to remember in one sentence and write down the page number and the source of the note. Keep your fleeting notes brief.
  • Literature Notes: Literature is different than reference notes because you’re not just copying and pasting quotes. But instead, you’re explaining them in your own words. Literature notes force you to elaborate. Elaboration is Critical to taking notes when reading a book because Elaboration increases the odds of remembering.
  • Permanent Note: A permanent note is an original insight. It’s something you can understand without context. For example, while writing a literature note, you might have an idea for a blog post, personal philosophy, or something else. You’d know what it was referring to in the future without having to refer to the original source. 

When you take smart notes, it becomes easier to make connections between our ideas, come up with new ones, and the value your notes compounds. Taking smart notes helps you to maximize your output.

2. The Notecard System

Ryan Holiday learned about then notecard system from his mentor Robert Greene. After you finish reading a book, do the following:

  • Wait a few days or weeks. Ryan suggests doing this because we often underline or capture things at the moment that aren’t relevant or resonant when we reread them.
  • Write quotes and highlights on a notecard and keep them in a file or box, categorized by topic.

Although this is often time-consuming, Ryan’s results speak for themselves. He wrote down the idea for The Obstacle is the way several years before he wrote it. Today, it has sold over a million copies. As Ryan said to me, “A lot of them (the notecards) lead nowhere, but you can build a career out of one of them.”

Progressive Summarization: A Digital Method For Taking Notes While Reading

With a Kindle, it’s effortless to highlight as many passages as you want and export it all to a digital tool like Notion or Evernote. But that doesn’t make your notes very useful or effective.

Tiago Forte has developed a method for taking more effective notes called progressive summarization, which involves drilling down through different stages to get to the main idea. This helps you make practical, actionable notes and increase your productivity.

The Layers of Progressive Summarization

When you’re progressively summarizing, it’s like you’re getting a piece, and you’re saying, okay, this is something that I want to use for myself. – Tiago Forte 

The layers of progressive summarization help you determine the most important ideas in your book notes.

  • Layer 1: This is very simple. This is everything you export from your Kindle highlights to a digital tool like Notion, Evernote, or Walling.
  • Layer 2: For the second layer, go through and highlight what stands out to you in bold.
  • Layer 3: For the third layer, go through your notes and highlight again what is most important to you.

The key to creating effective layers is discernment. Looking at most non-fiction books, an author introduces an idea in a paragraph, shares some supporting evidence, and then summarizes it in the last sentence. 

You often don’t need much more than the first or last sentence for your layers. By creating these layers, you can take notes on the books you read much more effectively and quickly create a summary that gives you the entire gist at a glance.

You can go deeper by writing about the books you read in a blog post or article. This helps you to reinforce the key concepts you learned.

Progressive Summarization with Physical Books

Creating layers with physical books is a bit more challenging because while we can easily underline and highlight things, we don’t have the luxury of exporting everything to a digital note as quickly.

You can still use Progressive Summarization to make practical notes on physical books. It just requires a few tweaks.

Since it’s inefficient and time-consuming to type out everything you underline or mark in physical form, determine what you want to signify digitally. You’ll still highlight anything that catches your attention. But the better you get at Progressive Summarization, the more sophisticated you will become and underline with your notes in mind.

“As I read, I take notes. I circle words I need to look up. I highlight points that I think are crucial to the argument. I underline anything that strikes me as interesting. I comment like a madman in the margins. I try to draw out assumptions, etc.,” says Shane Parrish in his article about taking notes in books.

You can create as many signifiers as you want. But to keep it simple, I recommend you limit them.

A week or two after you read the book, go through it and look at everything you highlighted or underlined. Put your signifier next to anything you want to transfer to a digital note. I use a simple asterisk.

After you have transferred everything with signifiers to a digital note, go through the progressive summary process for digital books.

3 Essential Tools For Taking Notes on the Books You Read

When it comes to a system for anything, the system is more important than the tool. You can use multiple tools to accomplish the same goal.

Roam: The most impressive thing about Roam is a concept called bidirectional linking. This is a tool I’d heard about from several friends. While researching this article, I decided to test it out and was impressed.

  • For example, say I create notes for all my books about attention. If I make a page with the title attention, all of those notes will be linked to that page without me having to do anything else.

Mem: Mem is my personal tool of choice for taking notes when reading.  It doesn’t have all the features of Roam, but  the interface is much easier to navigate. Watch this video to learn what makes it different from other note-taking apps.

Walling: Walling is a recent addition to my arsenal of digital tools. The beauty of Walling is that lets you capture your ideas in the moment and makes it easy to figure out what you want to do with them later. And if you’re a highly visual person, you might appreciate the way that you can organize your notes in Walling.

The Value of Taking More Effective Notes on the Books Your Read

Having a digital database of notes on the books you read can be invaluable to your creative process.

  • Writing: If you’re a writer, you can use your notes to come up with ideas, write blog posts or do research for writing books.
  • Podcast Interviews: If you’re a podcast host who is interviewing an author, you can use your notes to structure your interviews and ask questions about the concepts in the book. I do this for every person I interview.
  • Social Media Content: You can also use these notes to create quotes and images and share them across social channels.

This helps you do more than take effective notes on the books you read. You can use it to remember ideas from podcasts or online courses. While you never know what will come of your notes, as Ryan Holiday says, “You could build a career from just one.”


Tags

Building an Audience, habits, Writing


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