September 8

How to Take Notes While Reading a Book

There are a number of different techniques that you can use in order to take notes while reading. Some people prefer to highlight key points in the text, others choose to write down key ideas in a notebook, and still others opt to listen to audio recordings of the material. Whichever method you choose, taking notes while reading can help you focus on the most important information and review it later on.

 Taking notes while reading can help you focus on the most important information and review it later on.

How We Learned to Take Notes

Whether you’re a college student writing an essay, a blogger who wants to create content, or just a casual reader, a good note-taking system will help you get far more out of your reading efforts. So, what is the best way to take notes?

It's about finding a method that works for you and allows you to engage deeply with the material.

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. This is a common issue when it comes to how to do notes effectively.

Cliff Notes on books are great for memorizing the content 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. This is the best way to write notes for long-term retention.

As Sonkhe Ahrens says in How to Take Smart Notes, “you need to think 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. This is a key part of how I take notes.

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.

You need to think 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. - Sonkhe Ahrens

Physical Books vs Ebooks: Advantages and Disadvantages

Physical Books

Pros: Physical books have several advantages over digital books. 

  • 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 absor

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

Digital Books

Pros: Digital books offer two significant advantages

  • They don't take up physical space
  • They allow for a quicker capture and export of ideas into a note-taking app. If you're looking to learn how to take notes faster, this could be helpful.

Cons: my experience with digital books has revealed two main drawbacks.

  • The single-device setup, particularly on an app-filled iPad, makes distractions inevitable.
  • While digital reading might increase volume, it often compromises retention.

4 Methods to Take Good Notes While Reading

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. This is how to take notes faster and more effectively.

1. Highlighting and Emphasizing

Highlight and Underline

When you come across interesting quotes or important points while reading, make sure to highlight or underline them. This will make it easier for you to review the main points. This is a key part of taking notes effectively.

Take Notes by Hand

Writing notes by hand is another effective method. Studies have shown that taking notes by hand helps you to remember information better than typing them out on a computer. So next time, try jotting down key points in a notebook instead of typing them out on your laptop. 

Summarize What What You've Read

At the end of each chapter, stop and write a few bullet points that summarize what you’ve read, and make it personal by applying it to something in your life. You can also check the textbook questions and summaries at the beginning and end of each chapter to get an idea of the most important parts. This is how I take notes effectively.

2. 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. This is the best way to write notes.

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

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 Notes

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

A literature is note is different than reference notes because you’re not just copying quotes. But instead, you identify the essential points and rewrite them in your own words, which is a form of retrieval practice.

Permanent Notes

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.

Additionally, as you think about the purpose of your reading session, determine why you need the notes. This will help guide your choices in order to optimize your book note taking process for review or retrieval. 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.

3. The Notecard System

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

  • Write quotes and highlights on a notecard and keep them in a file or box, categorized by topic.
  • 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.

Although this takes a lot of time, 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.”

4. Progressive Summarization: A Method for Taking Digital 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. This is where knowing how to take notes on a computer comes into play.

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.

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

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 out of what you bolder ion layer 2

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. This is how to write notes effectively.

Progressive Summarization with Physical Books

Progressive Summarization can still be effectively applied to physical books, albeit with a few modifications.

While reading, highlight or underline passages that catch your attention. To streamline the process, consider using an app like Readwise to capture all your highlights. Once you've done this, import them from Readwise into your note-taking app.

A week or two after you've finished the book, go through your imported notes. At this point, you can start creating layers of progressive summarization. This involves distilling the notes down to their essence, making them easier to review and recall. This process, which is just as effective for physical books as it is for digital ones, is a key part of taking notes effectively.

What are the best Note-Taking Apps?

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.

Mem is my personal tool of choice for taking notes. It's packed with features like AI capabilities, bidirectional links, and a user-friendly interface. It's designed to help you capture, recall, and connect your thoughts seamlessly.

Roam is also impressive, particularly due to its concept of bidirectional linking. For example, if you create notes for all your books about a topic like attention and make a page with the title "attention", all of those notes will be linked to that page without any extra effort.

Obsidian is a powerful knowledge base that works on top of a local folder of plain text Markdown files. It's great for linking notes and creating a personal knowledge graph.

Notion is an all-in-one workspace where you can write, plan, collaborate and get organized. It's not just a note-taking app, it's a powerful tool for project management, database building, and more.

The best note-taking app is the one that meets your needs.

What are the benefits of taking notes while reading?

Using a digital database of notes on the books you read can be extremely beneficial to your creative workflow.

  • If you’re a writer, you may use your notes to generate ideas, write blog articles, or do research for your writing projects.
  •  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 principles in the book.
  • You may also produce quotes and photographs for social media and submit them to different platforms. 
  • You can use it to remember ideas from podcasts or online courses.

Many of my notes lead to nothing. But one of them is enough to build a career off of. 

This helps you do more than take effective notes on the books you read.While you never know what will come of your notes, as Ryan Holiday says, “You could build a career from just one."


Building an Audience, habits, Writing

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