September 8

How to Take Notes While Reading a Book

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How to Take Notes While Reading

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.

Most people take notes when reading a book by highlighting, underlining everything, and capturing their notes in a note-taking app .

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, but don’t cultivate knowledge or wisdom. 
  • 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, a good note-taking system will help you get far more out of your reading efforts.

How We Learned To Take Notes

take notes while 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 Ebooks : 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.

  1. They take up a lot of space. Managing shelf space is a constant challenge for me.
  2. 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

  1. They don’t take up much space.
  2. 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.

3 Methods to Take Good 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.

1. Highlighting and Emphasizing

  1. Highlighting and Emphasizing – When you come across interesting quotes or something important while reading, make sure to highlight it or underline it. This will help you go back and review the main points easily.
  2. Writing Notes by Hand – 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
  3. Stop at the end of each chapter, 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.

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.

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

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 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 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.

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.

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.

  • 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. Nat Eliason goes into much more detail in this article on how he took notes on 250+ Books in Roam.
  • 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 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 novels 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. Structure your interviews and ask questions about the principles in the book by using your notes to structure them. If you’re a podcast host who is interviewing an author, this is a good way to do it. For each individual I speak with, I do this. You may also produce quotes and photographs for social media and submit them to different platforms. 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.


Building an Audience, habits, Writing

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