Author: Doug Toft

Writer and editor fascinated by commonplace books and personal information management

How to Take Useful Notes on Books

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“Nothing so much assists learning as writing down what we wish to remember,” said Cicero. Indeed. One key reason to keep a commonplace book is to store notes on your reading. Those notes become a personally-curated reference collection—and a continuing source of inspiration.

Beyond that, taking notes on your reading changes you from a passive consumer of information to an active creator of ideas. This is especially true when you write responses to what you read and make plans to act on an author’s suggestions.

The question is how to begin. What kind of notes on reading are most useful? Ultimately you’ll answer that question for yourself. Following are some options that are specifically tailored to nonfiction books.

ANNOTATE, MARINATE AND REVIEW

Shane Parrish of Farnam Street reads over 150 books each year and blogs about many of them. His note-taking process is this:

  • Read the front matter—preface, the table of contents, and inside jacket.
  • Glance over the index.
  • Decide whether to read the book.
  • Mark up the book—circle words to look up, star key points, underline interesting passages, list questions, note connections, and write comments in the margins.
  • Summarize each chapter with a few bullet points.
  • Writing on a blank sheet of paper, explain the core ideas of the book to yourself.

Essentially, Shane says, he’s taking these steps to “engage in a conversation with the author.”

Shane then puts the book away and waits at least one week before returning to it. At that time, he reviews all his handwritten notes:

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.

Finally, he takes selected quotations and copies them into his commonplace book.

For more on this topic from Shane, see How to Retain More of What You Read.

INDEX KEY TOPICS

I don’t know whether Tim Ferriss’s interview with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings went viral, but surely it came close. Brain Pickings has over a million monthly readers, and Maria publishes two or three posts daily. What’s more, she mostly curates offline sources—that is, books.

Maria described her process at 39 minutes into the interview:

On the very last page of each book, which is blank, usually…I create an alternate index. So I basically list out, as I’m reading, the topics and ideas that seem to be important and recurring in that volume. And then next to each of them I start listing out the page numbers where they occur. And on those pages I’ve obviously highlighted the respective passage and have a little sticky tab so that I can find it. It’s basically an index based not on key words…but based on key ideas.

I suggest copying these indexes into your commonplace book. This brings the contents of many books into a single place, allowing you to compare, contrast, and make connections.

LIST BIG IDEAS

Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business and The First 20 Hours: How to Learning Anything Fast! writes masterful book summaries. His approach is unique:

My book notes are different from many of the book summaries you’ll find on the web. Instead of following the structure of the book in question, we’ll isolate and examine the key ideas and themes that make the book useful. Along the way, I’ll tell you how I actually apply the ideas.

For examples, see Josh’s summary of Getting Things Done by David Allen and Bit Literacy by Mark Hurst.

This works well, though it requires time and careful thinking to distill an entire book to its big ideas. You might want to save this strategy for your favorite books.

CREATE CHECKLISTS

I often quote Seth Godin on how to read: “The recipe that makes up just about any business book can be condensed to just two or three pages. The rest is the sell. The proof. The persuasion.” Based on this idea, Seth offers a three-point reading program:

  • Set a goal to change three behaviors based on what you read.
  • Highlight “marching orders” — the passages that explain how to implement those three changes. Create a checklist of these behaviors on an index card.
  • Share your favorite books and talk to people about your checklists.

I’m sure that The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande also has useful ideas. I’ll let you know as soon as I read the book.

HIGHTLIGHT, COPY, PASTE

When reading ebooks, you can mark them up by underlining, highlighting, and adding notes. I like to copy and paste my highlighted passages into my commonplace book, along with the author’s name and book title.

Copying and pasting sounds simple. But consider what you’re actually doing—distilling thousands of words down to a manageable and useful core of key passages. That’s no mean intellectual feat.

FORGET TECHNIQUE AND JUST WRITE

People like Shane Parrish favor a structured system for taking notes on reading. If that’s not your style, however, take a cue from Peter Elbow, author of Writing With Power—Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process:

If you want to digest and remember what you are reading, try writing about it instead of taking notes. Stop periodically—at the end of each chapter or when something important strikes you—and simply write about what you have read and your reactions to it. This procedure may make you nervous at first because you can’t ‘cover’ as many points or make something as neatly organized as when you take notes. But you will remember more. Perfectly organized notes that cover everything are beautiful, but they live on paper, not in your mind.

Derek Sivers takes this more free-form approach. And his book notes are fun reads in themselves.

P.S. Also check out Michael Hyatt’s downloadable template for taking notes on nonfiction books.

Five Principles for the Care and Feeding of Ideas

23b9fajphho-lukasz-lada.jpgI blog to explore a single question: How can I systematically capture ideas, refine them, and execute on the best ones?

My answers lead me in many directions — from the time-honored practice of creating a commonplace book to the new field of personal information management. While this sometimes takes me down pretty nerdy paths, I remind myself that the potential benefits are straightforward: I want to get organized, learn continuously, and create a body of original work that leaves a legacy.

Today we have more options for meeting these goals than ever before. Analog tools — paper and pen — have worked for centuries, and they’re still viable tools. (Ryan Holiday, the prolific writer, uses good old-fashioned index cards.)

We also have a growing number of digital tools. And I agree with Tiago Forte that “the humble category of note-taking apps represents the next frontier of productivity.”

What ultimately matters, however, is not a specific set of tools but a systematic process that’s based on the following principles.

1: CAPTURING IS A WAY OF LIFE

You are swimming in ideas — facts, quotes, anecdotes, insights, and instructions. They come at you constantly from your reading, your conversations, the people you overhear in coffee shops, and your random moments of inspiration. Maybe some of those ideas could make money, make the world a better place, or do both.

Unfortunately, ideas are fragile and fleeting. They’re easily lost. They need constant care and feeding. Sudden inspirations are lost forever unless you have a fail-safe system for capturing them.

The key is KISS — keep it simple, sweetheart. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, uses a pocket-size pad and pen to make handwritten notes on the run, which he throws into an in-box. (Collecting ideas is the first phase of his esteemed GTD method, in fact.) I use the lean and speedy Notes app on my iPhone for the same purpose: It functions as a digital in-box.

Whatever tool you choose, make sure it’s easy and friction-free. I explore the “capturing habit” in these posts:

2: KEEP THE MACHINE LEAN, CLEAN, AND CURRENT

If you capture faithfully, your in-boxes will eventually overflow with ideas. So what the heck do you do with all that stuff?

I process all my notes once per week by asking three questions:

  • Delete? Some ideas seem über-cool at the moment of inspiration but odd or useless a few days later. If it’s clear that I’ll never do anything with a note, I just toss it.
  • Archive? Some notes don’t call for follow-up action but are still valuable as reference material. I file such notes by topic in either a paper folder or in a OneNote notebook.
  • Do it now? David Allen is famous for the “two-minute” rule: If a note describes a useful task that you can do in two minutes or less, then don’t put it off. Just do it now.

Asking these three questions will reduce your stack of notes considerably. But there are inevitably some notes that require more than two-minute follow-up actions. Transfer these notes either on to your calendar or an appropriate list. For more details, see:

3: STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE

I’m inspired (and relieved) by Richard Saul Wurman’s observation that information is infinite, but the ways of organizing it are not. When you truly get this idea, you discover that there is no such thing as “information overload.”

If you want to channel your ideas into publications and presentations, then practice the art of creating clear and memorable frameworks for your ideas. Frameworks are primal organizing structures that can lead to detailed tables of contents.

The goals here are two. One, find the simplest possible structure that accommodates your ideas. Two, think creatively by taking existing ideas and folding them into new structures. You do this by incubating ideas in your commonplace book and looking for new patterns in them that emerge over time.

I explore this process in:

4: BE WILLING TO DESTROY YOUR IDEAS

In the foreword to his book The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment, Tad Golas wrote that:

I never varied from my determination to evolve hard information, a way of being that could be relied on even in chaos. It was chaos that taught me. I was so ruthless in testing, suspecting every sentiment, that I came to feel I was a destroyer of ideas, and indeed my books are based on what I could not demolish. Anyone who wants to tear those books down will have to work harder and longer than I did.

This is an ideal that we can all aspire to. Our audiences — who are drowning in half-truths, click bait, and hastily-published fluff — will appreciate the effort. The core discipline here is crap-detecting, and there are many ways to practice it.

5: ALWAYS BE READING, ALWAYS BE WRITING

In this post on influencing people with your ideas, John Butman lists six questions to ask if you want to become an idea entrepreneur. One of them is “Do I have enough supporting material?” This is critical, Butman notes, because:

An idea has to be expressed in different ways for people to understand it as fully as possible, and in their individual way. You need to build out your idea with analysis, stories, facts and data, references, and examples. George Stalk, the strategy expert, has a rule of thumb for accumulation: gather enough material so you can talk about your idea for a full day — and keep your audience interested. The richer the understanding of an idea, the more meaning it will have for people.

This is precisely how the regular care and feeding of ideas can help you. You develop a habit of capturing those examples, facts, references, stories, and studies as you find them. Then you use this rich and constantly expanding collection of material to boost the power of your messages and enhance your credibility. Your commonplace book, or collection of notes, is always ready to be mined for a steady stream of articles, books, courses, presentations, and other vehicles for sharing your ideas.

For more on this topic, see:

Image: Łukasz Łada

Write More, Sell More — Nuggets of Wisdom from Bob Bly

writemore0325I’m not a huge fan of tips, but following is a list of them. They’re from my notes on Write More, Sell More, a book by Bob Bly. (Please note: This is not the distinguished poet Robert Bly. I’m referring to Bob Bly, the copywriter from New Jersey.)

The following suggestions are directed at people like me whose income depends on writing every day and selling what we create. However, the following list has potential value for idea entrepreneurs and anyone who writes regularly.

  • Focus on three basic ways to make more money as a writer: Write more, sell more, and charge more. All of the following are ways to implement these broad strategies.
  • Write a lot. Produce a lot. Create a big body of work.
  • Leverage your interests. Write about topics you know and enjoy.
  • Leverage your assignments. Get multiple assignments from the same editors and clients on the same topics in the same formats. To stay profitable, devote 80 percent of your work day to what you already know. Devote about 20 percent to new formats and topics. Also plan to write articles and books in series. To avoid boredom, switch between multiple projects.
  • Create a business plan. Determine how much money you want to make this year. Then determine how much you must make each day, week, and month to achieve that annual goal.
  • Plan your day. Set a daily production goal. Break your work day into one-hour segments and schedule a task for each hour. Then reward yourself for completing those tasks. See if you can get up one hour earlier and start working. Break large projects into small tasks, and match tasks to your energy level throughout the day. For added efficiency, design your workspace so that the things you use most often are within easy reach.
  • Keep it simple. Write simple prose with familiar words and simple sentence structures. Also write in your natural voice, which reduces the need for revision and preserves an authentic voice.
  • Keep it short. Write shorter articles and books. Plan projects that you can finish quickly.
  • Know when to stop. Write to the point that your piece is good enough. Don’t revise forever, and don’t aim for perfection. Likewise, don’t research forever.
  • Design your behavior. Identify habits that reduce your productivity. Post visible reminders to stop those behaviors. Use this list to create new habits that promote productivity.
  • Value people. Build ongoing relationships with editors and clients. Think beyond doing one project at a time. Ask current clients for referrals and repeat assignments.
  • Keep track of how much you earn per hour. Measure productivity by dollars per hour—not dollars per word or project. Even if projects don’t pay much, you can sometimes make good money by doing many of them quickly. Also remember that not all your time is billable. Spend more time on billable tasks and delegate as many non-writing tasks as possible. In short: Do more projects that yield more dollars per hour.
  • Build a personal content library. (I call this a commonplace book.) Keep notes and drafts for all your projects in central place — virtual, digital, or both. Mine this library for material that you can reuse. Include copyright-free materials from the US government. Review your library to keep it current, organized, and manageable in size.
  • Start projects right away. As soon as you get a writing assignment, create a file for it in your notes app, writing app, or both.
  • Write by filling in the blanks. To create a first draft, write a title for your piece and related subheadings. Then copy and paste your notes under the appropriate subheadings. Revise until the copy flows smoothly and the ideas are your own.
  • Keep your butt on the chair and write without interruption. Stay in your office as much as possible. Avoid meetings. Do interviews by phone or email whenever possible. If you must leave your office, then call to confirm the meeting first. The key is to stay at work in an environment with minimal interruption. And if you get on a roll — in a flow state — then keep working until you get tired.
  • Expect to get paid well. Negotiate higher fees. Don’t always accept the first offer from a client or editor. Be willing to walk if you don’t get what you want.
  • Keep all this a professional secret. Don’t let others know how quickly and efficiently you write. They might think that you’re lazy, sloppy, or careless. This is just between you and me:)