When I’m reading a book, I usually wind up taking quite a few notes. I keep track of ideas I want to follow up on, topics I want to read further about and even the occasional quote that seems just perfect for a project. I know my note-taking may be on overdrive — I’m usually reading for information on a specific topic that I’m writing about — but over the years, I’ve found some tricks to make the process a lot smoother.
I also asked around to find out how others take notes — how people keep track of information that they can’t just copy and paste into a handy text file for later. While there’s a lot of variation in the mechanics of the note taking process, there are some tricks that seem to work no matter what approach you take for information gathering.
1. Keep your notes with your books
No matter what you’re taking notes on, it should be easy to carry with your reading material. I prefer small notebooks that I can actually slide inside a book, but there are plenty of other options:
- A notecard or other piece of paper that can double as a bookmark
- Post-it notes
- Writing directly in the book (unless the book does not belong to you or you have a librarian in your family)
More than once, I’ve been reading without anything around to take notes on. It’s easy to assume that you won’t forget an important idea — but that’s rarely true.
2. Separate out your notes
In my experience, most notes can be divided between action items and details you want to retain. While reviewing your notes will come in handy when you’re looking for a particular piece of information, it’s not particularly useful to have to re-write your notes in order to sort out actions you need to take. Instead, it’s more effective to clearly differentiate between the two from the start. The simplest approach is to just divide your notes in half: one side is for details and the other is for actions. If you’ve taken to writing in books or otherwise can’t divide your paper, the standard approach seems to be switching between different colored pens or highlighters — personally, I feel that adds a lot more work to taking notes, though. That’s one of the reasons I like notebooks so much: I use one page for details and the facing page for the steps I need to take.
3. Standardize your acronyms and short-hand
I can’t even begin to count the amount of time I’ve spent trying to translate some abbreviated notes that I scribbled down with the assumption that I would still know what ‘A.’ stood for a month later. If you’re considering using an acronym or abbreviation that isn’t in common use, it may be worth reconsidering. I do make an exception for personal abbreviations: over the course of a project, it’s easy to create a sort of standardized abbreviations that only make sense within the context of that project. If you’ve really gotten used to that particular set of abbreviations, you stand a much better chance of using them in your notes and remembering their meanings.
4. Your notes need to be legible, not perfect
I’ve been showing my mother some tricks to promote her website, and we’ve fallen into a pattern: as we talk, she writes everything out on note cards. Then, later, she reviews the material, neatly transcribing it into a Moleskine she has dedicated to the process. Her notebook is perfect, filled with beautiful handwriting — but it’s also a very time-consuming approach. If you can read your notes and understand them, it’s okay to have somewhat messy notes. After all, you’re probably the only one who will ever see them.
5. Set aside time to process your notes
Writing down all the next steps you want to take from all your reading is great, but they won’t ever get done unless you can get them out of your notes and in to whatever to do list or task management system you rely on. And if you plan to do anything with the detail-oriented notes you’ve taken, it’s important to get those into a format you can work with. If, for instance, you were writing up a blog post, I’d suggest typing up all the quotes that you plan to use from the book in question before you even start writing the post. Processing your notes generally not too big of a project to handle, as long as you can process the notes from the full book in one go.
6. Stick with a system
Whether you’re the type that relies on all the different colors of Post-it notes out there or you’re slowly codifying every book you read into your Moleskine, the important thing is to have a system and stick with it. As long as your notes look generally the same, you’ll be able to go back through them and find specific details much faster. You’ll also find that you’re better equipped to concentrate on the material in the book if you’re not worried about what color you need to write a particular phrase in for this particular project. You don’t have to adhere to the exact same steps of note-taking for each book you read, but having a general format and process to follow can make all the difference in how long it takes you to get through a book and how valuable your notes are after the fact.