Five rules for note-taking while reading books

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Are you familiar with that annoying feeling when you've read a good book, and you hardly can remember any details after a month has passed? I've been suffering from this for quite a while until I realize two things.

You need to keep notes of what you're reading. And second, you have to do it properly. Poorly written notes are useless, dissatisfying, and simply a waste of time.

The main benefit of making notes is that it makes your brain process information in a way that is different from merely reading. That directly leads to a deeper understanding of the material and better remembering.

So what makes a good note?

There's no silver bullet. Taking notes as any other skill requires patience and practice. In this article, I want to share what I've learned about note keeping so far.

Use your own words

When you make notes about what you've just read, it's essential to use your own words. Don't just copy a passage from a book. Think about it for a while. Try to find a different way to put it and only after that write it down. That will make your brain involve much deeper, and thus make you better understand and remember it.

Keep paragraphs short and concise

Nobody likes long passages. They make it hard to read and extract the main point out of it.

If you find yourself in a situation where what you want to write takes too many lines of text, stop yourself and think. Is everything I want to put here is essential? Can I get read of something without damaging the main point?

Strive for concision, and ruthlessly remove the non-essential chunks.

Employ structure

Unstructured information is non-digestible information. If you want to process and remember, you need to find a structure for your writing.

I always use headers of different levels, bullet points, ordered lists ("1", "2", "3", ...) to break information into small digestible parts.

Have a look at this article, for example. The text consists of 3 levels of sections with headers. And I use boldness to highlight the most important sentence or a term — something an eye could catch.

Now imagine if I would squeeze all the text into one long paragraph. You probably wouldn't have read until this point.

Add mental links

This one is so under-appreciated, but I find it tremendously beneficial. The idea is that while keeping notes, add little references to something. That might be an idea that came up in your head or a similar topic that you read about somewhere else. You might remember a book that talks about the same concept. You get the point.

Mental links work because our brain is essentially a network. Every piece of knowledge is connected to other pieces. The more connections there are, the better. That's why when you connect a bit of information with something else in your brain, you make it more durable. That's how many mnemonic techniques work.

Review and edit

The best lawyers re-read their contracts once in a while to keep it fresh in their heads.

It's understood. You can't remember something that you don't use or don't think about often. Reviewing helps to keep the notes familiar and fresh.

But just re-reading isn't good enough. Ideally, you should make some changes as well. You may find that the structure isn't good enough, and you need to break some sections down into smaller ones. Maybe you'll want to remove or rewrite some phrases. And perhaps you will be able to add some new thoughts and new mental connections.

Reading is passive; editing is active and thus forces your brain to work much better.

Conclusion

One important thing to realize about note-taking is that it takes time to master it. Don't expect it to just work from day one. But to learn it, we need to practice.

You'll get better at it, just remember to:

  • rephrase text with your own words
  • keep it simple, short and concise
  • structure the information
  • connect it with other pieces of information in your mind
  • review it once in a while, and make changes

Good luck!

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