How I Read, Take Notes, and Process Information from Books

A critical part of my job and career is to continue to educate myself in my field of expertise as well as cognate fields. This means reading a lot. Over time I have developed a fairly solid way of reading and processing the information from my readings that I want to share with readers.

I have not been blessed with a photographic, or near-photographic memory. I have had students who did. I have colleagues who are pretty close. I wish that was me, but it isn't. Chances are, that isn't you either. But we can do some things to try and help ourselves retain more of the information we read, and most importantly to have it at the ready to find when needed in the future. So here is how I read, take notes, and process information from books:

  1. READ WITH A PENCIL IN HAND. A big mistake for many is stopping too frequently when reading a book (non-fiction specifically). The starting and stopping really slows down reading time. Now there are, of course, times when this is perfectly acceptable (like when you're working on an essay or assignment). But when you are reading a book to learn, don't let anything distract you from continuing to read. The pencil that I hold in my hand is for 2 main things: to keep my eye moving along the page (this will effectively double your reading speed btw) and to make a little dot, bracket, or occasionally an underline. I try to stick to the dot, as it is the quickest, but I may put a bracket around a section if the relevant content spans a larger section on the page. After I make that dot or bracket, I keep reading.
  2. WRITE A CHAPTER SUMMARY. For most books, I write a chapter summary immediately after finishing the chapter. Only on occasions when a book is a little bit shorter will I wait until the end before writing the chapter summaries.  Abstracting chapters this way helps me to process immediately what I read  and, as I will keep this on hand, it will be helpful later. I place these chapter summaries in my reference manager (for more on reference managers see my related posts)
  3. PROCESS THE DOTS.  If you are reading a book for information extraction, the worst thing you can do if you are someone like me is to close the book and put it back on the shelf when you are done. I am too forgetful to do that. This step in my reading process can at times take just as long as reading the book itself, though thankfully that does not happen too often. What has helped significantly is the use of dictation software. If you are a Mac user, invoking Siri for dictation is free. Siri wasn't as reliable as I wanted her to be, so I use Dragon for dictation (PC and Mac). If you want to speed up your workflow, Dragon might be just the thing you need.
    I begin to go through the book page by page. I stop at every dot or bracket which I made while reading. These dots and brackets now move into one of 3 places:
    • In my reference manager. If it is a juicy quote, I include the direct quotation, along with page number, and create a note for it in my reference manager. If it is good information, but not necessarily a quote that I want to keep, I make a brief note and attach the page number.
    • Into a Logos Commentary-type note file. If the information is something directly tied to a Scripture verse or passage, I place the information within a Logos note file, and directly attach it to that Scripture verse. I am, and have been for awhile, creating a Logos note file which is like my own commentary on the scripture (If you do not know how to attach a note like this in Logos, I recommend taking my Logos video course)
    •  I have another Logos file which holds relatively random bits of information that I nonetheless want to have in Logos. If there was a particular table, chart, etc., in the book, this is the place where I keep that. I will replicate the information in this file. If it is too complicated of a chart or table, I will instead keep it in my reference manager, as I can take a picture of it with my phone, and attach the resulting picture to my reference manager.
    • Occasionally some of the dots or brackets I decide are not worth keeping long-term.
  4. FLASHCARD IT. I don't do this as often, but if I am learning some new terms, or there are particular dates or events that I really want to remember permanently, I will create a flashcard for them in my flashcard program. I currently use Mental Case, but I also like Brainscape.
  5. TAG IT. The last thing I do before sticking the book back on the shelf is adding any necessary tags into my reference manager. This is important, because it provides more words that in the future will help me to find any relevant information in the book that I have just read. I want to make it as easy as possible to find this information in the future.

 The process described above has several advantages to it. First, it keeps me reading and moving forward. As I mentioned above, using a pencil to keep your eyes going will speed up your reading significantly. Second, writing the chapter summaries and then later processing the dots forces you to revisit and review the information you found. This review will make it more likely that you will retain it so that you can recall it again later, or at least remember where you read it. Finally, adding the notes (and tags) to places where it is easily retrievable and viewable when you are studying (i.e. my reference manager and Logos) means that the information which you found has become that much more usable and useful to you in the future.

So, this is how I do it. What about you? If you have any good tips or tricks, tell us about it in the comments! I'm always looking for ways to improve the acquisition of knowledge.

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Posted by Danny Zacharias.