How to Take Notes While Reading Nonfiction - Examined Existence

How to Take Notes While Reading Nonfiction

I used to highlight and write the heck out of my books when reading nonfiction.  In addition, I would also take notes using a spiral notebook.  But this becomes problematic when I need to come back to the book weeks or months later for reference.  I would have to browse through the whole book looking at my notes and highlights to remember big and important ideas.  It was rather an ineffective way of notetaking.

A couple of months ago, I read a blog post by Cal Newport that showed a better way of taking notes while reading nonfiction.  According to Cal Newport, this method was actually inspired by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings.  Instead of the inefficient way in which I have been going about with my notetaking, I tried the new approach outlined in Cal Newport’s blog post.  The idea is rather simple and goes something like this:

1. As you read, use the empty front page(s) of your book to create an index of interesting or big ideas of the book.

2. When you encounter a passage that relates to the idea, write the page number of the passage in the index.  It also helps to quickly circle mark the passage with an asterisk.

3. The more you read, the more the index grows as you encounter new passages and new ideas.

This method is great because when you pick up a book you read a long time ago, you can quickly glance at your created index to get a quick synopsis and summary of the book.  Additionally, if you want to delve further into specific ideas of the book , you can use the index to quickly skim through specific pages of the book.

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This method is also great because it allows you to quickly take notes without hindering reading speed too much.  There is no evidence that writing actual notes will help you retain more information than just simply using this index method.  However, using this indexing method will allow you to get through the book faster and recall ideas faster.

Here is a picture of one of my books that I used this method with.  The book is called A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra).  The picture on the left shows my indexing system while the picture on the right shows what I do on specific pages to mark the corresponding passages:


I found that I was able to remember the material a lot better because I was able to practice my recall of the ideas just by looking at the index, instead of rereading the material.  In addition, I was able to more quickly find material I was looking for when I was trying to find ideas to blog about.

Overall, this notetaking system for reading nonfiction has allowed me to recall more of the information I’ve read and has allowed me to read at a much faster speed than if I was taking notes and highlighting.  Try out this system to see how you like it.

About the author


Netflix enthusiast, horrible speller, jiujitsu hobbyist, weekend drinker, and occasional poker player. Favorite quote is "[o]ut of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."

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