April 29, 2024


How to Take Good Notes When Reading

How to Take Good Notes When Reading

Introduction - How to Take Good Notes When Reading

Taking good notes when reading is a skill that can truly elevate your learning experience. Whether you're a student studying for an exam, a professional trying to improve your knowledge, or simply a curious individual seeking to broaden your horizons, effective note-taking can make all the difference in understanding and retaining information.

When done correctly, taking notes not only helps you remember key points and concepts, but also aids in organizing your thoughts and making connections between different ideas. It can serve as a valuable tool for summarizing complex material, facilitating deeper comprehension, and even sparking your own insights and perspectives on the subject.

Being able to effectively distill and capture important details from your reading more crucial than ever with information output at an all-time high. By mastering the art of note-taking, you can enhance your learning process, save time, and ultimately become a more efficient and knowledgeable individual.

So, how can you take good notes when reading? What are the best strategies and techniques to adopt in order to maximize your learning potential? In this article, we'll uncover some valuable tips and tricks to help you hone your note-taking skills and make the most out of your reading sessions.

What Are the Benefits of Taking Notes While Reading a Book?

Taking effective notes while reading comes with a multitude of benefits. For starters, note-taking is widely considered a powerful strategy for learning and retention. 

Research indicates that the act of note-taking itself encourages deeper engagement with the material, as it requires the reader to process the information actively, rather than passively consume it. 

Taking good notes while reading has also been linked to improved academic outcomes and better retention of content beyond the conclusion of a course. 

Statistics reveal that humans lose almost 40% of information within the first 24 hours of reading or hearing it, but taking notes help retrieve almost 100% of the information received. 

What to Avoid When Taking Notes

Even though taking notes while reading can be effective, there are many ways you can go wrong if you're not careful. 

Here are some pitfalls to avoid at all costs: 

  1. Avoid Transcribing Verbatim: Trying to copy down every word is not only impractical, but it also prevents you from processing the information. It also takes a lot of time and offers minimal returns. Instead, focus on capturing key ideas and main points. Try to summarize what you read into your own words. Consider writing a few bullet points at the end of each chapter if you want to get granular with your note-taking. Only use exact words if you're taking a direct quite from the author.

  2. Don’t Use One Method for All: Different subjects may require different note-taking strategies. Be flexible and adapt your methods accordingly. Be willing to try out different formats. There is no one right way to take notes while reading. Sometimes, the way you take notes depends on the reason you’re taking notes.

  3. Resist Over-Decoration: While it can be tempting to make notes with multiple colors and elaborate symbols, overdoing it can distract from the actual content. Use such techniques sparingly to highlight important information.

  4. Steer Clear of Long Sentences: Long-winded notes can be hard to review. Use bullet points, abbreviations, and symbols to keep notes concise. Make your notes brief and selective.

  5. Don’t Wait to Review: Reviewing notes long after they’ve been taken can make it harder to recall the context. Review notes soon after to reinforce learning and fill in any gaps. Afterwards, wait a few days and review them again to harness the power of spaced repetition.

  6. Avoid Isolation: Notes should not be isolated. Make connections to what you already know to enhance understanding and memory retention. This can also help with organizing your notes into logical categories.

  7. Skip the Digital Pitfalls: If using digital tools, don’t get sidetracked by social media or other apps. Stay focused on the task at hand.

Physical Books vs E-Books: Advantages and Disadvantages

When it comes to taking notes while reading, you have 2 flavors of books to choose from: physical books and e-books

Both of them have their advantages and disadvantages. Whichever one you choose will have to be based on your preferences and the specific context in which the notes are being taken. 

Here's a quick rundown of the advantages and disadvantages of each one: 

Advantages of Physical Books:

  • Tactile Experience: Many people find the physical act of writing notes and annotating in the margins of a book to be a more engaging and memorable experience. You can underline, highlight key phrases, and record your thoughts. You can annotate margins with symbols, abbreviations, or summaries of the text in your own words.
  • No Distractions: Physical books offer a distraction-free environment, unlike digital devices which can have notifications and other interruptions. The lack of internet connectivity can help you focus on taking better notes.
  • Ease of Access: You can quickly flip through pages to find information without needing power or a device.
  • Longevity: Notes taken in physical books can last for years without the need for technology to access them.

Disadvantages of Physical Books:

  • Space and Weight: Carrying multiple books can be cumbersome and they require physical storage space.
  • Inflexibility: Once notes are written, they cannot be easily edited or moved.
  • Resource Intensive: The production and disposal of physical books have a greater environmental impact.

Advantages of Ebooks:

  • Searchability: They allow you to search the text for key words, not just by page number, making it easier to find information.
  • Portability: A single device can hold numerous books, saving physical space and reducing weight.
  • Editability: Digital notes can be edited, moved, and organized with ease.
  • Accessibility: They can be accessed on various devices, and many have features like adjustable text size and read-aloud options.

Disadvantages of Ebooks:

  • Battery Dependency: They require a charged device, which can be a limitation if power is not available.
  • Eye Strain: Prolonged screen time can lead to eye strain and discomfort.
  • Cost of Technology: Initially, there’s a higher cost for devices capable of displaying ebooks.
  • Less Intuitive: The process of highlighting and note-taking can be less intuitive and slower compared to using a pen and paper.

Is It Better to Take Notes on Paper or Book?

When it comes to taking notes while reading, you might've wondered at some point whether you should write your notes on paper or in books. You'll find many people on both sides of the argument, so it's worth exploring it a bit. 

Let's talk about the advantages and disadvantages of each one: 

Advantages of Paper Note-Taking:

  • Tactile Learning: Writing notes by hand can reinforce learning through physical engagement.
  • Customization: Paper allows for free-form note-taking, including diagrams and margin notes.
  • No Distractions: Paper is free from digital distractions like notifications.

Disadvantages of Paper Note-Taking:

  • Lack of Searchability: Finding specific information in paper notes can be time-consuming.
  • Risk of Damage or Loss: Paper notes can be easily damaged or lost.
  • Limited Accessibility: Paper notes aren’t easily accessible from different locations or devices.

Advantages of Book Margin Note-Taking:

  • Contextual Learning: Notes in the margins of a book keep your thoughts directly connected to the relevant text.
  • Convenience: No need for separate note-taking materials; everything is in one place.
  • Retention: The act of writing in a book can help with memory retention.

Disadvantages of Book Margin Note-Taking:

  • Space Limitations: Margins offer limited space, which can restrict the amount of detail you can include.
  • Permanent Marks: Notes in books are permanent, making it difficult to revise or remove them.
  • Resale Value: Writing in books can decrease their resale value.

While both paper and book margin note-taking have their merits, they fall short in today’s digital age. Here’s why a dedicated note-taking app is a better option:

  • Organization: Note-taking apps allow for better organization with folders, tags, and categorization.
  • Searchability: Quickly find any note with search functions.
  • Syncing: Access your notes from any device, anywhere.
  • Multimedia Integration: Easily integrate images, links, and other media types.
  • Backup and Security: Cloud storage ensures your notes are backed up and secure.
  • Collaboration: Share and collaborate on notes with others in real-time.

What Are the Best Note-Taking Apps?

After that last section, you might be wondering what's the best note-taking app out on the market today. 

Of course, this is highly subjective and will differ from one individual to the next, but broadly speaking, good note-taking apps are either web-accessible and/or cross-platform so that it may be used on a variety of different devices. 

With that in mind, here's a list of that we've come up with that meets both of these criteria: 

  • Microsoft OneNote: A robust option with a generous free version, OneNote is excellent for those who need organizational structure, cross-platform syncing, voice notes, and optical character recognition (OCR). It’s also praised for its web clipping tool.

  • Joplin: This is among the best free and open-source option, perfect for those who support open-source software and want a reliable note-taking app.

  • Obsidian: Known for catering to power users, Obsidian offers a unique linked-note system that allows for a high level of note organization and retrieval. This is also the app that I personally use for note-taking.

  • UpNote: If you’re looking for great value, UpNote starts at a very affordable price and offers a clean, user-friendly interface.

  • Bear: An alternative to Apple Notes, Bear is a good choice for those in the Apple ecosystem looking for a more powerful tool.

  • Evernote: A long-time player in the note-taking space, Evernote remains a solid choice, especially for existing users who have a lot invested in the platform.

  • Simplenote: As the name suggests, Simplenote is ideal for those who need a straightforward, text-only note-taking experience.

  • Google Keep: For speed and simplicity, Google Keep is a go-to. It’s particularly useful for Google power users who want seamless integration with other Google services.

  • Notion: Best suited for teams, especially in the tech industry, Notion offers a versatile workspace that combines note-taking with project management features.

Is It Okay to Read Without Taking Notes?

We've said a lot about the benefits of taking notes when reading, however, it's also important to realize that there are times when it's ok not to take notes. 

Here are a few different scenarios when taking notes is not necessary:

  1. Familiar Content: If you’re reading material that you’re already familiar with, taking notes might not be necessary. Your prior knowledge can often be enough to engage with the content effectively.

  2. Leisure Reading: When reading for pleasure, such as a novel or magazine, the goal is often relaxation or entertainment rather than information retention. In this case, effective note-making isn't very helpful.

  3. Initial Reading: On your first read-through of complex material, it might be more beneficial to read the entire book to get an overall understanding before diving into detailed note-taking. When you reread it later, you'll be better able to grasp the material.

  4. Reflective Reading: Sometimes, the purpose of reading is to reflect on the content personally. In such cases, absorbing the information without the distraction of note-taking can be more meaningful.

  5. Overwhelming Information: If you’re bombarded with too much information at once, it might be better to skim through the material first. Taking notes on everything can be counterproductive.

Tips for Taking Notes While Reading

Before we part ways, I'd like to leave you with a list of useful tips for taking notes while reading. 

Here they are: 

  1. Choose the Right Tool: Start by selecting a digital note-taking app that suits your needs. Obsidian is great for linking thoughts and building a knowledge base, while Evernote excels in organizing and searching through notes.

  2. Create a Consistent Structure: Use templates or a consistent layout within your app to make it easier to find and review notes later.

  3. Utilize Tags and Categories: Organize your notes with tags and categories for quick retrieval. Both Obsidian and Evernote support robust tagging systems.

  4. Make Use of Search Functions: Familiarize yourself with the search capabilities of your chosen app to quickly navigate through your notes.

  5. Sync Across Devices: Ensure your app syncs across all your devices so you can access and add to your notes wherever you are.

  6. Incorporate Multimedia: Take advantage of the ability to add images, audio, and links to your notes to enrich the information.

  7. Review and Revise Regularly: Set aside time to revisit your notes, update them with new insights, and remove outdated information.

  8. Summarize Information: Instead of copying text verbatim, summarize what you've read in your own words to reinforce understanding and memory retention. This will also help you decrease the amount of time and energy you spend on notes and increase your comprehension and retention from reading.

  9. Link Related Notes: Create links between related notes to establish connections and build a web of knowledge, which is a feature particularly strong in Obsidian.

  10. Practice Keyboard Shortcuts: Learn and use keyboard shortcuts to take notes more efficiently without breaking your reading flow.

  11. Spoil The Plot: Preview the chapter before you start reading by looking at the text features to gain clues about the main ideas of the chapter.

  12. Annotate When Necessary: When you come across interesting quotes or important points while reading, make sure to highlight or underline them.

  13. Give Credit: When you reproduce information word for word, make sure you put it between quotation marks (“ “) or write it in a different colour to remind you that it is somebody else’s words copied exactly.


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