how to take notes on a book

How to Take Notes on a Book (Why You Should Take Notes While Reading)

5 March 2021 | by Gina Lucia

In this article, I’m going to teach you how how to take notes on a book while reading and how to read effectively so you can actually use and remember the things you learn from books.

How to take notes on a book

If you ever find yourself forgetting everything you’ve read, unable to use and remember any of the knowledge you’ve gained from books, then this article is for you.

I’m going to tell you why you should be taking notes while reading books, how to take notes on a book, and what to do with those notes after you’ve made them.

Okay so before we get into the how, let’s first address the why.

Why should you take notes while reading books?

The idea of taking notes while reading might seem a little extreme or time-consuming if you’ve never done it. But I’m here to prove that wrong.

You don’t have to store information in your brain

The first and perhaps most obvious reason for taking notes while reading is that it removes the need to store information in your brain

If you were to read, for example, a business book and try to remember all the important points as you go, you’ll likely not remember any of it. 

This is because studies have shown we can only hold 3-4 pieces of information in our brain at one time and two of those slots might be filled with dinner plans or unfinished tasks. 

By writing your thoughts down then, you’re lifting the burden from your brain while retaining the thought you had in that moment.

Your brain is free to slot the pieces together

Next, when it comes to creating work on the topic you’re reading about, your job becomes easier because your brain is free to simply slot the pieces together, rather than having to do the research from scratch. Because you’ve been taking notes as you go.

And think about it like this – every idea or note you take, no matter how small, adds to your personal wealth of knowledge you can pull from later. 

I’ll go into this in more detail later.

Why you shouldn’t write in the book itself

So you might be thinking that when I talk about taking notes while reading, I mean writing in the book itself. Either in the margins or highlighting text. 

This is absolutely not what I recommend and here’s why.

Writing within the book itself doesn’t explain what you’re thinking in that moment, you’re likely just jotting down a fast note because you have limited room.

Plus, because your note or highlighted text is hidden away in the depths of the book, it’s completely lost and you’re likely not going to do anything with it later. 

If you’re like me, then you may have used this technique and a few others to try and piece together your thoughts after reading a book without much success.

  • You might have underlined some text in a book.
  • Written a comment in the margin.
  • Then put a note in a notepad or document to read later.
  • Only to have it lost and unusable in the future.

You probably have countless documents, notepads, journals and pieces of paper with your best ideas, notes, and references, never to be found or used again.

If this is the case, let’s sort that with a simple, straightforward and repeatable process that will give you a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips without stressing your brain with tonnes of information. 

What you’ll need:

First things first, here’s a list of things you’ll need:

  • Something to write on. 
    • I like to use A5 notecards because they’re sturdy, don’t take up room, and stack neatly.
    • Keep what you use consistent. Your note-taking system is a system, so don’t use a notecard one week and a notepad the next, you’ll start to lose things if you do.
    • So if you prefer to use a notepad, use that, but always use that.
    • You can also use something digital if you like but make sure it won’t distract you with notifications or the temptation to start googling stuff – focus is what you need.
  • Something to write with. 
    • Pen or pencil, really doesn’t matter
  • Then a system to log and expand your notes after – I’ll talk about this later.

How to take book notes

Okay so let’s get to writing your notes.

While reading, make sure to have something to write on and something to write with within reach. It needs to be right there, always.

Then, I like to write the book name and author at the top of the card. I tend to include when I started reading and leave a blank space for when I finish, but that’s completely personal.

Next, get to reading. 

How to take book notes while reading

While reading, write down anything you don’t want to forget or think you might use later and this is very important, make sure to add the page number next to the note so you can find the page later.

These notes should be your own thoughts and in your own words. So don’t just re-write or copy the words from the text.

“If you want to understand something you have to translate it into your own words” – How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

This way, when it comes to using the note down the line, you’re reading a thought that came from your own mind which will be easier to interpret and use. 

It will also mean you’re saving this immediate thought permanently, instead of expecting your brain to remember why you wrote the note later.

Simple right? 

Okay so once we have our notecards filled with notes from the books we’ve been reading, what do we do next?

This step is nerdy, but crucial if you want to truly use and take advantage of all the knowledge you’ve gained from reading.

What to do with your notes after you’ve made them

Let’s look at a scenario here. 

You’ve been diligently taking notes while you read for a few months. You’ve also saved all your notecards in a box ready to be used to write an article, create a video, write your dissertation or book. 

Your plan is to write about the topic of ‘focus’, so you open your box and immediately feel overwhelmed. 

You know there’s tones of information you can use within your notes, but you have no idea where to start and none of it makes sense. 

If you leave them as notecards filled with thoughts and nothing else, they’re pretty useless and time-consuming to deconstruct.

This is why processing these notes is so important. 

Once you’ve written your notes, you’re going to upgrade them into something priceless. And to show you what this is, I’m going to refer you to my video tour:

A tool to help you convert your book notes

You can now use your system as your second brain. It connects your thoughts together for you and gives you a tool you can use to access those thoughts. 

The best part is, the more you add to your second brain, the more powerful it becomes.

I’ve only done a very short tour of this aspect of note-taking. 

Honestly, I could put together a more in-depth tour and tutorial if you’re interested in setting up your second-brain. 

So leave me a comment if you are.

If you’re a content creator, student, academic, author, or just want to learn and implement knowledge more effectively,  this note-taking process is a habit that’s well worth doing.

So leave me your thoughts in the comments because I’d love to know how you take notes while reading.

1 Comment

  1. Evan Cruz

    3rd October 2021 at 6:01 AM

    First off, GREAT post. It’s SO true that you have to take notes in your own words to truly understand what you are reading. You can’t have it another way.

    To answer your question at the end, I write down notes on a sheet of paper instead of typing them since it increases the amount of material I can retain. It’s been proven by research over and over again, especially the Mueller and Oppenheimer study.

    Additionally, I use a process called active recall to verbally say out loud what I am reading in my own words as I read the material.

    This increases the amount of material I retain over time since my brain becomes engaged with the material to the point where I correctly anticipate what an author will say next.

    While taking notes, I close my eyes to recall material immediately after reading it since it helps me retain much more material than I would if I took notes with my eyes open.

    Research from the University of Surrey concluded that if you close your eyes to recall material, you can improve your comprehension by up to 23%, with another study showing that this trick can help you recall up to 44% more material.

    As for your point on the 2nd brain, I do it differently.

    I quiz myself on the material.

    All of the information I recall correctly gets written down on a reference sheet that condenses all of the material I consume so that I can easily implement it and understand it.

    All of these techniques have worked wonders for me. Once I mastered this system of note-taking and studying effectively, the worst semester GPA that I got was 3.85. Every other semester had a GPA above that.

    I was also able to earn the highest test scores on numerous tests to which I was praised by my professors for achieving, with one professor going on to say that I received the high score in a class of undergraduate and graduate students.

    I used my note-taking methods to incorporate information from one book called “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu and concepts of search intent for SEO to successfully decode the motives of hiring managers and companies that allowed me to answer interview questions in a way that got me a full-time job.

    These note-taking strategies have made me creative and have helped me achieve positive results in what I have done.

    If these strategies sound interesting to you, definitely try them. You won’t regret it. I can even send you links to research regarding these methods if you wish.

    Once again, great post!

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