Outlining Books for Learning

Outlining Books for Learning

My learning process is one of mining words for insights that I can structure into a form that my brain can understand. I revisit my outlining process to try to find a way to make it more efficient.


Every once in a while I come across a book that excites me so much that I want to absorb it in a structured manner so I can properly test the ideas in the field. The first book I outlined in such a fashion was an advance copy of Tim Ferriss’ [The Four Hour Work Week][4hww]; the concepts in it were so novel and plentiful that I needed some way of keeping them straight in my head. Unfortunately, I have a poor memory and a somewhat ad-hod note taking process. So today, I’m taking a break from my Groundhog Day Resolutions definition to figure out what I can do to improve it.

Past Learning Challenges

When I was a student, I was a terrible note-taker because I didn’t have a clear idea of what the key goals were. I had the vague idea that I was supposed to memorize and reproduce facts on demand, a task that I found so tedious that I became rather resistant to everything that smacked of rote learning. The first problem was that I always skeptical of facts presented without a context I could intuitively and/or viscerally grasp; this was a great barrier to memorization, because my mind wasn’t receptive. Nevertheless, I took notes in a somewhat-futile attempt to learn in the classroom. My recollections of classroom instruction and homework all the way through my first four years of college are ones of hazy concepts and unclear goals. It was only in coursework for which I had innate curiosity that engaged, and then I would hit the second challenge: figuring out exactly what the lecturer/reading material was trying to say. I suppose partly this was my fault, as I was often not being up-to-speed on the supporting lessons of the distant past.

The problem for me has always been ambiguity of purpose in the material; the context for understanding key concepts and mapping the relationship between concepts and procedure were often lacking in a form that I could use. Of course I didn’t know back then that this was the problem in my learning process, but I think the kind of work I do now is a reaction to those years of confusing immersion in poorly-designed and presented instructional experiences. I hate that feeling of not understanding something that someone is trying to teach me by repeating the same recipes over and over again.

When I realized that it was just my way of understanding the world and not stupidity, my learning process became one largely of translating existing material into a form that I could be manipulated more easily by my type of brain. The book outlining is one of those translation processes.

The Purpose of Outlines

What I like about outlines is that they present an overarching view of the subject material. For example, when I’m at the bookstore looking for new programming books, I evaluate each book by reading the Table of Contents. The Table of Contents (TOC) of a book is a 10,000 foot view of the author’s understanding of the subject, and you can infer a lot from the title of the chapters and the order of their presentation. A great TOC will actually teach you something about the subject, because the chapter titles will give away information and supply contextual information about what is important to the author. A crappy TOC will read like the ingredient list of a food product you’ve never tasted; you can see that there’s stuff in there you recognize, but you have no idea what it might be like. You just know there’s a bunch of stuff in it. That’s a sign that the author has approved the book as an exercise in taking inventory of his/her knowledge of the subject. This seems to be a typical approach. When the Table of Contents reads like a poem, that’s an indicator that a curious and engaged mind is eager to tell me how it all flows together; that book is more likely to be useful in teaching me new concepts.

When it comes to advanced topics, I assess the TOC for its ability to break the subject down into useful conceptual areas, the subsystems that together comprise a greater interconnected system of understanding. In TOCs that also provide subchapter listings, I look for identification of key objects and conceptual landmarks; every field seems to have from 3-7 key pieces that, once identified, help me carve the material into meaty fillets of understanding. Every field has a subfield, and so complexity grows with increasing detail. If one can maintain clarity of identity, relationship, and scope of applicability for each item of understanding presented, you end up with a great working roadmap of the field; when I see this in a Table of Contents, I get very excited.

My Purposes

In outlining a book, I’m essentially trying to create a detailed mental table of contents that will act as the framework for accurate understanding. The purpose behind this, however, is to augment my own evolving framework of self-knowledge, which goes beyond the contents of a single book and encompasses the sum total of my life experiences. That would be a pretty interesting diagram to create, now that I think about it, but for the purposes of this discussion I’ll limit the outlining process to what applies to my current obsession with Mihali Csikszentmihalyi’s 1990 book Flow:

  • Accurate capture of the overarching key concepts as I understand them, with page numbers and quotes, so I can reference them accurately in future writing.
  • Create a thematic roadmap of each chapter, because each chapter appears to be a hub to an entire different world of exploration.
  • Collect the interesting stories and citations.
  • Develop a personal understanding of how the book is relevant to what I’m doing now.
  • Be able to convey key bits of the book to associates who would find them interesting, with supporting citation.

Behind these goals are two basic desires:

  • To create a useful, well-designed reference. Not because I’m so good, but because there’s so much bad stuff out there. It’s one of my moral imperatives.
  • To make that reference available to people. Because I don’t like the feeling of being frustrated in finding good reference, I don’t want other people to go through the same feeling.

I’m pretty intrigued by Flow right now because it is answering a bunch of questions that I’ve tried to answer for years. I had found the book difficult to get into before because it takes its time introducing the subject and direction of inquiry, and stylistically the personable-yet-distant tone of the writing lulls me to sleep. Ironically, one of Csikzentmihalyi’s main observations is that many people have lost the ability to “order consciousness” and “psychic energy” to achieve greater levels of fulfillment; so my snooziness makes me a prime example of this trend. Damn!

Anyway, there is quite a lot of material here to sort through, and I perceive that all of it is important. It’s already very well structured, but if I want to internalize it I need to create my own structure that is compatible with my needs. Creating a good outline is my first pass.

My Outlining Experiences

I’ve outlined only a few books to date, having been content with half-remembering good ideas in the past. The only one I distilled into my own mental framework was [my review on The 4 Hour Work Week][4hww]. It’s a pretty long, tedious process, and I’m wondering what I can do to make it more efficient. Or if I’m being really honest with myself, just how to make it faster and easier without compromising my purposes or standards. I think this means adopting a multi-pass approach to reading, using the purposes I outlined (accurate capture, thematic roadmap, etc.) to set different reading goals. It’s like being a human multi-pass compiler, creating useful object code from each pass to compile a more optimal executable of understanding.

When I outlined T4HWW, I actually sat in my bed typing the important passages into a word processor over a couple of nights. Then, I used that transcription as the outline for the

[4hww], going back and forth between the book to fill in gaps of my understanding as I tried to explain it. The result was that I learned the material on-the-fly, and became aware that certain attitudes and approaches were possible, but I didn’t commit any of the material to memory. That was probably enough at the time, as I mainly found the book exciting because it opened my eyes to new possibilities in “independent lifestyle design”–a lot of my current plans have been seeded with the ideas from this book. One nice side effect of the blog as outline approach was the ensuing high level of discussion in the blog comments. That’s always nice to have.

The second book I outlined was The Freedom Manifesto, which was recommended by my sister after it had cheered her up on a particularly grim day of commuting from Boston’s South Station. The book is essentially a manifesto against accepting that current society’s highly-commercialized and materialistic nature has our best interests at heart, choosing instead to live free of soul-destroying automation . It’s a fabulous book, filled with stories and calls to action, and is rather thicker book than The Four Hour Work Week, so the outlining process I had used was taking quite a bit longer. One day at Starbucks I was complaining to my BFF Erin about the tedium of the entire note-taking process, and she glibly asked why the hell I didn’t just use a highlighter. I stared blankly at her for several long seconds as the sheer practicality of this sunk in, wondering why I had never thought of it. There is part of me that thinks of books as sacred, and it used to really annoy me when I checked out a library book that had been “personalized” by the previous reader. And I used to hate writing in blank notebooks, which I realized undermined the purpose of having them. However, in that moment I realized I could think of books as working copies for mining understanding, a kind of pre-printed note paper. Thus freed of my preconceptions, I got as far as distilling each chapter into a brief set of master chapter descriptions. They’re handwritten in one of my notebooks, but now the process of transcription awaits me. I haven’t yet mustered the energy to do so.

The third book I outlined was Stumbling On Happiness, which I’d picked up after hearing an interview with the author on National Public Radio. However, I didn’t read it for a long time because I kept giving away my copy to people. I’d started it multiple times, but like Flow I found that it took its time to establish its premise, the narrative wended its leisurely way through numerous side stories, citations, and interesting tidbits. Like Flow, it’s actually quite an enjoyable book once I reset my expectations of pacing to one compatible with, say, Sense and Sensibility. Anyway, after finally getting going I again found that there were innumerable useful insights scattered throughout it, each of them applicable to multiple aspects of my working and personal life; it’s essentially a treatise of how the innate processes of our brain make our pursuit of happiness fraught with self-delusion and fallacious understanding. It’s quite remarkable. Armed with the highlighter tip, I dove in and started marking passages that I found particularly pivotal. And that’s as far as I got. One cool thing about using the highlighter is that I can pick up the book and skim it rapidly for interesting insights. What is missing, however, is the overarching structure that transforms those insights into a set of working principles that can be applied in practice. So the book sits, highlighted, but not yet reduced even to the chapter descriptions I’d done for The Freedom Manifesto.

The fourth book is Flow, and I have actually stopped outlining it because the very act of outlining was preventing me from getting into the book. And this is why I’m writing this process post now.

The Multi-Pass Approach Under Consideration

What I’m thinking of doing is reading in several stages. As a reader, I tend to skim very rapidly because I enjoy reading for ideas and events. It’s the rare book that will force me to slow down and enjoy the passages as they are literally transcribed. For The Freedom Manifesto and Stumbling On Happiness, I attempted to force myself to read more slowly to better absorb the material in a studious manner, but as I’ve intimated before this approach just doesn’t work for me. What I think what will actually work is committing to reading the book multiple times for different purposes. Is this a trick I didn’t learn as a young’un? Anyway, here’s what I’m thinking:

PASS 1: FRAMING – Skim very rapidly to figure out what the book is trying to say. Where is it starting? What are the underlying premises? What are the key claims? How is it supporting the claims? What does the book conclude? Use highlighter to put a dot in the margin, and use bookmarks to tag the critical pages. There usually aren’t that many of them; the insight-mapping pass will come later. The result of Pass 1 is a loose framework of the book’s major ideas and how they link together. You would think that the synopsis printed on the back of the book should accomplish this, but there’s an annoying tendency for the back-of-the-book claim it’s interesting without giving anything away. At the end of this pass, write a synopsis and try to figure out the author’s own perspective, background, and training based on the book, by chapter. This is invaluable when trying to understand the key arguments later, and to infer what the missing assumptions are (if any).

PASS 2: FRAMEWORK BUILDING – The second pass through the book is more leisurely, and now that I have some idea of what the book is trying to say and how it’s saying it I can spend more time considering the arguments in each chapter. Now I can use the highlighter to mark actual passages that I think are relevant to understanding the supporting mechanics behind each claim and conclusion. How is the author making each point? What is the reasoning and justification behind each point? Are the links clear to me? The result from this pass is, ideally, a transcribed list of citations that fills in the framing I did in PASS 1 as a Word document, which will later become critical source material for synthesizing my own thoughts on the material. It’s helpful to have it all in one place.

PASS 3: NARRATIVE CAPTURE – Every book has some good anecdotes in them, and I find that in day-to-day conversation I like to pass them on to people I’m talking to. This pass is another fast scanning of the material, by now familiar territory from the first two passes, to find the good stories. This is something I haven’t done before, but I would probably use a different color highlighter to mark them for later citation or transcription.

At this point, I have marked everything I need to convert what I’ve gotten from the book into new source material for my own work. However, I’ve only conceptually solved the problem: the bottleneck is getting the marked passages into digital form. Some solutions I’ve tried or am considering:

  • Use my voice transcription software to capture the passages I read aloud. I’ve used Dragon Dictate 7, and have been surprised at how effective it is in understanding me. Recognition speed is vastly better than I remember, and being able to say “Page 4: passage quote blah blah blah New Paragraph” is pretty neat, because using the dictation software with a headset leaves your hands free to hold the book and maintain eye contact with it. On the down side, tricky passages with odd vocabulary require a lot of manual correction, and doing it through voice command leaves something to be desired. Plus, to ensure accurate transcription I end up shifting my attention to the screen and back to the book to confirm accuracy, which ends up being the major loss of efficiency.
  • I could get one of those portable digital recorders and then use a foot pedal control / video logging product (shameless plug: like buddy company Inquirium‘s InqScribe software) to capture what I’ve read aloud. Advantages of this approach is that with a foot pedal, my hands are free to focus on typing and my eyes stay on the screen. My feet handle replaying the audio, and my ears can concentrate on listening.

  • I could also find a transcription service and email them the audio file, and hope that the transcription is accurate.

  • I could photocopy each page and cut the results up into snippets I paste up on a big piece of cardboard. But that is pretty old-school. Would be fun for smaller books or individual chapters, though.

  • I’ve seen ads for portable OCR scanners that look like giant pens, so you can theoretically grab lines of text as easily as “highlighting” them straight from the book. OCR products tend to give me the willies because they seem to not be very reliable, but it has been ten years since I have last played with it. Perhaps there has been some improvement in the reliability and ease of use. Not that I am very hopeful; I saw some business card scanning software recently and it looked like it was 10 years old. Clunky, clunky, clunky.

  • I could possibly buy or illicitly acquire an e-text version of the book, but then I would have to reread it to find all my highlight marks. The advantage of paper is that it’s much easier to index through physical means.


p>I don’t want to do this for every book I read, of course. The point of all this activity is to create a working set of ideas that I can re-purpose and restructure into a new set of design principles. I find that I work well if I can have everything in one manipulation space. For ideas that have no direct visual analog, that space (for me) is a Word or Adobe InDesign document. InDesign is a great idea space because it allows me to visually organize the text more easily than Word. Plus, I can use the typographic controls to make them look nice, which is one of my personal aesthetic requirements.

Then, after all of this is done, I can do this:

PASS 4: LEISURELY READ – After some time has passed, it’s nice to read the book again and see what different insights flicker across my mind.

So that’s what I’m thinking right now. How do y’all do it?


  1. Cricket 15 years ago

    You’re not alone in needing several passes, and in not learning how to pull out the outline when younger.

    The Cornell notes system does something similar. Five passes, and an area of the page for each (some areas reused). I don’t use it, but will leave it somewhere my kids can find it, when they’re ready.

    I’ve tried several methods, as time, inclination, and purpose changed.

    Highlighters made it too easy to highlight everything rather than think about it. (Witness my 1st year physics text.) I now prefer pencil lines in the margin, or writing in a separate book. I limit myself to marking about 10% of the text (and some days the decision is what to unmark rather than what to mark). Sometimes I write key concepts or follow-up questions in the margin. Writing in a separate book tires my hand if I write too much, so is also good for making me think and distill.

    Why do you need them in digital form? I find I read hand-written notes more thoughtfully (and, as I said earlier, I’m more careful when I make them). Sometimes the shape of the page in the text brings back memories as well. My goal is not to make longer notes faster, but to think carefully about which notes to make.

    Teaching others is a time-honoured method for re-inforcing what you have learned.

    For some books and profs, the slow and/or badly-organized style is intentional. They want you to read and think, or to give you practice pulling out the points for yourself. Goes against my tech writing training, but,… (Mark Twain: “I don’t have time to write a short letter so I’ll write a long letter.”)

    I found math class in high school was fascinating, but enjoyed it more when they had real world examples, even silly ones.

    It’s good to see I’m not the only one exploring this sort of thing.

  2. Geakz 15 years ago

    Well I’m about 1/2 of the way through your entry and I like what I see.  If I may be so bold as to quote you in your own comments section, I think that the following sums it all up quite nicely:

    “…if I want to internalize it I need to create my own structure that is compatible with my needs.”

    I can see a book deal in the works.  “The Lost Art of Internalization: Better Outlining For Maximum In-Lining.”  Have your people call my people.

    Blog on.

  3. Geakz 15 years ago

    O.K.  I’ve finished reading ‘the rest of the story’ (think Paul Harvey).  Here are my thoughts on your most excellent dissertation on outlining books.

    Pass one: Framing.  It appears you may be establishing your own, self proclaimed, all important TOC overview.  TOC=Framing?

    Pass two: Framework Building.  Does highlighting first, then transcribing later offer the most efficient form of internalization?  Versus, say, transcribing without highlighting.  Maybe you are in search of a fuel efficient formula (f.e.f.)

    Pass three: Narrative Capture.  Scrap the techno ideas – of which none have been perfected to date.  Stay true to your internalization philosophy.  Try a large magnetic board or bulletin board.  Put those narrative snippets on 3×5 cards and arrange them at will on the wall/board as they take form.  Moving your narratives around in this manual way may lend itself to those “A-ha!” moments.  The ones that come faster than you can fire up your transcription software program.  Your best “A-ha!” moments might come as you pass through the room, glancing at your work-board (with a cup o’joe in hand) or better yet, you might actually throw one of them out.  De-cluttering is good too.

    Pass four: Leisurely Read.  Given the in depth structure of the other three passes, this might be your biggest challenge!  Maybe instead of sticking your head back in the book a FOURTH time, establish a small group of people who are willing to read the same book (for their own reasons) and then come together (online or in person) for a review/discussion.  A meeting of the minds, if you will.  Now THAT’s entertainment.

    Blog on.

  4. Sacha Chua 15 years ago

    I read a _lot_ of books, and I frequently refer other people to books that match their interests. When I do so, I love being able to point people to the exact page or quote they should check out, or to send them a summary of the key points in each book. I also enjoy giving books away.

    Detailed book notes and a good workflow make this easy and convenient.

    ACQUISITION: I often go on reading sprints, checking out lots of books on one topic from the library. Reading many books on one area allows me to read them faster, because many books contain fluff and things I’ve already read in other books. All I’m doing when I’m scanning a non-fiction book is looking for the nuggets of information or insight that are unique to that book.

    READING: I keep track of pages with interesting passages on them. Sometimes, if I’m diligent, I use slips of paper as bookmarks. Most of the times, I dogear the lower corner of the page, folding the small dogear towards the side of the page I want to remember, or double-folding the corner if I like both sides of the page. Again, I’m just scanning for “the good stuff.”

    CAPTURE: After I finish a stack of books, I scan relevant passages into my computer. I usually do this on Sundays or on days before my books are due. I review each page to see whether I still want to capture the information on it, and then I place the book face-down on a flatbed scanner and scan passages with the 600 dpi line-art setting required by OCR. All of the images get saved into a directory. Sometimes I’ll dictate passages to my computer instead, using Dragon NaturallySpeaking to transcribe.

    TRANSCRIPTION: I use the free and open source Tesseract optical character recognition program. It’s pretty darn good. I’ve written a batch file that processes all of my pending images, filing finished images in one directory and text in the other.

    ORGANIZATION: When I find free time, I review the transcribed text, narrowing it down to just the passages I wanted, and organizing items into more of an outline. I make any TODO items for follow-up actions, too. I also take that time to think of who else might be interested in a book or excerpts from it, and I recommend the book to those people. (I picked up this tip from Love is the Killer App – handy!) All of these notes go into a somewhat structured text file on my hard disk, where quotes are indexed by books and page numbers, and tagged by topic. When I remember, I write down the ISBN and other edition information as well.

    REVIEW: Every so often, I flip through random book notes. Handy way to refresh my memory and think of other connections the books remind me to make.

    I’ve started copying my book notes into a custom book-notes management system I’m building. That book-notes management system also automatically builds my reading history based on the books I’ve checked out (handy because I’m too lazy to update sites like LibraryThing ;) ), and eventually it’ll help me see which books are in which stage of processing.

    One thing that would make this even better would be for me to figure out what to do during book-scanning so that I don’t get distracted but I still use that time productively. ;) My hands are occupied because I’m scanning books, and I find that if I’m reading something else (either online or offline), I get distracted and I forget to finish scanning my books. Maybe listening to great music or to a podcast will do the trick. =)

    Another thing that would make this process even better would be to hook it into a web-based book review system, which I may build into that system I’m putting together. That way, I can easily share my book recommendations.

    The book “How to Read a Book” recommends a process similar to the one you’ve outlined, and has many tips on choosing the appropriate approach for books and processing them effectively.

    OCR works really well for me. Try it out!

  5. thinkingSage 15 years ago

    I’ve found Microsoft OneNote to be an indispensable tool for note taking. I tried pulling bits of text out into a text file, and also scanning pages in through OCR, but I found that being able to loosely group notes into subjects and then arrange them spatially within a page is quite helpful indeed.

    If you say you use InDesign for the same purpose, I highly recommend you try OneNote instead.

  6. Dave Gallagher 15 years ago

    I’ve run into this dilemma myself too.  I think everyone needs to discover/create a system which helps them learn, tailored to their strengths/weaknesses.  I see it as a never-ending project, as the way I learned in college is similar to today, but less advanced.

      My preferred way of reading textbooks (programming, or computer related) is:

    1)  Read a chapter and take notes on my PC while I’m reading
      a)  Write down anything I don’t know.
      b)  Attempt to explain stuff that’s presented in a confusing way
      c)  Skip anything really confusing.  Come back to that later

    2)  Make my notes more “structured”
      a)  Re-read the chapter, along with my notes
      b)  Make new notes while I work, better “structured” to my liking
      c)  Research and fully explain anything that’s confusing.  This takes a lot of time usually, but it’s worth it since it might be a dependency for future Chapters (usually it is in coding/computing).

    3)  Continue to the next chapter, repeat steps 1 and 2.

    4)  Consolidate all notes when finished with the book.


      I like note-taking on my PC so I can search the notes later on.


      Sometimes a single “Concept” is broken across several different Chapters.  Consolidating chapter-specific notes into concept-notes can be helpful here.


      Also, authors can be scatter brained.  You know this if you can’t re-write what you just read in note form.  When I can’t, I tend to get pissed off at the author, swear a lot, and have been known to rip pages out of my books.  That crap shouldn’t have been published to begin with.  ;)

      I’ve run into situations many times where authors assumed you knew something that you didn’t, use recursive definitions, don’t define terms you “need” to know, or explain things out of order.

      This is more of an issue for coding/computing books, especially if they’re written by more than one author.  FYI Microsoft Press is guilty of all of the above, having read six of their 800-page books.

      The best strategy I’ve found here is to read through any chapters which talk about the “Concept” the author is explaining, and then go back to the first one.  Suddenly the first chapter about the concept makes a whole lot of sense, and it becomes super-easy to take notes on everything.

      Google is your friend too.


      When all is said and done, I don’t necessarily know “everything” that was in the book.  But I now have the following:

    1)  All of the high-level concepts and thought processes down
    2)  A reference of notes I can always look at

      Retaining 100% of the knowledge in the book isn’t the goal.  While that’s “perfection”, it’s too time consuming.  Retaining “just enough” is the goal, while relying on notes for the rest.

  7. Cricket 15 years ago

    The Journal, http://www.davidrm.com/thejournal, looks like it might be a good candidate. I almost started using it, before remembering that the reasons I stopped using the last 5 electronic systems would still apply—accessibility, flexibility, portability, kinesthetics (typing is to mechanical, I learn better with making marks directly on paper).

  8. Mike Wilson 15 years ago


    What your multi-pass approach reminds me of, though doesn’t reference explicitly, is the Evelyn Wood speed reading technique.

    Barnes & Noble has a $7 book on the subject (with their internal imprint so… no amazon) which I found quite wonderful.

    Personally I don’t do anything quite so involved.  I have piles of 1×2” post-its, a jar full of pens of different colors, a laptop and a notebook.  Things sorta… go where they will depending on how important they are and what kind of information I’m trying to capture.

    I’m rarely interested in outlining a book (Ferris is a good example.)  I’d rather extract as many atomic useful bits as I can as it’s an exceptionally rare work that I find is actually worth a full outline anyway.

  9. Amanda Pingel 15 years ago

    Is there a reason you can’t start with it in e-format?  There are a couple of advantages to that:

    1) The transcription issue is null; it’s already in silicon.

    2) Most ebook readers will let you highlight AND will then let you “search highlighted text”.

    3) Most ebook readers will let you take notes in an electronic “margin”—you can tag paragraphs as relating to a particular concept/point, add your questions-to-research-later, write down cross-connections (“Hey! This is just like what Tim Ferris said!”) or whatever.  And those notes are also searchable.

    I used to think that I didn’t like ebooks because I didn’t like reading things on a PC desktop monitor.  But it turns out that the critical thing I need from a book is to be able to curl up with it. On a laptop or a palm pilot I am a big e-book fan.  Especially for books where I want to take notes.

    I also second the vote for one-note… I’ve resisted using it for 5 years on the assumption that anything from Microsoft must automatically be bad.  But it came with the copy of Office I bought, and the other guy in my RPG group uses it for his character sheet, so I gave it a shot. And it is GREAT.  For taking a whole bunch of random ideas in unrelated areas and then putting them together later, it can’t be beat.  I’m in the process of transcribing all of my to-do lists, my project planning, my homework, and my notes into this program.  And since what you’re talking about is … taking a whole bunch of random notes and putting them into a coherent format….

    That’s my $.02


  10. Erin 'Ed' Donahue 15 years ago

    I really liked this post!  I’ve always found reading textbooks word-for-word tedious.  I’ll have to try the multi-pass method!

    I support thinkingSage’s comments on OneNote.  I live on it!  I take all my notes for class on paper and type them up in OneNote to give myself a chance to review the notes and elaborate on any topics I glossed over.

    Once again, thanks for a great post!

  11. Beverly 15 years ago

    Sorry to be late to the party, but I am way behind on my feed reading – I am fascinated with the your entry and the responses too!

    I used to have an awful time with notes in school and mostly ended up doodling. I would get frustrated and try to re-organize and re-structure the notes only to discover I had completely lost the flow of the class. Eventually I learned that if I doodled and let myself listen while not focusing directly on note taking, I would be able to organize the context of the discussion and bullet some key points. Of course this was before we used Key Phrases!

    Now I am faced with the same dilemma in how to best assemble a note system in regard to all the reading I do. I now read a book through once, then go back and skim read with a highlighter and sticky flags. Then I write a brief note about the main idea and my impressions, agree/disagree etc
    But now I’m stuck with the notes – and think that a tagged system for recall and associations would be great.

    Maybe create a wordpress-blog, enter the notes as posts and use tags for associations? Hmmm.

    My father, a physics man, used to always preach that every problem needs to be reduced to the “back of an envelope” – and even in his 80’s he uses envelopes or index cards for grocery lists etc. (my mother banned him from calculations on napkins- but I digress)

  12. Senia 15 years ago

    Hi Dave!

    I actually use a really similar system.  Also four steps.  I got it from Jason Womack.

    Jason says “he reads a book four times:

      1. Table of contents, glossary, index.
      2. Anything in bold, titles, and subtitles.
      3. First line of every paragraph.
      4. Entire book

    Here’s the twist: Steps 1-3 should only take about 10 minutes.”

    AWESOME, right?!?!

    More here.

    Nice that it’s the same conclusion as you!  YAY!

  13. Senia 15 years ago

    BTW, here is a place you can place your book outlines if you like.  It’s fairly small (i.e. less than 20 books so far I think), and I know Chris Yeh, the guy who started it. 


  14. Jon 15 years ago

    A lot of what you wrote is similar to the methodologies of photoreading. Read up on the basics of photoreading (Paul Scheele) like looking for “trigger words.”  And try note-taking with mindmapping, whether on paper or software like Mindjet or free ones.

  15. Rodney 15 years ago

    Also late to the party here. I really enjoyed reading your observations. There are two resources I think you would get a ton of ideas/input from.

    One is, not exaggerating, the best book ever written. How to Read a Book really teaches how to read every other book.

    The other is a collection of book notes made by Phil Gyford here. Particular examples are Amusing Ourselves to Death, How Buildings Learn, and, of course, Getting Things Done.

    I can’t recommend checking these out enough.

  16. Ala'a 15 years ago

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and process. I’d like to share my $0.02

    as Rodney said ‘How to Read a Book’ is a must, it shows you different reading
    types for different subjects.

    The followings are the methods I use :

    Sometimes for new topic I just dive into the subject (reading continuously)
    ignoring any nagging voices inside my brain that says (but what is this?, what
    was the last paragraph?, how things are connected/related?) till the end of the
    book. this is analogues to jigsaw puzzle, with this method general random
    pieces have been laid out in there places (and maybe some in the wrong
    place). or maybe it is like a dirty ancient piece that got first surface wash,
    making its features a little bit clearer, and more with every new wash. (I read
    about this method year ago, but lost the link)

      Usually when I want to study a new subject I try to put myself into a teacher
      mindset, that is try to explain to myself what I had read (as if I’m going to
      give class on the read material), this seems to point out any unintentional
      ignorance induced due to time constraints and/or not being in the mood or
      missed points due to interruptions (still experimenting with it)

      Regarding taking notes, I prefer (YMMV) to write notes on the margin of the
      book pages. I try to personalize my copy of the book, its the only one in the
      planet with its features ;) notes, sometimes liquid spills (sometime I drink
      or eat while reading), pencil erasing marks, typos corrections, pen spills,
      counter stamp over-inking. sometimes I’ll draw small diagrams, cross reference
      with other books or other pages in the same book. also I’ll argue with the
      author (as if I’m talking with him), write these arguments also on the margin.
      (In short make relationship with the book, make it a living experience)

      For bookmarking, I use Transparent film notes stickers.

      Usually books come with one paper (aka 2 pages) empty (or more) at the end. I
      usually divide these pages into the following categories (more or less): –
      software to check. (usually I’ll come back to the checked entry and comment my
      experience) index of stories.  – suggested list of books by the author (if he
      didn’t include one) – sometimes general summary of the book.

      The general goal is to imprint the concept, ideas or material into my mind. if
      I’m correct, we remember things because of the certain things like sensory
      stimulus or emotional events associated with the memories we have. so if I can
      personalize each book I have in different way (we are good at picture
      associations), then it may help internalize the material into my mind, I have
      one Perfect wish that I wanted for true: I want any book I read to be copied
      into my mind without loss (perfect world), but since we are in reality and
      what we can’t get all of it, we shouldn’t leave some of it that we can get.

    Lastly, after reading the book comes the review process (which is another topic)
    to retain as much as I want from the read material.

    Keep in mind All of the above is constrained by finding time and interruption
    free places.

    maybe my $2 not $0.02 ;)

  17. richcasto 15 years ago

    I agree with Rodney’s assessment of How To Read A Book – it’s a must-read for any serious reader!

  18. Carl 15 years ago

    wow.  this might just be the most informative and educational blog / comment posting combination that I’ve ever encountered on the internet.

    david, in addition to finely honed and pleasing style of your site and tools, you got the intellect to wit.

    mega-kudos for taking blogging to a whole new level of value


  19. Dave Seah 15 years ago

    I’m just floored at the quality of suggestions and wonderful recommendations…thanks everyone! A mental image came to mind of a room full of book sharks, efficiently shredding books down to their essential informational proteins :-)

    I think my book outlining approach is driven by a deep desire to repackage and distill information into a form that I find convenient to work with in a word processor or layout program. From there the information can be transmuted for a number of purposes.

    OneNote: I actually had this installed on my computer for a while when it came out, and while I liked the idea of it, I didn’t like the notebook metaphor. I think this is just my personal aesthetic exerting itself. I use stickies and my Wiki pages for capturing information digitally. It’s the non-digital capture (books, physical contexts) that I want to streamline. Although, as Amanda suggests, I could just get the eBook versions now. I didn’t know you can highlight passages.

    Sacha’s system sounds pretty intriguing. I guess there is a certain overhead that is required for accurate capture. I’d thought of making a camera stand with a cheap digital camera and some diffuse lighting for taking quick photos of book pages (avoiding the scanner face-down squish), but wow, the rest of the system sounds awesome :-)

    I’ll have to revisit this in the future…there is an entire class of software that I’d like to design around thought processing.