Outlining Books Faster

Faster Book Outlining There are a LOT of books I have been meaning to review or otherwise deconstruct into happy nuggets of insight, but the process of doing a comprehensive review takes me many hours. Most of those hours, I find, is taken up in the reading and re-reading of the material, noting where key phrases appear and transcribing them laboriously in a notebook, then typing it all up so I can find it later. It’s a pain in the butt, especially if I’m trying to read in a comfortable location away from the computer. And so, I haven’t been doing as many book reviews as I’d like.

Lately, I’ve also been re-reading books I remember liking, one of them being Twyla Tharp’s classic The Creative Habit. This is an incredible book; while I’d read it several years ago, I was not as seasoned in the “creative struggle” as I am now and didn’t truly recognize its brilliance. I really wanted to outline it seriously and internalize its lessons, but the prospect of going through the inefficient transcribing process filled me with loathing.

Surely, there must be a better way.

For me, the biggest pain-in-the-butt about the note-taking process is marking the passages so I can find them again. Highlighting is only good if you use a lot of bookmarks, and you still need to re-transcribe. It’s also difficult to see the STRUCTURE of your notes unless you re-transcribe, and if you’re writing a book review you need to do that at some point. If you’re trying to learn difficult material, you want to access both the structure of your notes AND revisit the original pages for re-reading.

So a good book outlining methodology would minimize re-transcription to the bare essentials, while:

  • Allowing for rapid transcription
  • Allowing rapid lookup of page numbers
  • Displaying as much information in context to the structure of the book
  • Providing room to think, expand, and refine

Fast Book Outlining Example


I initially tackled this problem by simply pre-transcribing the page numbers from 1 to 100, while providing a little bit of space to write larger notes. Since the numbers are pre-written, I just write down what I find next to the page number. It is kind of like exploding the table of contents into your own outline, with one key difference: your outline is based on what YOU want to know, not the book’s notion of what it should be.

1 sheet per 1002 sheets per 1004 sheets per 100 There isn’t enough room to take a LOT of notes, but I was able to scan 400 pages of a book in maybe half an hour, outlining very broadly what was in it and what I wanted to go look back at later. The book outline becomes my personalized index to the book and my thinking about its contents. As I re-read it or scan for different material, I can write more detail or read just the pages around a critical topic.

As I tested this on The Creative Habit and a 10-year old MySQL book that I finally opened, I found while the “100 pages per sheet” design was adequate for broad outlining, for denser material there just wasn’t enough space. So I made 50 and 25 pages-per sheet versions as well.

So far, the best part about this approach is the feeling that I can now read books rather superficially at any given time, opening it up in the middle or just skipping around, and if something catches my eye I can add to the existing book outline instead of starting from scratch. My own “Cliff Notes” creator! :) If I am reading with more focus, I am also rewarded by being able to quickly annotate WHERE a particularly-interesting line of prose can be found again.

This is a very new form, so it hasn’t been tested extensively, but I still put it up in black and white US Letter size on the new Fast Book Outliner Page. It’s designed for use on 600DPI laser printers. If there is sufficient interest I will make color InkJet versions available.

UPDATE: Added A4 B&W Sizes.