Outlining Books Faster

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.



  1. Mary Witt 13 years ago

    Do you keep the notes in the book? Or in a binder somewhere?

    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago

      I’m reading books that are large enough for me to fold the notes in half and tuck them between the pages. I suppose if I had to review books for a living, I might put them in a binder or their own folder. The folder is probably more likely because I think of these as “working notes”.

  2. Amanda Pingel Ramsay 13 years ago

    That, right there, I think is the strongest argument for ebooks.

    Especially when it’s a really good book, and has lots of book marks. When you’ve got sticky notes all around the edge of the book, you know there’s got to be a better way.

    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago

      Conceptually, I agree with you, but the realities of ebook readers fall short of delivering.

      I bought a well-regarded Windows development book last year for my Kindle, figuring that I could give the ebook approach a try. The highlighting tools on both the Kindle and Desktop Kindle Reader versions of the software were very cumbersome. I should revisit this, though, and see what I can do to make it work.

  3. Karen 13 years ago

    This would be a great tool for graduate students preparing to defend their theses.

    Students are often advised to prepare a cheat sheet of primary content of every page in the thesis so that they can quickly find the necessary page during the examination. This is a much tidier version than the one I put together…. Wish I had had this then.

    Another cool idea Dave!

    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago

      That’s a cool tip! I wish I’d known that when I was writing my thesis. I was kind of clueless back then :)

  4. Roy Francis 13 years ago

    Great concept – I’ll be using this momentarily.

    Per what I just noted over at A First-Pass “Attitude Guide”, I’m always keeping too many books on hand to try to process through. One of the things which keeps me hamstrung is that I know when I get into a book, I spend too much time trying to capture everything, and in reality I’m really doing book paraphrasing as note-taking.

    I think I’m looking to do the same kind of capture that you are, and I see right away the value of your structure’s approach. I’m staying tuned…

    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago

      Book Paraphrasing! Yah…that is what I used to do too when I was in school. I think something shifted in me when I started reading books more critically instead of accepting the words blindly. By critical, I meant looking for the key points, supporting arguments, and actionable details. From that, I can usually come up with my own framework of understanding. Before, I used to try to accept what was written as being the way it was “supposed” to be understood, and when I failed to understand I was stuck. It was only later I realized that I could presume that the author(s) were not omniscient, and fill in the gaps (which are plentiful) myself.

      So now I just try to figure out what the author is regarding as important, and why, at least when I’m reading technical or informational non-fiction. Not sure how I’d approach reviewing a novel for a school book report…hm.

  5. Ty 13 years ago

    Have you tried a Kindle? I find it awesome for note taking while reading, and my notes are all searchable later. But yes…like you I probably have 1000 books that are NOT on my Kindle, and making a good system for note-taking is a must.

    thanks for posting this!

    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago

      I do have a Kindle, which I use mostly for reading fiction. I mentioned in an earlier comment that I tried using it for a tech book, but didn’t like the note taking system…I found it really cumbersome. But I don’t remember WHY, so I’ll have to go back and try it again. Got any tips on using it?

  6. Yvonne Root 13 years ago

    Cool Dave,

    My question — how do you determine which page (100, 50, 25) you will be using before you begin taking the notes?

    This method is more likely to help you actually remember which notes you will want to reference because you have taken hand-written notes. If you assume your notes are the bricks of the structure you are building then you can easily see that the act of hand writing the notes is the mortar. Your structure will stand the test of memory time much better than will electronic note taking.

    Good one!

    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago

      I’m a big fan of writing my own notes for retention purposes too. Requires synthesis! Copying/pasting doesn’t do that. It’s kind of like the difference between driving down Main Street and walking. Entirely different experiences. One’s quicker but unmemorable. The other is much more immersive.

      As for determining which version to start with (100,50,25), I like the 50. It’s relatively compact, and I like having all the extra space on the right. I’ve actually used the 100 more, but I also figure that I can retranscribe my notes to the 50 pretty easily if I want to go into more depth.

    • Yvonne Root 13 years ago

      Good analogy Dave.

      Thanks for the answer too.

  7. Brigitta Vetter 13 years ago

    Absolutely cool, Dave, thank you! I wished I’d had this method back when I studied – but even today I’ve not found a proficient way to collect material from several books —

    so I for one would be all to happy to get the sheets in European DIN A 4 Format suitable for our printers here…

    big kiss on the cheek as a thank you !! Brigitta

    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago

      Brigitta: Since you asked so nicely, I will make an A4 version :)

    • Rachel 13 years ago

      Hooray! I look forward to trying out your very cool new product. I currently use a A4 notebook I currently use for text book notes. I used to be quite scatter-brained about it but I went through the PhotoReading system and it’s helped me to be much more systematic and to focus on the “nuggets” I need. I’ll be including a blank page at the beginning, which is where I usually do a mindmap of the main content ideas.

  8. Author
    Dave Seah 13 years ago

    A few notes to myself on usability, as I used the 50-entry version to outline yet another ancient MySQL book:

    • It’s difficult to write on the bottom 10 or so lines as you’re shuffling book and paper around. I need to find some way around that

    • Although I thought I could get away with just using numbers 01 to 99 and wrapping to 00, I think I should pre-number all pages so there is one less look-up step.

    • I was originally printing these double-sided to save space, but I think this makes the note taking more difficult to use, because you have to flip pages over constantly. So, I’m going to redesign them so they can be easily stapled or attached.

    This creates a lot more design work for all three variants, but I think it’ll be worth it. I’ll probably just test with the 50-entry variant first.

  9. Rob Carlson 13 years ago

    The newer Kindle PC/Mac reader has a much better highlighting and note-taking tool – but I cannot remember the last time that I actually used it to go back and look something up.

    Maybe you can update the form so that it can have kindle “locations” (I know the newer ones use page #s too, but…) And then we could all revisit those notes and clippings and quickly jot down the key concepts that we so carefully took the time to highlight on our readers. Then the docs could be scanned and pdf’d so they can be available on the readers.

    Finally – you might check out the “Future of the Book” concepts from IDEO – a video on Vimeo – and see if the 5 min video gives you any inspiration.

    Thanks for your design efforts,

    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago


      I looked at the Kindle Reader PC figuring it would be easier to highlight, and you’re right that it is. Still, I like to read books away from the computer screen.

      I like the idea of making a location number version! The location numbers go up very high…I might have to divide them into kilolocations or centilocations to fit reasonably on a piece of paper.

      Checked out the Future of the Book video. It reminds me, a little, of “the possibility of CD-ROM” back in the 1990s, with updated user interfaces + network connectivity. While they are all wonderful ideas, I think they really are just putting the book label on existing experience mashups: social media, crowdsourcing, videogames. I know they are supposed to be inspirational, but the two things that come to mind is that they miss the point about the book being a vehicle for READING, but then again that is kind of a solved problem. The video seems to address post-reading activities like personal research, or reformat the idea of “book” into another screen. The second thought is that to produce these smooth experiences would require some very expensive content creation and curating; if the experience produces anything less than excellent, there are other more focused sources: good cheap books! I could see it working, perhaps, with a system like what they have on Slashdot, where the community itself is highly discerning and self-curating.

      Thanks for the food for thought! It actually did give me inspiration in that I realized what I want from a book really is good content, and the means to anchor my thinking to it in the way that I’d like. Good text is a strong foundation to build on; if one were to create a network addressing scheme of such text chunks into a navigable cityscape of information, that would be pretty awesome.

    • Rob Carlson 13 years ago

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Agree that reading away from the computer screen is a consideration (goal?) – but with Kindles and various tablets (including the rumored future kindle tablet), the location of reading is becoming ubiquitous. FYI – Taking notes on the first “book” of Pressman’s War of Art – I was clocking about 6-8 kindle location units per “page”. So maybe just a location multiplier box and every 5 “page/lines” could have a small blank (like your ETP hours spots), then we simply fill in the blank – 5th line gets 35… 25th line gets 175, etc

      More to your reply on reading itself, though, I also agree that goal of reading is actually reading great writing – not exploring its content using Apple’s 1987 knowledge navigator. However – you keyed in on the POST READING navigation of the book’s key ideas (as subjectively culled by you – the reader) this is what I thought was cool about the video, and about the core concept of the FBO.

      In any event, I was thinking that taking the bottom 1/4 of the page (which you complained was too close to the edge to write on) you could put some faint ppt-like slide frame boxes or dots in a grid – then the core ideas could be summarized or mind-mapped or somehow framed for rapid review later – also good if someone wanted to include a rough sketch or graph or diagram.

      Last idea – I found that taking notes while reading on a tablet-sized device (a kindle dx) essentially meant folding the page in half and then writing on FBO form. I sat on a couch, using the screen as my hard surface. Might not work as well on touch-screen devices (like an iPad), but forms designed in such a way that they can be folded to a smaller size while used might be nice too. Maybe tri-fold – like a letter – and that fits in a jacket pocket.

      Again – thanks for your appealing and ever-improving iterative designs on a number of fronts.


    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago

      Great, great comments, Rob! I have some ideas on variations that I’ll hopefully get to soon!

  10. matt 13 years ago

    Hi Dave, The sheets are a really great idea, a rest-of-the-world version (A4) would be fantastic.


  11. be chappell 13 years ago

    Thanks Dave! I am going to try these on the law classes I am taking ! – I started trying to outline topics from my probate class in notebooks, and realized with dismay that my note taking skills are, and have always been, horrendous. It is as if I think if I rewrite the book in my notes I will somehow retain the reading more. Instead I just get frustrated by the length of time it takes – and then stew over how messy my writing gets as I get more frustrated.

    I do think that the process of writing does help retain knowledge, and your system might solve my problem.

    I have used a Kindle Emulator and used the highlighter and notes feature, but they just help create a personal, searchable, keyword index, instead of real notes.

    • Author
      Dave Seah 13 years ago

      Hey Bev,

      Some things that have helped me in my own notetaking:

      • Just mark where the critical passages are and why, so you can find them later. That saves time. The structure of a book tends to build on prior material

      • Resynthesizing raw notes into new notes helps me with retention because my mind is actively engaged in owning the concepts, not just duplicating workds.

  12. Author
    Dave Seah 13 years ago

    UPDATE: A4 Sizes added to the Fast Book Outliner Page.

  13. Alexander 13 years ago

    HI Dave,

    what about using Mindmaps (google for it) and adding the page numbers to the keywords/phrases ?

    ciao Alexander

  14. Mike 13 years ago

    Thanks Dave!

    Although I am a “highlight and transcribe later” type of person I can’t do that when I “process” a book that isn’t mine (friend’s/library’s). I’ll give this a try.

  15. Amanda 13 years ago

    One thing I’m not clear on is the intended purpose of the dotted area. Do you usually use this for notes that are longer, for your own thoughts and reactions, or anything/everything that comes up as you are reading through something?

    In any case this is a pretty cool method for outlining. I wish it had come up a few years ago when I was first working on my PhD literature review — I might not have had the disorganized mess I ended up with!

  16. Author
    Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Alexander: Constructing a mindmap at the time you are doing data capture is more difficult than data capture alone because you’re synthesizing it from a data source that may not yet make sense. You could certainly construct a mind map AFTER the data capture phase, or during a second read. That is what I would recommend.

    Mike: Makes sense to highlight and transcribe. Do you use voice dictation software?

    Amanda: It’s kind of an overflow area, yes, for longer thoughts. I may also jot down thoughts related to the material.

  17. Linda 12 years ago

    Dave – I agree with you about Alexander’s idea of mind mapping as a tool to outline a book. A big part of the dilemma is that each technique (outlining vs mind mapping) is that they use different hemispheres of the brain. I use mind mapping to just get ideas out of my head and onto paper – using ny right brain and avoiding the censorious critical thinking of my left brain. After I get it all on paper, then I use my analytical left brain to make connections, groupings, edit and prioritize. The two systems are like apples and oranges. Getting the best our of each means using them separately. Dave, thanks for your great work helping us be better at what we do.