The Fast Book Outliner

The Fast Book Outliner

"Fast Book Outliner" When I am reviewing a physical book, I am constantly annoyed by the need to write down page numbers or use dozens of bookmarks. I created The Fast Book Outliner (FBO) to transform the chore of marking and capturing into something more like direct-memory-access for book reviewing. Using a pre-printed page index with ample note space, the FBO lets me quickly outline the structure of books for learning or review purposes. I can more easily grasp the gist of the book and refine the map through multiple reading sessions; I keep one tucked in every book I am reviewing.

Using the Fast Book Outliner

The Fast Book Outliner is a set of PDF forms. There are multiple versions that differ in the number of pages indexed per printed sheet. For dense material, you will want the room that the 25-per-sheet form offers. If you are just trying to get a broad outline of a lot of material quickly, the 100-per-sheet is fine. There’s even a 500-page sheet for very broad mapping using just a single piece of paper!

ExampleHere’s an example using Version 1 of the FBO.

ExampleHere’s an example using Version 3 of the FBO, which uses a more compact layout.

Here’s how I use it:

  1. Pick an appropriate FBO form Each form handles 100 pages, so if you have a 350 page book, just print out 4 copies (400 pages) worth of the FBO form. The 25-per-sheet form uses 4 pieces of paper (2 if printing double-sided), while the 100-per-sheet form uses just 1 side of a piece of paper.

  2. Mark page ranges. If you have a 200 page book, you need to printout 2 copies of the FBO. Then, you’ll have to mark them as “pages 1-100” and “pages 101-200” so you can tell them apart. Just write in a “1” at the page 1 mark on the second set of FBO forms; there’s a dash in front of it to remind you to do this. The whole process takes a few seconds.

  3. Read and Annotate. As I read, I’m looking for key ideas that either catch my eye, or seem important. Every time I come across one that I think is important, I note it on the FBO sheet. For example, on page 20 I read a phrase that sums up an idea beautifully; I look up page 20 on my FBO sheet and write down a bit of the phrase so I can find it again later.

  4. Review. After I’m done reading a chapter perhaps the book, I look back at all the notes I’ve taken and make sure I can understand them. I might choose to rewrite them on a clean sheet (if I’m preparing a book report or review) or just annotate them further. The FBO sheets can then become part of your “working notes” for further writing or report making,

Other Examples of Use

I think the FBO is great for quickly outlining textbook-style content, preparing to write a book review, or learning a new subject from a technical book. The FBO layout helps you see all the concepts you’ve noted in one place, with ample room to add additional thoughts.

For example, when I’m reading a technical manual, I’m looking for the “a-ha! that’s how it works!” moments. Highlighters and bookmarks can be useful for marking those passages, but it’s cumbersome to find them again. With the pre-numbered FBO, I can just make a note on the page number for later review. After I’ve finished reading, I can easily find the page again and write additional notes around it as I re-read.

After mapping the good parts of the book, I now have a map that shows me the flow of the writing. This can work in reverse too; several writers have asked me how to use the FBO to create an outline of a book they are writing. Apparently, if you have a sense of what you want to happen and know how many pages you can devote to it, that’s not a bad thing to do.

As a final step, you can take your FBO sheet and re-transcribe them into some other form. This is necessary anyway if you’re writing a report or condensing what you’ve learned into a more compact form. The Fast Book Outliner’s goal is NOT to eliminate rewriting; it’s designed to make the process more efficient. You still need to provide the critical thinking. A very cool example of this was provided to me by student Alessandro Cuttin, who used the FBO to create lecture notes for his modern physics and operations research. Very cool!

What’s Good about the Fast Book Outliner

  • As you are taking notes, you are building up an understanding of the material based on what YOU are interested in. You end up with an index of the book that captures your mind’s relation to the material, not someone elses.

  • As the notes build up, you can see them all together; the ability to see the key ideas arranged all in front of you is helpful for review. Your mind will be able to more easily see how concepts relate to each other.

  • Because the page numbers are already transcribed for you, it’s easy to go back and find the original source material on the page. You can then read the material more closely to refine your understanding, or look at material on the preceding or subsequent pages that is related.

  • You can read your book in quick multiple passes. The FBO sheets become your way back into the material. It’s still up to you to make SENSE of what you are reading, but the FBO sheet can help you remember the order and relationship of key ideas–and easily find where you can re-read them.

More Information

The first FBO was created September 2011. The original post describes its genesis in a bit more detail. Enjoy! Enjoy!!! :)

FBO Downloads

There are 3 versions. 600DPI or higher laser printer recommended.

Tip: To download the PDFs to your computer, right-click (control-click on Macs) the links and choose "Save Link As..."


25 per page (4 page PDF) Good for outlining dense material. FBO 25-page versionGet US Letter PDF Get A4 PDF

50 per page (2 page PDF) Good for outlining technical books. FBO 50-page versionGet US Letter PDF Get A4 PDF

100 per page (1 page PDF) Good for making a broad outline as you read. FBO 100-page versionGet US Letter PDF Get A4 PDF


50 per page (2 page PDF) – Version 2 Layout Formatted with the notes at the bottom, to make it easier to transcribe notes when keeping the form to the side of the book you are reading. FBO version 2 50-pageGet US Letter PDF Get A4 PDF


500 per page (2 page PDF) – Version 3 Layout Separating the marking area from notation, this layout is more compact and allows easy section marking. FBO version 3 500-pageGet US Letter PDF

Adobe Acrobat Reader is recommended for printing. The built-in "Mac OS X Preview" and "Chrome Browser" PDF viewers do not always draw dotted lines correctly.