5 Easy Tips for Taking Notes While You Read

by Kim on February 17, 2010 · 54 comments

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One of my goals in the last two years has been to take good notes while I read. I’ve found having notes helps when I start to write reviews because I have ideas, quotes, and impressions jotted down already.

A few people have mentioned they can’t seem to take notes while they read, so I wanted to write a post with five easy tips on how to get in the habit.

1. Get a good pen or pencil…

Not all pens are created equal, especially when it comes to taking notes. I require a pen with a thin tip (smaller writing for tiny margins), not too much ink (not too much bleed), fits easily in my hand (it’s nice to pick up), and doesn’t cost too much to replace (I lose pens a lot). My personal favorite is the Pilot EasyTouch Fine Tip Pen, but others could differ. I prefer pens because they don’t smear when pages rub together, but pencils work well too.

2. … and some paper.

Post-its, index cards, small notebooks all can work for taking notes. I have a small, red, flexible cover moleskin notebook that’s big enough to hold, but small enough that it fits in most purses (pictured above). Before that, I used a pad of paper that looked like it was for grocery lists. Sometimes a post-it note can work for scribbles (and serve as a bookmark at the same time). I’ve also heard people who use index cards, then file them away when they are done with a book. Feel free to experiment until you have a paper choice that you remember to use, can easily come with you, and is easy to write on.

3. Don’t be afraid of marginalia (or page tabs).

I know some people don’t like to write in the margins of books, but margin writing is a great way to take notes. It lets you keep reading the book, but provides some way to come back to quotes or ideas you enjoyed rather than skimming the whole book for that one passage you love.

I have a combination method of marginalia and notebook. I put little lines, stars, or smiley faces in the margins next to particular sentences or quotes. I then pull out my notebook and jot down the page number with a couple words about why I liked the quote. I also use the notebook for any general impressions or ideas I come up with while I’m reading, whether or not there is a page number.

If you’re still squeamish about margin notes, try some small page flags that you can stick next to quotes, then pull out of the book when you’re finished.

4. Bring your reading journal with you everywhere.

This was the hardest habit for me to get into, but it just took some time. I carry giant purses, so it didn’t take much to fit my notebook into my bag when I left the house. And I started using the notebook for lists of books I want to read, so having it near me became part of my daily habit. I don’t always remember it when I go to bed, so I’ve taken to leaving a pen and notepad on my nightstand for anything I think of when I’m reading before bed. Then in the morning I just rip off the page and stick it in the book I was writing about.

The important part is to make having the journal a habit — once you get used to carrying it around it gets easier to remember to pull it out when you’re reading.

5. Mark everything, but don’t write much.

notetaking2Even if it’s just a star in the margin in pencil, it’s important to mark lots of passages in a book. It’s a lot easier for me to sort through a ton of notes to write my review than it is to not have enough and spend time searching through a book for a particular quote or passage. I’ve also found that as I read, my impressions and ideas for a review start to crystallize and I mark fewer things in the end of a book than in the beginning.

But, don’t take too much time out of your reading to write long paragraphs or elegant sentences. Just jot something about why that passage is important — a couple words or a phrase — and then keep going. It’s hard to read, but the picture on the left is some of my notes from when I read Gang Leader for a Day. If you can see, there’s lots of –> and <3 marks, abbreviations, and other things that help jog my memory.

Using these tips, I found that by the time I finish a book I have all the makings of a good book review ready to go. I just have to put them in order, fill in the gaps, and hit publish.

Do you have any tips or tricks to help keep a reading journal? Do you think any of these will or won’t work for you? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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