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5 Easy Tips for Taking Notes While You Read

by Kim on February 17, 2010 · 53 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!

{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa Munley February 17, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Good ideas! I find myself doing this more and more.. I used to only mark up books I read for book club, but now I do it with almost all my books.

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Lisa: I do it most of the time, and when I don’t I always regret it. I didn’t take notes for the review i’m working on now and it’s frustrating!

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Callista February 17, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Great tips. I don’t always take notes because I sometimes forget or can’t find a working pen (LOL) but I try to at least for nonfiction as that’s harder to remember everything for the review. I use a pen that’s wider so my hand doesn’t cramp and I either have a piece of paper that stays in between pages (either as a bookmark or with the bookmark) or a post it note (or three) on the front. I find my reviews MUCH easier to do with notes.

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Callista: So much easier — I like the idea of just sticking post-its in the book. That might be easier than all my switching back and forth.

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Nicole February 17, 2010 at 8:48 pm

I love this post. I try to keep a reading journal and write down some preliminary thoughts as I am reading and I will do ear ARCs if I don’t have a pen handy and I need to mark a passage. I also make light pencil marks that I can easily erase and won’t (hopefully) be detected by another reader.

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Nicole: I ear when I forget a notebook. I don’t worry about erasing for future readers; I think it’s sort of fun to get used book and find notes from a previous reader. That might just be me though :)

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Sasha March 18, 2010 at 5:35 am

I know! I write in the book when my bag (or bed) has swallowed my little red reading Moleskine, and I just really need to write something down. I even write in borrowed (library) books. Eek.

But I love seeing the scribbles left by previous readers. So, I figured, someone might like mine, ahahaha.

Or, at least, when I reread the book, I amuse myself. ;]

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Sasha March 18, 2010 at 5:37 am

PS – I’ve loved that poem by Billy Collins ever since I listened to it on audio years and years ago. :) I recite it to myself whenever someone shrieks, “You write on your books?!”

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Kim March 19, 2010 at 8:03 am

Sasha: Marginalia is one of my very favorite poems. I tend to not write in library books, but I do have notebooks sitting everywhere so I always have paper to write on :)

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charley February 17, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Nice tips! I am not so organized, but I will try your suggestions.

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:43 pm

charley: Good luck, I hope they help!

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Diane February 17, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Kim,

I enjoyed this post a lot. I use to be a sticky note user, but now I prefer using a notebook. I mostly jot down page #’s or when there are lots of characters, a character profile to help me remember who is related to who..LOL.

I use a Moleskein journal to track challenges, authors, favorite books, wish list items and books recommended by others among other book related info.

Thanks for the helpful post!

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Diane: Character profile is a good idea; I’ve never thought of that. I love Moleskein notebooks so much, they’re quality. Plus I feel cool when I get to pull them out :)

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Sheila (Bookjourney) February 17, 2010 at 10:28 pm

I use over-sized lined post its for my notes. That way I can just stick them in the page I want to come back to and make notes about a quote or paragraph or interesting question that came to mind.

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Sheila: I love those big post its. I haven’t found any recently, but they’re great for taking notes and not getting lost between pages.

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Barbara February 17, 2010 at 11:43 pm

I didn’t need notes in my younger years to remember passages and the like. Now, I do — so thanks for the tips. They will come in handy!

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Barbara: I’ve always needed notes — I tend to be pretty forgetful even at a pretty young age :)

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A Bookshelf Monstrosity February 18, 2010 at 6:51 am

I used to write all over my books when I was younger, underlining passages and the like, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to do that now. I do keep a reading journal of sorts, though. I like the idea of using page flags. That will be a happy medium for me.

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:47 pm

A Bookshelf Monstrosity: I know a lot of people who don’t like to write on pages. I did it in college a lot and it doesn’t bother me too much, even if I’ve stopped doing it as much now. Page flags are a big help.

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Kara February 18, 2010 at 7:48 am

I like these ideas and will try to incorporate them into my reading. It would help immensely in my reviews as I am always paging through the book wondering where that passage was that I wanted to comment on!!! LOL.

I recently read a post about those Moleskine notebooks and I am going to look into getting one. They now have one dedicated to book readers. I think they are called Moleskine Passions.

Thanks for the great tips.

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Kara: Awesome, good luck. I’m curious about the Moleskeine Passions — I’m definitely going to look for them.

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Andi February 18, 2010 at 9:40 am

Great tips! I’m a huge fan of marginalia and have whittled my note-taking skills to a slim, refined (I think) process. It took years, but it was worth it!

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Andi: It does take awhile to find a process that works for you. I’m glad you found one :) Mine is still getting developed.

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Steph February 18, 2010 at 10:56 am

I’m definitely not one of those people who takes many (if any!) notes while reading… but I’m with you on a good pen! In all endeavors, I think, a quality pen can make or break you! ;)

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Steph: Oh for sure, good pens make everything better.

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Christina February 18, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I’ll add a Moleskin thumbs up and share a “reading journal kit” tip…

You can get a Moleskin with a pocket on the back cover. This is great for keeping odds and ends of scrap paper and post-its. I’m a big flagger and color code mine (yellow for reference, blue for quote), so I glue their case to the cover as well. The smaller/thicker Moleskins (that have a pocket) also tend to have a ribbon to mark your page – you can get mini pens (mine is about three inches tall) and attach it to the ribbon.

Everything you need in one place!

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Christina: Such good tips! The Moleskine that I have now doesn’t have a pocket, but it would be nice if it did. I love the idea of getting everything together in one place — handy.

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Jeanne February 18, 2010 at 2:05 pm

I am a great fan of sticky notes, as a person who had to consciously force herself to learn to write in books.

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Jeanne: Sticky notes are a good compromise :)

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Nymeth February 18, 2010 at 2:19 pm

I take lots and lots of notes – they so help with reviews! I’ve been knowing to scribble on the inside cover of books a lot…always in pencil, though!

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Nymeth: I never thought to write on the covers of books; that is such a good idea. There must be way more room than in the margins.

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Ti February 18, 2010 at 3:20 pm

I get the large, lined post-it notes. They cover an entire page of a trade paperback… I jot notes on it and it becomes my bookmark (along with my pencil) as I move through the book. I find that I rarely need to add a second post-it. I’m usually able to fit quite a bit on the one sheet. Then when I got to write my review I only take the note with me…not the book or another notebook. I write a lot of my reviews while on lunch at work so I don’t care to cart around more than I need to.

Great post!

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Ti: It’s nice you can just take the note with you to write. I usually need to refer to the book a few times for details or the actual wording of quotes. Usually I can add those at the end though, once I get home and can get back to the book.

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Vasilly February 18, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Kim, I really needed this post right now! I’m not reading much and when I do and try to write a review, I’m often stuck. I can barely remember what I liked or didn’t like about the book. I do use post-its for the passages I like but I’m learning that it’s not enough. I’m definitely going to try this again. The first few times that I did, I would often sit my notebook down and lose it. Thanks for writing such a great post.

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Vasilly: Good luck! I’m glad the post was helpful — I was hoping it would be :) Let me know what ends up working for you.

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Julie February 18, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Wonderful tips! I need to start trying to jot more things down as I write and keep a reading journal!

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Kim February 18, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Julie: It’s such a helpful habit once you get into it. I love writing reviews when I have notes to use.

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Jeane February 20, 2010 at 10:06 am

I’ve change my methods a lot over the years. I used to underline passages, then I moved to using sticky notes. Now I tend to keep just a scrap of paper as a bookmark, and write my notes on that (with page numbers noted). I do tend to loose my pens, though, especially between the couch cushions!

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Kim February 21, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Jeane: My kitten really loves pens, so I suspect a bunch of mine have gotten pushed into the cushions and under the couch. Good pens are hard to keep track of!

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Literate Housewife February 20, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Great and inspiring post. I aspire to be a better note taker. I’ve gotten away from doing that after I finished my Masters Degree. Why not start now, right?

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Kim February 21, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Literate Housewife: Most definitely! Sometimes I’m not great about notetaking, but I always regret it when I get to writing the review. It just takes a little discipline, I think.

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Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books February 21, 2010 at 11:27 am

This is a great how-to article, Kim!

I’m very particular about the pens I use (I’m not the only one, right?). And I’ll admit that I have a REALLY hard time writing in a book. I do use the Post-It tabs to mark passages/quotes, but I remove them when I’m done reviewing a book, so I don’t color my re-read or the impressions of a friend I might lend the book to.

Carry a notebook everywhere – that’s my Number One.

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Kim February 21, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Dawn: Thanks! I think almost everyone is particular about pens, which I understand. I never thought about notes impacting how someone else reads a book, but part of me doesn’t mind if it did. I loaned a book to Boyfriend awhile ago that had a ton of notes and smiley faces and things in the margins and he said it made him laugh (which I think is a good thing!)

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Mindy Withrow February 21, 2010 at 7:09 pm

These are great tips, Kim. Because of a combo of book journal, favorite pen, post-it flags, and Excel sheets, I have great records of my thoughts on everything I read. This really helps not only when writing reviews, but also when someone asks me what I thought of a book and I can’t remember and have to look it up!

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Kim February 27, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Mindy: I wish I’d always been good about keeping notes on books — I tend to go in spurts of doing really well and spurts of falling off the wagon.

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Esme February 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Kim thanks for this-I did this with one book recently and really enjoyed the review I did on the book-I came over to say hello as I will be meeting you at BEA.

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Kim February 27, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Esme: Awesome, glad to hear taking notes went well. Thanks for stopping by :)

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Jodie March 1, 2010 at 8:10 am

Sticky notes are the way of the future (+ if you cut then in half and write v small you get two tab notes for the price of one). Great tips here, I think I need to find the perfect notebook, one with a flexible spine like yours.

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Kim March 1, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Jodie: Very frugal suggestion :) I think I’m too lazy to cut post its in half, is that sad? I love the flexible spine and covers — they’re hard enough to write on, but easy to hold with just one hand.

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Jennifer March 4, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Loved this post. I’m going to try out some of your tips with the next book I read. I already have the perfect notebook in mind!

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Kim March 9, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Jennifer: Thanks! I hope you have good luck with it!

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