8 October, 2019
In conjunction with improving the quality of articles I read, I figured I should try and improve the quality of my reading. Taking notes on articles and books as I read them really helped me to slow down a bit and actually formulate thoughts about what I was reading, rather than just absorbing it passively.
When I come across a passage that I feel requires more attention, I’ll first re-read it and try and figure out why it’s popped on to my radar.
Sometimes it’s simply because I don’t understand it. In that case, I’ll highlight it and make a comment saying I don’t understand, perhaps even thinking it through "out loud", attempting to rubber-duck the problem. This is usually enough for me to figure out what the passage meant.
Other times, it will be because the author is saying something surprising. Maybe it contradicts something that was said earlier, or maybe it was a conclusion that I wasn’t expecting. In those cases, I’ll note that surprise, sometimes composing the note as though I’m speaking directly to the author. If there’s a contradiction, I’ll try and go back and highlight the contradicting passage, or if I was surprised by something unexpected, I’ll note what I was expecting.
Often, I’ll just disagree with what’s being said. In this case, I’ll note my disagreement, and try to expand on why. Am I disagreeing with facts? With reason? With belief? All these are useful to call out to myself.
Finally, sometimes something will jump out because it’s a particularly nice bit of prose. Perhaps it’s a great, succinct description of a concept that I haven’t seen before. Perhaps the passage itself is quoting some authority or common truism. In those cases, I’ll note where I think the quote might be useful, being sure to use the word "quote" in the note itself to aid future reference.
In most of these cases, it’s rare that I’ll refer back to my note – the obvious exception being where I’m stealing quotes. The point of doing this is to ensure that I can actively engage with the writing when needed, not just be engrossed by it.
Not everything needs notes, of course, and it’s not that I’m always highlighting and noting and studying. Often it’s great just to lose yourself in fantastic writing. But I never know where I might learn something, and being able to make notes gives me a much better chance of having the lesson stick.
As Jim Coudal's grandfather said, "I'm not writing it down to remember it later, I'm writing it down to remember it now".