How I Keep Notes When I Read Nonfiction (11 Ideas)

Books positively impact our minds and emotions even when we don't remember the content. But what if you could recall it when you need it?

One of the challenges of reading nonfiction is retaining what you read. Especially when reading a lot of books, it can be a challenge just to remember what books I’ve read, let alone the content in them.

This is why I’ve become someone who won’t (can’t) open a nonfiction book without something to mark it with. Over the years I’ve experimented with many ways to do this. Here are the principles that work for me.


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1. Always Have A Marker Handy

I use a pencil. Never a pen or a highlighter.

Some of that is my comfort level. But on the practical side, if I make a mistake and highlight the wrong sentence, I can erase and re-mark it. Or if I mark something early in the book, but later discover I was misunderstanding something, I can go back and re-mark things more accurately.

This is one of the huge downsides of eBooks. I can and do use their highlighting function, which makes the notes very easy to copy-and-paste, but an eBook is not built for flipping through the notes or jumping back-and-forth.

Use whatever tool works for you, but if you want to retain and retrieve the information later, I don’t know how to do it without using some kind of marker.

2. Don’t Over-Mark

Many of us have had the experience of flipping through a used textbook to be confronted with entire pages covered in yellow highlighter. Ugh.

The point of marking a book is to narrow down the information into helpful, bite-sized pieces. I seldom underline more than one sentence in sequence – often just a few words in a sentence that really boils down its essence. And seldom more than two or three per page.

3. Don’t Under-Mark

If a nonfiction book is good, but I’ve gone four or five pages without a single mark, I know I’m not marking it enough. As you’ll see in the next few points, while it’s important to mark what’s new and interesting, it’s also important to highlight the flow of the book – the case that the author is building.

When I do that, some pages will have several marks, some will have none, but five or more blank pages in a row either means the book isn’t well written, or I’m not marking it well.

4. Highlight New Information

Learning something new is one of the primary reasons for reading nonfiction, so I make sure to note new information so I can find it when I need it.

5. Highlight Helpful Information

Sometimes the information may not be new, but it’s expressed in a way that’s fresh and helpful. This is well worth noting. When I highlight previously-known information that’s been expressed in a fresh, new way, I can become a better communicator.

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6. Add An Occasional Personal Note

I don’t do this a lot. I like to let the author’s work stand on its own. But if I need a reminder of why I’ve highlighted something (like “quote this in my next article” – always crediting the source) I’ll jot a note in the margin.

I avoid notes like “This is great!” or “What a crock!” because that unduly influences me when I glance over it later. One of the great joys of reading is to have my mind sharpened, even changed, by a well-thought and -written book. I don’t want to infuse my opinion too strongly into it.

7. Checkmark The Extra-Helpful Information

If something is helpful, I underline it. If it’s extremely helpful, I add a checkmark next to it to remind me that it deserves a little extra attention.

8. Star The Super-Helpful Information

As many as a dozen or more times in a good book, I’ll read something that isn’t just helpful, or even “extra” helpful, but “I don’t want to forget this” information. That’s when I jot a star next to it.

9. Flag The Essential Information

Then there are the life-changer moments. Something so new, fresh, challenging, or significant that it impacts the way I think about something, and I know I will want to go back to it regularly. For those spots, after underlining and marking it with a star, I grab a post-it tab (which I always have at the ready, inside the cover) and flag the page.

I also use flags for information I know I’ll use later in an article, book, or talk, so I can access them immediately.

10. Mark Information Essential To The Book’s Premise

This is the hardest part of highlighting to learn, but in the long run it may be the most helpful book-reading tool I use.

In addition to marking what I think is important, I always highlight what the author thinks is important so I can keep track of their narrative thread or train of thought. After all, why read what someone else wrote if all I get from it are my own ideas reflected back?

11. Reviewing What I’ve Marked

If I’ve done this well (which has become automatic for me over the years) I can take any previously-read nonfiction book off my shelf and do any of the following with it. (The time-stamps vary depending on book size and quality.)

  • Three-Minute Glance: With a quick glance through the flagged notes I can easily find the quotes or ideas that I noted for use somewhere else (always citing the source).
  • Six-Minute Scan: By reading what I’ve flagged and starred I can recall those “oh wow!” moments again.
  • Nine-Minute Overview: If I read the flags, stars, and checkmarks, I can recall the flow of the book and get a slightly deeper understanding of it. This isn’t just about information anymore. It evokes the emotion of the book again.
  • Fifteen-Minute Review: If I read every flag, star, checkmark, and highlight, it’s like reading the entire book again. This is where the process of highlighting the overall flow of the book’s premise comes in handy. This is especially helpful if I will be teaching from the content, or interviewing the author for my podcast. Because of the passage of time and the addition of life experience, I often get more out of the book on this review than when I first read it.

Got Other Ideas?

Do you use any of these? Do you use any tools I haven’t mentioned?

Let me know in the comments, below. Or on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.


(Photo by Valerie Everett | Flickr)

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