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How to Take Reading Notes

Updated on July 29, 2012

Just Look at That Girl

Before we get started, just take a second to study the photo of that girl up there. Nothing about her demeanor says anything like, "Hey, I'm having a good time." She seems to be going through some type of psychological torture while being on the verge of tears. Hell, she's not even looking at the book anymore. Judging by this disinterest and the enormous tome lying open in front of her, I have to assume this unfortunate soul is waist deep in study time.

We all can empathize with this state: that moment when you find yourself arbitrarily passing word after word until you realize that you can't remember a single thing about the last chunk of whatever you were reading. It is my professional opinion that our friend up there in the photo (I've named her Hannah) has just come upon this realization. Hannah has two choices: A) Slam the unholy textbook closed and peruse some One Direction videos on Youtube, or B) Start over at your most recent reading checkpoint.

By learning, practicing, and implementing some note-taking strategies, we can help Hannah turn that frown upside-down. Missing from her photo are any semblances of study materials such as highlighters, notebooks, or scratch paper. Hannah, do you even realize you forgot your pen? No? Well, go grab some of the stuff while I finish up my article. You can read it later. How does that sound?

You just threw the book away, didn't you...

"Yes.. wait... HELL yes."
"Yes.. wait... HELL yes." | Source

Tip 1: Active Reading

Now I usually don't recommend tackling a reading task without an assortment of pens, highlighters, and scratch paper. That is, of course, unless you're a female aged 18 - 80 currently engulfed in E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey. Then get back to that; I'll still be here when you get back. Otherwise, I strongly recommend some note-taking tools.

Still, if you choose to simply plow through a book, article, essay, or magazine with only your eyes and fingers, try actively engaging yourself in the text. When trudging through a lengthy piece of writing, we'll often slip into a zombie-like state of simple "word reading." It is in this state that we often give up because we find ourselves not understanding what the writer is saying. We must remind ourselves that we do, in fact, have brains of our own.

A writer does not mindlessly spew words onto a page, so, likewise, we can't mindlessly read through what's written. Many writers will arrange an article so that we can more easily stay engaged in the text, but we have to mindfully engage ourselves, too. For instance, I hope that you haven't simply taken everything I've had to say without so much as a question. Granted I have introduced our friend Hannah and chopped my text into little bite-sized paragraphs to help you out, but I'm not perfecttt (see, a typo right there).

To help get the most out of any piece, we need to actively think about what we are reading. Try questioning yourself as you go through the text and holding an internal debate while you read. Keeping your mind busy within the text helps it not to drift away into the zombie state that Hannah found herself in.

Tip 2: Highlighters

I'm not going to spend much time on this one, but highlighters really are able to help with reading comprehension. The idea is simple: you read something that you perceive as important, and you highlight it to make yourself remember it once you come back. I've known people to associate highlighter colors with different degrees of importance, but, seriously, I doubt anyone should ever go to that extreme. He also still owns six Trapper Keepers; don't be that guy.

As simple and helpful as highlighters are, they can also allow for a false sense of security. Something in our brain makes us believe that once we highlight something, it is forever embedded in our memory. Don't ask me why, I forgot to highlight that part in my medical journal. I don't wish to spoil the sensation for everyone, but it doesn't work that way. The point is to easily be able to spot the most important points of a piece of text, which leads to another issue.

People, don't get highlighter drunk. We often get into this mode that makes us think that every bit of information we are reading is of uttermost importance. Therefore, we highlight every damn thing. Consequently, we come back to study or refresh our memories, and we are faced with page after page of glowing yellow, pink, blue, or whatever color you thought was pretty that day. Make sure you are actively reading the subject matter before you begin dousing your pages with neon colors.


Tip 3: Notes, Notes, Notes, etc.

This may come as a bit of a surprise, but the best form of note-taking is taking notes. If you are actively engaged in your reading, you will find yourself full of questions, thoughts, and opinions (if what you are reading is worth it). Granted, this method of reading does allow you to read through an entire piece while taking everything in at the same time. Meanwhile, it does not automatically record your questions, thoughts, and opinions formed throughout your reading experience.

Luckily, our 4th grade teachers (I was slow, don't judge) taught us to write, and since you are allowed on the internet, I'm assuming you are, in fact, beyond the 4th grade. Therefore, write things down. Whether you are studying for some huge exam or enjoying some leisure reading, taking notes on the side may seem a bit illogical at first but definitely pays off.

As far as what kinds of notes you should take? My only recommendation is to record your thoughts. For instance, any idea, opinion, question, concern, or rebuke is worth writing down. In my opinion, it is for this reason that publishers don't fill the entire page of books with text. We have to have somewhere to write out our thoughts. I understand that a lot of us choose to read our articles online (for that, I thank you, dear reader), which makes highlighting and note-taking within the margins a bit difficult.

If bookmarking an entire page seems a bit too cumbersome, just try copy-and-pasting portions of an article into a word document. When you come back to refresh your memory, only the selections you deem important are there. Also, Microsoft Word lets you highlight things. Then you can choose what is most important of the important things, while typing in your own notes alongside the pasted material.

For those of us who prefer traditional methods, there are always things to take a pen to. Suppose that you are reading an online article and stumble across, perhaps, a single sentence you find "deep" or "totally deep." Find a journal, notebook, or piece of junk mail to write it on. Even if you discard that note, once you run across it down the road, you'll be happy that you decided to record it.


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    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 5 years ago from Washington

      No kidding - not a bad idea, Jay - I swear to all that is holy - I've drifted off a few times and hit my head on the is just TOO boring!

    • Joseph Howard profile image

      Joseph Howard 5 years ago from Bowling Green, Kentucky

      Oh man, I can just imagine how fun it is to write a medical coding textbook. I think I would have to slip in random movie quotes just to keep readers on their toes.

      "Patient health care records maintained for hospital inpatients shall include, if obtainable, the inpatient's occupation (THIS IS SPAAARTAAAA!!!) and the industry in which the inpatient is employed at the time of admission, plus the inpatient's usual occupation."

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 5 years ago from Washington

      Gosh Jay - I'm going to be in the dungeon with my topic/article. You put it all very concisely and precisely - great layout too. Good tips - I find the older I get the harder it is to concentrate so I start highlighting a lot - even on the computer....pretty soon though I've got so much highlighted it is ridiculous! Oh well - notes do help and I find the more you peruse something, the more it (hopefully) sinks in! I do find too that it helps if the material is actually entertaining or at least interesting. I have been taking a coding class (medical) and for some reason every time I attempt to read the documents, I go to sleep!

    • kissayer profile image

      Kristy Sayer 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      This is a perfect hub for students! The top picture is perfectly suited to the hub too!

    • profile image

      Audrey D Massey 5 years ago

      Jay, this is a wonderful article! I used this technique throughout high school and college and still often do it today. You are wise beyond your years as you instruct another generation in using a tool that will last them a lifetime.