Write While You Read

Make your reading more productive by taking notes while you read. 

For writers, reading is as much about sparking ideas as it is about consuming information. Descartes once said: “The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” If you’re reading good books, you’ll have your best ideas while you read. But most of those ideas disappear if you don’t capture them in the moment, while the idea is still fresh. But if you take notes, you don’t have to do the same thinking twice so you can build upon ideas you’ve already had. 

Your notes should be lightweight enough to write them consistently, but evergreen enough to stay relevant. Your teacher was right when she told you to take notes on what you read and put the ideas into your own words. Digital note-taking makes your reading time more productive by making your thoughts searchable. Unfortunately, apps like Kindle, Pocket, and Instapaper make highlighting too easy and don’t encourage people to write about what they’re consuming. Too many readers end up with a long list of highlights they never actually return to. 

Raise the difficulty of saving ideas and the productivity of reading by writing a short note about everything you highlight. Be selective about what you keep. Don’t just write a summary. Write about why each idea resonated with you and how it relates to what you’re working on. To make things easy for yourself, keep the notes lightweight and evergreen. Don’t spend more than three minutes on any individual note. Since they are the first draft of your thinking, they don’t need to be perfect. The optimal length depends on what you’re reading. Too short and you won’t have enough context. Too long and you’re not being selective enough about what to save, which makes it hard to read and difficult to browse your notes. 

Once you find the right length, make sure your notes are evergreen because you’ll be able to search them for the rest of your life. To make things easy for your future self, focus on timeless ideas instead of current events.

Sign up for my free writing course if you want to learn more.

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