Mental Pivot

Notes and observations from a lifelong pursuit of learning.

Considerations on the Different Approaches to Writing Book Notes

Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on (1) the act of taking book notes and (2) some of the online exemplars that I look to and learn from. I will post Part 2 next week.

I’ve been working on my reading habit for the last 6 years. I’ve enjoyed reading throughout my life but there was a period during my 30s when my reading dropped considerably. Starting a new company and raising three kids didn’t help. Fortunately I’ve rekindled the habit and am consistently reading between 40-50 books each year now, a mix between non-fiction and fiction.

As much as I love to read, there’s a big problem: I forget what I’ve read with alarming speed. The obvious antidote to this is to write things down. Take better notes! I wish I could say I was more diligent about doing this when it comes to books, but sadly I’m not. To improve my book retention, I’ve taken to being more systematic about my book note-taking (I’ve shared some of my recent notes here on the blog and will continue to do so in the future).

While my note-taking style is still evolving, I wanted to cover what are some of the considerations when taking notes and what are some of the exemplars I look to for guidance.

First and foremost I treat book notes as a tool for my personal use. When I take notes it is for the express purpose of providing a future point of reference. The act of taking notes is also something of a filtering process; I’ll only bothering taking notes for a book that is worth thinking about or remembering. Also, while I will take one-off notes for whatever I read that piques my interest, the type of notes I’m referring to in this article are for comprehensive notes outlining an entire book. To that end, I’m focusing on non-fiction when I talk about the type of notes I’m taking in this article.

Here the key dimensions I consider in my note-taking:

Highlight-style vs. Comprehensive notes

The choice here is between a short set of notes highlighting the best ideas from a book versus a longer set of notes that covers the entirety of the source material. Should I bother to annotate every chapter in a book even if the material is uneven in quality?

Another consideration that stems from this choice is how explicit the structure of the book will be reflected in your notes. If you elect to go with the highlight approach, it’s much easier to suppress the book structure. If you elect to go with a comprehensive approach, you’ll likely want to reflect the book structure in some fashion (either through chapter headings or page references).

Both approaches are effective. I personally use the comprehensive approach for my own notes, but I do appreciate the highlight method that readers like Derek Sivers use.

Lastly, one solution to this question is to include a short summary at the beginning of your notes and follow with your detailed set of notes. Allen Cheng uses this approach and it seems to bridge the two approaches nicely.

Verbose vs. Terse styled prose

The next choice has to do with the prose-style for your notes. Are you verbose or terse? I’ve seen book notes written almost as essays with complete sentences and paragraphs. On the other end of the spectrum are notes with bullet points so abbreviated that they are almost unintelligible to all but the note-taker.

Here I prefer a practical middle-ground: something terse enough to be intelligible to someone who hasn’t read the book. For me this means bullet-points with complete sentences. Book notes should be a reduction of the source material, but I want my notes to be legible and comprehensible whether I am reading the notes days after writing them or five years after the fact. If I make my notes intelligible enough for others, I’m effectively making them intelligible enough for myself years later when I’ve completely forgotten the contents of the underlying book.

Verbatim Quotes vs. Paraphrasing

Another choice, related to the prose style, is whether to use exact quotes from the source or paraphrase the ideas form the book. There are strong advantages to each approach. Direct quotations offer the benefit of the message straight from the author’s mouth. Furthermore, quotes can be easily referenced if you are working with a digital copy of your book or searching online for supplemental materials. Paraphrasing, on the other hand, might lack the fidelity of copying direct quotes but excels as far as our own individual comprehension and understanding are concerned. Paraphrasing requires active engagement from the reader and may help with learning. The obvious downside of paraphrasing is that it involves greater interpretive input form the reader which may alter the author’s original intent more than a direct quote.

I think a hybrid style works best. I like a mix of quotes and paraphrasing; there’s no reason you can’t combine the two effectively.

Subjective vs. Objective Tone

Lastly there is the issue of tone. More specifically: how much opinion and subjectivity will you impart into your notes?

Some book summaries read more like book reviews where the voice of the reader figures prominently into the article. The opposite end of the spectrum is the objective voice that attempts to recount the author’s ideas with as little input or commentary as possible.

Here the most reasonable solution is to do both but keep them compartmentalized. In the introductory section for my book notes I include my opinion on the quality of the book and a brief summary of the main ideas. I’ll note the good aspects of the book as well as the bad and will include a “verdict” that scores the book on a scale from 1-10.

The main section of my notes are a comprehensive outline for the book. I try to avoid injecting my opinion into these notes as much as possible. Remember: my goal is to provide myself with a reference. I want to be able to come back at a later date and get a sense of what the author was saying. If I must inject my opinion into the book (and sometimes I just can’t keep my mouth shut because I object to a point so strongly), I will place my personal comments in square brackets.

I’m certain my thinking on this topic will change and evolve as I continue to learn more about this habit. The value of book notes is not from reading someone else’s summary of a book and distilling its ideas (though that can be useful too). The value of book notes is for you the reader to record and think about the concepts from the book that impacts you the most.

If you are interested in seeing some of the book notes I have posted on Mental Pivot so far, visit my archive of book notes.