Welcome back to How To Take Good Notes.
This is part 2 in what will most likely be a 5 part series. If you missed part 1, you can (and should) go read that here: How To Write Good Notes Part 1.
To briefly recap, when you want to take good notes, you start off by using the META Method. This is just a short acronym that helps you remember the 4 Questions you must ask yourself before you even begin to learn the information.
Once you know the answer to these 4 questions, you are ready to dive in and learn more about how to take good notes. For this example, we’ll look at reading a book as it’s the simplest and most common way to consume information.
You can consume a textbook or a non-fiction book all the same. The key to this method is to look for the highlights of what you want to remember. Now, one note taking methodology I like a lot is Progressive Summarization by Tiago Forte of Forte Labs. It’s a key component to his Building A Second Brain course which I highly recommend for any knowledge worker.
The gist of the method is that you first extract the information you want to learn (like highlighting the text in an ebook reader). You do this as you read the whole book.
At the end of the book, you may have 10 pages of notes (or more). These notes are not in your own words, however, so you are very unlikely to remember them. You also don’t want to have to review all those notes so you embark on phase 2 which is to go through and bold the notes that seem most important to you.
Then, make a second pass and focusing only on the bold try to highlight the most important parts of the bold text.
You should be able to take the notes down to maybe 20% of what they were. And now you have boiled the book down to its essence. As an optional step, you could now go back and look at the bold highlight text and rewrite this portion in your own words as if you were the teacher trying to explain it to someone who knew nothing about the subject.
This is a technique made famous by Richard Feynam. Professor Feynman won a Nobel Prize and was considered a genius by many. He also offers this sage advice:
• Read every day.
• Spend time with nature.
• Ask questions.
• Never stop learning.
• Don’t pay attention to what others think of you.
• Do what interests you the most.
• Study hard.
• Teach others what you know.
• Make mistakes and learn.
• It’s Okay to not know things!
How To Take Good Notes – The Strategy
Now, where I want to differentiate my instruction from the advice above from Tiago is to zoom in a little more on WHAT I like to take notes about. Tiago no doubt does an excellent job as well with his method, but perhaps this will speak to you as well because I try to keep it simple and I use a lot of easy to remember words.
As you are reading the material (meaning in real-time) what you want to look for are certain types of topics or things to take notes on. Here are the 6 main things I focus on that help me take good notes.
Notes: Ideas or thoughts from your study in your own words.
Quotes: Extractions from the material in the author’s words.
Anecdotes: Stories and examples from the material to support claims such as stats, studies, and charts.
Claims: What claims are made by the author and how are they proven?
Names: Names of places, people, and events that are worth remembering.
Frames: What frame is the author using to convince you of the material? Notate any bias or predispositions that may color the material.
Now, my list is a little bias towards if you are needing to take notes with the goal of taking a test in the future or memorizing facts. But it’s still the same principles you would want to follow, it just depends upon how deep you want to go.
Let’s look at each of these areas a little closer.
Notes are just things that jump out to you as important or interesting. The key here is that you want to write them in your own words. Doing this makes it way more likely that you’ll remember the ideas as well. I used to think it was the writing that made this happen. Really, it’s the thinking that makes it happen. You have to bring the information into your mind, process it, reformat it, then produce it again in your own words. This is a powerful tactic to remember more of what you read.
Next, you’ll also want to extract Quotes. These are just copy/paste of what the author said. This is especially good for detail or paragraphs of content that you want to get right. You can always go back through your notes and rewrite these as well in your own words later.
You also want to remember to denote as best you can what is something you wrote as a note and what was copied as a quote. Using a simple N or Q can make this easy to remember and track.
You’ll also want to listen for Anecdotes. For me, anecdotes mean a few different things. Stories obviously but I want your main thought here to be what is the author saying that supports the claims she is making. And don’t worry, we’ll get to claims next. As you read you will want to extra the support pillars of the piece. This includes things like stories, statistics, studies, and charts. You want to be able to go back and review the studies mentioned to see if they hold up.
I tend to downplay note taking on “stories” in books, mainly that’s because while entertaining they don’t hold a lot of knowledge value to me. But they are fantastic teaching tools. If you plan on teaching this material it’s always best to reference the characters mentioned in a story. There are many great stories I wish I remembered that proved a point I was trying to make. So, be better than me!
Now, let’s talk about claims. Believe it or not, every book you read is attempting to sell you something. Usually not something physical, but an idea. Or a belief. The author of the book wants you to believe something.
You should make special note of any claim the author makes or wants you to believe. Many of the smartest people read books with a skeptical eye. This actually helps you remember the material more too because you are in essence attacking it which can trigger a hormone release.
See what I did there? I just made that up. I vaguely remember reading something about it, but it probably isn’t true. Just because something is written down, that doesn’t mean it’s true. But I did find this article that maybe can stretch to cover part of my claim. Write down then vet all claims as you take notes if the material is very important to you.
That brings us to Names. Here you will want to track all the names of people, places, events, dates, etc. This is really important if you are going to be tested on the material.
Who was the 16th President of the United States?
What is the Capital City of Nebraska?
In what year did Columbus sail across the Atlantic?
These are the sorts of things you’ll be extracting as you read and look for names.
And to wrap it up, cause we’re running long here. Let’s talk about the final thing you want to pay attention to while taking good notes.
You want to look for Frames. This is not necessarily a “how to take good notes” process, but an admonition to be aware of how the author is framing a story or idea. Framing is powerful. By the nature of writing, we have to leave some information out and focus on other information. Crime Documentary’s do this to extreme effect. I’ve watched some that leave me beside myself with the unjustness of an innocent man only to find out later that the Documentarian left out a ton of the evidence used to convict the person.
So, you want to watch out for bias, watch out for the experience and life the person had before writing the book, and most important look for any “color” added to the descriptions of events or stories. The words used by the author can make a major difference
Consider these two phrases and how they technically are both true but conjure up different feelings.
“The man wore all black and slowly made his way up the driveway. He glanced around before banging his fist against the door to see if anyone was home.”
“Dad wore his favorite black hoodie, the same he had since high school. He playfully sneaked up the driveway so he could surprise Mom, who hadn’t seen him in weeks. He banged loudly on the door to disguise his easily recognized knock. He was grinning from ear to ear as Mom asked who was at the door.”
Same story, a different voice, a different viewpoint, and entirely different feelings evoked, right?
Alright, that’s enough for this post. Next time around we’ll look at 3 things you need to focus on directly as you read the book. This additional method allows you to create new ideas from what you’re reading instead of just extracting information.