Study Hacks Blog

How I Read When Researching a Book

August 14th, 2017 · 61 comments

The Reading Writer

As a writer I’m required to read lots of books, especially when ramping up a new project, as I am now. The picture above, for example, shows the books I’ve purchased only in the past two days.

I’ve already finished one of them.

My approach to the books I process in my professional life is quite different than my approach to the books I savor in my personal life. The former requires the ruthlessly efficient extraction of key ideas and citations, while the latter unfolds as a slower, more romantic endeavor.

I thought it might be interesting to briefly reveal the method I’ve honed over the years for my professional reading. It’s simple, and the basics should sound familiar to any serious nonfiction reader, but it has served me well.

Here’s the strategy:

  • I read with pencil in hand. Recently I’ve been using Ticonderoga #2 soft lead pencils as their footprint on the page is pleasingly gentle. But the writing implement doesn’t really matter, and I’ll fall back on a brutish ballpoint Bic if that’s all that happens to be available.
  • When I find a passage I want to remember, or an allusion or citation I might need, or a stylistic approach that catches my attention: I mark it in the margin.
  • Sometimes I scribble a few notations if I want to ossify a non-obvious observation or insight about what I’m marking.
  • Then — and this is the key optimization — I cross the corner of the page with a clear line.

Here, for example, is a recently read page from Michael Harris’s book Solitude (which, interestingly enough, is different than Anthony Storr’s 1988 classic of the same title which I just acquired today). Notice the mark in the upper right corner that indicates a few interesting citations below have been identified for potential further review:

Here’s another example from Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human. Once again, a mark in the corner identifies the page as relevant, and a scratched line below highlights a passage that captures an idea useful to my purposes:

The key to my system is the pencil mark in the page corner. This allows me later to quickly leaf through a book and immediately identify the small but crucial subset of pages that contain passages that relate to whatever project I happen to be working on.

My copy of Scott’s book, for example, has around 30 pages marked (I just counted). It will take me less than 10 minutes to review in totality the elements of this treatise that are potentially relevant.

(To emphasize the obvious, this doesn’t mean that Scott’s book only contained 30 pages that interested me: it’s a complicated and interesting work of literary techno-social criticism — which came close to winning the Samuel Johnson Prize two years ago — that I found thought provoking throughout. These are just the number of pages that happened to be relevant to what I’m working on at the moment.)

When it comes to my research process, this is about as complicated as it gets — at least with repect to how I process relevant books. As I work on a new writing project, a growing number of volumes fill the shelf next to my desk, each marred with intentional pencil scratches. When I think I need a particular source, I pull it from the shelf and after a brief review of my ad hoc annotations find myself fully engaged with what it has to offer.

Simple. But effective.

61 thoughts on “How I Read When Researching a Book

  1. Dev says:

    Please do come out with a book that criticizes the “plugged-in” nature of the 2010s. Smartphones have ruined a generation, even while adding considerable utility. But once again, like you did with Deep Work, offer a solution instead of a criticism—instead of what not to do, what to do instead. And there’s plenty that can be said about the latter.

    1. Tarun Vaish says:

      Going by the patterns of the posts that he has been writing recently, I can say with high confidence that his next book would revolve around the same theme and would hit directly on social media, Dev.

      1. Dev says:

        Really interested what solutions he’ll propose. Can’t be a Luddite, but can use tools and methods to limit and control.

      2. Josh says:

        Now that Cal has written on how to develop academic and professional success, I’m hoping he’ll write a book on personal success… maybe something like “Deep Happiness: Rules for Finding Peace in a Frenzied World”.

  2. Shawn says:

    Thanks for sharing your processes, Cal. Would love to hear more about your note-taking and storage process in great detail!

  3. Dave B says:

    This is pretty well exactly what I do, except I do it on kindle with notes and bookmarks. Benefit of Kindle is I can tap notes and get a list of all the book’s highlights and bookmarks in one place, with ability to filer on note colour or for bookmarks. Can use different colour highlights for different contexts too. Better than a paper book….

    1. Navaneethan says:

      I was going to say the exact same thing! I love the Notes & Marks and Highlights aspects of Kindle. I was recently preparing a presentation and talk based on a fairly technical book (Scale by Geoffrey West, in case anyone is interested). I found the Notes and Highlights I had made through the book extremely helpful. I suspect (without evidence) that even the act of making a Note or Highlighting helped me commit certain facts to memory, and understand concepts better than I would have otherwise.

      That being said, I’m doing an online course in neural networks that requires both watching lectures and reading mathematical material (which I’m not very strong at), and I find that pen and paper work really well. I don’t think I could do without them.

      I wonder what the difference is, perhaps the need to practise mathematical notation and equations?

  4. Mar says:

    Thank you 🙂

  5. Santosh Sali says:

    I read a lot and often miss the trees in the woods. This method is really interesting and good to keep track of important readings in a book. It will be great if you also point about reading that you for professional life (aka – academic reading). Thanks asking this as I am engaged in similar process..

  6. Keeve says:

    Like the above comment, i’m also interested in how you read scientific papers, both the hardcopy and softcopy versions. And do you compile the main ideas and thoughts somewhere in an app that aids subsequent recollection?

    1. Linggi says:

      In hardcopy i usually do the same waY as the author has mentioned but in soft copy i use underline and highlight features to mark the important and relative topics.

  7. KIRAN says:

    What about reading and annotating e-books & kindle formats?

    1. Dev says:

      There’s some inbuilt highlighting features I’ve found useful, also you can add notes, if I’m not mistaken, via the touchscreen keyboard or, on older devices, the physical one.

      All these highlighted quotes then can be listed for a summary of the key points.

  8. Avi says:

    Prof. Newport,
    Thank you for this very important and timely article. One question: how does your approach change (if at all) when reading papers instead of books?

  9. A great and intuitive method.

    It highlights a potential shortcoming in my research philosophy which is that I perhaps mistakenly believe that to extract anything meaningful out of a book, I ought to have a good grasp of the overall message of the book. I.e. I feel compelled to concentrate on every word of the text until the end, in an effort to avoid quoting it out of context. Despite the fact that I know this over-the-top (if not plain false), I still commonly fall into the trap.

    Even if I don’t plan to do this, I often still get distracted by my own thoughts, or I get overly absorbed in the content and slow down my reading speed.

    Thanks for the tip Cal, I’ll endeavour to keep honing my research efficiency.

    1. Forgive me… Prof. Newport.

  10. Terri Alexander says:

    Your generous tips and highlights into studying are valuable as an adult student returning to school as an undergrad.

  11. Stephen Liversage says:

    Thanks for the share, Cal

    When you say you highlight a passage which is useful to your purposes, is that an argument which supports your position?

    How do you, when researching, ensure that you’ve addressed any counter arguments or perhaps even addressed any biases

  12. Anthony Hsu says:

    Any reason you mark the corners of the pages with a pencil mark rather than just dog-ear the page?

    1. bjarke says:

      my guess is that so he knows exactly where on the page the information is that he is looking for which just dog-earing the page doesn’t tell you

  13. Hugo says:

    Does your system change when you read academic papers?

  14. Gran Torino says:

    Cal- off topic (but will check out the books) but CONGRATS for your impressive mention in Barron’s. Perhaps the tycoon can build you an entire building to work in at the University:)

  15. Geralch says:

    Back in your Straight-A days you recommended an electronic database to compile this type of information. What do you do once you’ve amassed all of the relevant passages?

  16. Sergio says:

    Great advices use to be easy. Thanks Cal.

  17. Sergio says:

    I use to write notes in a separate sheet. Sure this method is faster and it doesn’t break the reading flow.

  18. Sean says:

    I mark up the pages, then dogear the lower corner.

    I’m also interested if you do any kindle based research. I find I select far less text when reading paper. On the kindle it is easy to select every little thing.

    1. Aaron says:

      I’d argue that’s actually a reason not to use a Kindle. By using pen and paper — and thus being more selective — you’re prioritizing what’s really important. Friction can be a useful filter!

  19. George says:

    I find that a small blacked out triangle does the same for me. Very visible and hard to miss, without damaging the pages or making the book hard to close (as a dog’s ear would do).

    There’s a lot to be gained by doing this with a paper book, rather than a smart device. The act of writing by hand reinforces the learning.

  20. George says:

    Oh, and I’ve done this with your book Cal. There are plenty of black marks on the pages.

  21. Stuart says:

    I use the library so this isn’t really an option. I’m wondering if Cal keeps most of these books (seems like it would add up to require a lot of storage?) or if he re-sells them when he’s done?

  22. Jen Pearson says:

    Thanks for the share; I have used the scotch-tape like stickies but they tend to get a bit beat up if I’m carrying the book around in a bag. I love the ability to save the book from dog ears.

  23. Islam Elrougy says:

    How do you choose the books to read when you are interested in a certain topic?

  24. Sandra says:

    I am avid but slow reader. Any tips how to increase reading speed without jeopardizing understanding?

  25. Jan Martin Rolenc says:

    It seems very simple and useful. But there are obvious questions (asked already above):

    Do you only read in print? Or do you also read electronic texts? (Most of the books and papers I get these days are electronic – pdfs, Kindle, etc. Should I rather print them or try to buy printed stuff?)

    Which ideas, quotes, etc. should we highlight or note? (I usually highlight or take note of tons of stuff… Only then, in the second or third round I identify the few most important things. So it takes very long to read each book, paper, etc. )

  26. Josh says:

    I like to take pictures of the pages I find interesting on my phone and then underline the quotations (it’s one of the few times I can use the built-in stylus on my Note III!) Since I’m using the library instead of buying the books, I’ve found this to be very effective and efficient.

    1. Mary says:

      Josh, have you tried Google Keep? You can take photo notes of pages and store them in Keep, but the cool part is, you can then search Keep for phrases or words, and it will search those photos! (I always make sure to take a photo of all the citation info,too!)

  27. Nausheer Ahmed says:

    There is a very interesting book called ‘Love is the Killer App’ by Tim Sanders. In that he writes about the art of reading and taking notes – he calls it cliffing ! . I found that very useful and a more engaging way of reading.

  28. Pisaller says:

    Dr. Newport is writing a book on digital minimalism. I said it here first.

  29. dr kriti says:

    Or you can use self adhesive stick-on flags on pages you want to re-visit (something i use ) it saves a lot of time (instead of looking for pages with pencil mark in the corner) …….just a suggestion 🙂

  30. Viktoria says:

    Despite its simpleness it`s quite a complete and understandable strategy. Keeping so much information in mind is a challenging task that needs outlining the principal points. Besides noting helps to extract essential points from the reading material as well as to structurize them in mind.

  31. George says:

    Can you please share how you approach research in the first place (as in, picking what to read). I’ve spent some time trying to use Goodreads data to optimize what to read first out of a set of recommended books, so curious if this is even a problem for you? Thanks Cal.

  32. I’m really intrigued by this. I prefer reading books in print, as opposed to digital. Typically I read with both a yellow highlighter and a pen, and highlight/annotate extensively in margins. That alone usually helps me find the marked passages. Sometimes I will use tape flags on the pages marked to more easily find them.

    I’m curious to know whether you input the markings, or at least a summary of pages marked/topics covered, into any digital repository, and if so, in what form you do that. The challenge I have with print markups is that when I go back to the book to pull something, I can easily get re-absorbed in the book while I’m looking for which page had the exact thing I’m seeking.

    As with others, I’d love to hear more about how you process digital files and academic papers.


  33. I also like Maria Popova’s idea of keeping your own table of contents on the first blank pages of the book, to be able to quickly find your own notes back (and what they’re about).

  34. Anon says:

    Do you not take notes for personal reading as well?

  35. Tim says:

    Hi Cal, it’d be interesting if you’d start a book club on your site so that we can see what you read.

    My problem is that in books sometimes advice sounds good, but in reality it’s terrible (e.g follow your passion). If you were to give your thoughts on what you read and what you thought of it it’d make it easier to find good books.

    1. Amílcar says:

      The Book Club is a great idea!

  36. Jaycel Adkins says:


    How do you transfer your in-book notes to make use of them more efficiently?

    Index cards? Zettelkasen? DevonThink?


    Jaycel Adkins

    1. Micah Cobb says:

      Great question! I hope he answers it at some point. I have been trying to use a Zettelkasten implementation on my computer, but I get bogged down in whether that’s efficient or not. (What to include and what not, how long to make the notes, etc.)

  37. Nikolei says:

    This is fun. I would love to know what kind of books are you reading because I will be reading it too. Love your new book btw.

  38. Akram Ahmad says:

    – This essay is just plain awesome; I shudder to think that I nearly missed it, given that I, too, write, and enjoy doing so with relish. In fact, I remain inspired by some words from your sparkling book entitled How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out. I read it ages ago, but its themes, especially the one on Write as if Going for a Pulitzer continue to resonate with me 🙂

    – I can’t help but think back to a write-up that I had shared (here) several years ago, and which had a very familiar name leading the list of the Top Thought Leaders to Follow

    1. Akram Ahmad says:

      I had intended to revisit this essay and remark on my delight at seeing  Anthony Storr’s 1988 classic Solitude sitting atop the stack of books in the pleasing pic accompanying this essay. No doubt, this classic has aged gracefully and amazingly well.

  39. Hayley Vu says:

    I love the idea of the project you’re working on. I can see and feel the harm of smartphones to myself and to my communities.

  40. Kostas says:

    It is interesting that educated people still read books in paper format. I have stopped reading paper books when iPad came out. Initially I was missing the pen-paper annotation, but after getting an iPad pro with pencil, I have all the advantages of digital books (portability, no need for special lighting conditions etc) and paper books (direct annotation, format that enhances photographic memory).

    I would be curious to hear how other people use their e-devices for studying.

  41. Akhilesh says:

    Thanks Cal!

  42. saif says:

    Please do write on how to write great research thesis for Phd …

  43. Tomer Ben David says:

    What do you think of reading ebooks over mobile phone?

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