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Analog note-taking when highlighting is not possible (e.g. books)

Anybody who follows me on Twitter or reads my blog knows that I have quite a healthy stock of stationery. I have always loved stationery and office supplies. I love taking notes by hand, and this reflects in my methods for note-taking, active reading and writing.

Note-taking in the Everything Notebook

Recently, a relatively new follower of my blog and Twitter stream asked me a question (I am paraphrasing here):

How do you take notes when you cannot highlight?

I am assuming that people who ask me this are referring to note-taking of books. Personally, I don’t mark up my books, and obviously I am extremely careful with those from the library, so I interpreted this student’s question in this way.

In this blog post, I explain my method, integrating my Twitter thread with some additional thoughts.

… may or may not work in the same way.

Since I prefer analog systems and do not mark books up, here are a few ways in which I take notes that still retain some of the characteristics of my strategies for printed materials.




Obviously, as you can imagine, I’ve written a lot about Note-Taking Techniques on my website’s Resources page. I list those below.

Obvious question you surely will have:

When should I write in my Everything Notebook or when should I use Cornell Notes, or when is a good time to use Index Cards?

Every single student of mine and every person who has ever attended my workshops asks me this question. I don’t have a universal answer, although I do have a few suggestions. As it always happens with techniques and methods for note-taking, active reading, annotating, writing, etc., we all develop our own heuristics for when we should use one method over the other.

Here are my heuristics:

  1. If what I am reading cannot be marked up (I don’t write nor highlight my books, nor any library’s books), I use physical (analog) media. You can, easily, take notes in other programs (Evernote, Notion, etc.) Personally, I find that I need the tactile sensation of handwriting.
  2. I usually write summaries and quotations drawn from books and book chapters in my Everything Notebook if they’re directly related to a research project I am doing at the moment, or if I am doing something VERY specific with them (for example, write a book review).

Now, let’s go to another question I often get asked:

Do you take notes in your Everything Notebook, or on Index Cards or Cornell Notes of ARTICLES that you actually highlighted and scribbled on? Glad you asked.

The answer is YES, I DO. Why do I do this? (apparently redundantly)

My methods work for me, adaptations of my methods work for my students and research assistants and colleagues and also for thousands of people around the globe, but the only person who can really tell if a technique I suggest will work for you is YOU.

Hopefully this blog post can answer people’s questions!

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Posted in academia, productivity, writing.

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