Some Thoughts on Writing in Books

Ever since I became a bibliophile a couple of years ago, I have heard the same advice about book reading over and over: you need to write in your books. But the question I always asked was: how? What do you do? I would attempt to take out a pen and underline a bunch of stuff and felt like I wasn’t doing anything. That is, until a couple of months ago. I read a book last year that gave the same advice and finally fed up, I took to the internet. I learned some things and with a combination of my own prowess and the things I learned, I came up with a really helpful system that has changed the way I read books. I thought I would present some of what I do in this post to help those out there who were like me and don’t really know where to start when it comes to writing in books.

A warning before we begin: I read mostly non-fiction so the pointers you find in here will be only helpful in that realm. Also, don’t feel constricted by this method. Feel free to take and leave whatever will help you most. This will be something that helps you get started and then you can refine the way you do it to be most helpful to yourself. I also think this is extremely helpful in retention. I have read John Stott’s “The Cross of Christ” 5 times but this year I took notes and the book took on an entirely new meaning. So all the advice that you’ve heard on writing in books: it’s true. All of it.

So let’s begin:

What you’ll need: a book, a pen (I prefer black ink), and a highlighter.

1) Underlining

Underlining is the bread and butter of my system. I do it frequently and without remorse. Remember that a paragraph structure consists of a topic sentence and then additional sentences to qualify that first sentence. In this way, I do a lot of underlining on key first sentences of a paragraph. I also underline whenever there is a list: I will underline each word in the list with it’s own line (so a broken straight line) to emphasize the different components of a list. Simply: underline anything that you want. If you like a sentence, underline it. There is a lot of room for your own creativity in underlining but a word of caution: you do not want to be so excessive that when you re-read your book, you won’t be able to read anything. In addition, this really needs to be done on a table or in your lap so your lines are not super sloppy. I’ve tried to do it on buses and it just doesn’t work.

2) Highlighting

Highlighting is more reserved for things that are really important or things that you want to remember. Whenever I highlight something, it is something I want to remember or something that I could see myself referencing in the future. It could be a really awesome quote or a statistic. Whatever it is, just make sure it is worthy enough to highlight. Highlighting paragraphs or sentences should be reserved for those things that you will eventually reference back to (more on this in a moment). In addition, I find myself highlighting numbers. So if an author says something like “There are three reasons for this.. First.. Second.. Third…” I will highlight the “three” and then “first, second and third”. I will also underline the qualifying reason that usually appears close to “first” etc. My goal is to highlight every couple of pages. But if there is something worthwhile on a string of pages, then obviously you’ll want to pull out your highlighter. Transversely, if there isn’t anything worth highlighting for several pages, then it would be best to keep your highlighter capped. I try not to get bogged down in how much I’m highlighting. Also a note: if the author is using an illustration, I’ll usually just note this in the margins instead of highlighting it. In order to do it justice, you’d have to highlight the whole narrative which doesn’t look good in your book and isn’t particularly helpful.

3) The Key

This is one of the most important parts of my system. Like I mentioned, highlighting is to be done only in cases that are REALLY important. Doing this however, is only good if you remember the page number that it’s on. So I came up with a “key” to help me remember where those important moments are. The key is listed often times in the front cover of the book I am reading. I number as I go and I include 3 elements: the number of how many references there are, the page number, the kind of quote it is, and a brief description of what it was I highlighted. Take a look at two different keys:

Under the “kind of quote” I denote a single letter for the kind. A Q is a quote that I liked. An S is a statistic. I also have stars based on things that I think are even more worthy that just highlighting. The more stars, the more important or interesting it is. An example of an entry would be this:

23) Q – 127 – Jesus’ death on the cross

This is a neat way of doing it because you can open up your book and quickly find important things that normally would take you minutes searching for. And you can come up with your own system of denoting what kind of symbols you want to use.

If the above is how the key looks, here is an example of how it looks on the page it was from:

Notice a couple of things: the highlighted parts are what’s really important, but you may notice underlines as well. I will often times finish an entire paragraph/page of underlining before I go back and highlight. The underline helps to emphasize what is important even in a large body of highlight. When I want to star something, I will usually bracket it to show where exactly I think the star should go. In this case, I thought pretty much the whole page was gold. One or two stars would denote much importance, but for me, three stars is pretty much as important as it gets. I must have thought this entire page was awesome!

One more note on the key: obviously this slows down reading a little bit because you have to highlight and turn all the way to the front of the book to write down your notes. Don’t be dismayed however: it goes much faster with practice. I also don’t necessarily go to the front after each time I’ve highlighted. I will wait until I finish a page. If the description could cover both pages, I will note that in my entry in the key. Take this for example:

45) Q – 167-8 – Substitutionary atonement

4) Paragraphs

As I said, often times paragraphs contain themes. You could either figure out themes, or you could write them out in the margins. I find this particularly helpful in lists. Take for consideration the following example:

Notice I bracket the paragraph in question and then write its purpose. This is helpful when you’re trying to find one particular thing on a page or two and need a quick reference.

Here is another example:

5) Notes in the margin

Writing out notes in the margin in always helpful, but only in cases where you are trying to emphasize something or disagree with a point. Take this for example:

Notice I’m agreeing with him here and I am merely just re-emphasizing the point in a different way. There is a lot of creativity and freedom in whatever you write. I try not to do too much unless I really disagree with what is being said or I want to summarize/ask questions.

6) End chapter notes

Sometimes I like to summarize the contents of the chapter at the end of the chapter. Granted, there has to be some space for this, but sometimes I find that it is helpful to summarize the entire chapter’s important points at the end. Look at this example:

The chapter was about the decline of Christianity. The author cites 5 reasons to as why this is. I summarize the 5 reasons at the end of the chapter. Take another example:

7) Question and answers

Sometimes authors ask questions that may or may not be rhetorical in the text. Then they flesh out the answer to that question later in the chapter. This is extremely prevalent in John Stott’s “The Cross of Christ” so I found it helpful to write a “Q” to the questions and an “A” in the answers. If the answers are later in the book, I’ll write the page number the answer is on. Check out this example:

So there you have it. I hope this was helpful!

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