Do you know the feeling of remembering nothing from books you read weeks or months ago?
Most people are in this boat if they even read. Luckily, the solution I have found comes in the mystical art of... highlighting. Catchy, I know.
Most people have a love-hate relationship with highlighting. 80% of high school students use it to highlight important terms from textbooks to study for exams. This is a terrible way of studying.
As soon as these students hit college, they realize their unfortunate mistake when they get a less than ideal grade on their first test. This gives highlighting a bad taste in many people's mouths.
The highlighting we will be doing is entirely different. Instead of highlighting in isolation and calling it a day, we will be combing highlighting with annotation to get the best of both worlds.
For those who don't know, annotations are simply notes of explanation or comments added to a text or diagram. You write them in your unique voice either inside a highlight on a digital device or in the margins of a physical book.
Let's go over some of the highlighting benefits people often overlook.
- Highlighting keeps you more alert as you actively engage with the text. Less falling asleep.
- To know what to highlight, you need to understand where the meat of the text is. This takes practice but will lead to tons of saved time when you go through those highlights later on.
- Highlighting brings an analytical understanding of a text by enabling you to indicate how a book is structured.
- The main advantage of highlighting is the time it will save later on. Instead of going through the entire reading again after coming back, you can read over your highlights and get the big picture right away.
- This is especially useful if you have a mountain of reading for classes in college. There is no possible way you can read everything. Instead, you have to resort to highlights to indicate the bigger picture.
As mentioned earlier, highlighting becomes useful when combined with annotation. But how do we choose what to highlight and annotate?
📖The SQ3R Framework
Inspectional, Analytical, and Synoptical provide an excellent basis for some reading questions we can answer in our annotations. Still, it's daunting for many people when they start a reading habit.
Questions like "what is the author saying in whole or in part? and "what are the propositions?" are hard to grasp at a beginner level of reading.
If you don't know what the four levels of reading are, check out my video book summary of How to Read by Mortimer J. Adler.
This is why I often compliment the reading levels with a more simple framework. It's called the SQ3R framework.
The SQ3R framework is a systematic method designed for studying a textbook. Developed by Francis P. Robinson, a psychologist from Ohio State University, the SQ3R is an effective reading system many students have successfully used.
It operates on a series of five steps:
SURVEY: Glance over the headings in the chapter to see the few big points that will be developed. If the book has one, read the final summary.
QUESTION: Turn the first heading into a question. Your purpose while reading the chapter is to answer that question.
READ: Read to answer that question. This is not a passive plodding but an active search for the answer.
RECITE: Having read a section, look away from the book and try to recite the answer to the question in your own words. If you can't do this, glance over the section again. Repeat these four steps for each section.
REVIEW: When the entire lesson is read, look over it to get a birds' eye view of the lesson as a whole. Under each heading, try and recite the major subpoints.
More observant readers will have noticed that the steps of the SQ3R framework are very similar to that of the inspectional reading and analytical reading stages from How to Read.
The survey section is superficial reading. The Question, Read, Recite, and Review steps combine many of the questions asked in the analytical reading level to increase reading comprehension.
What purpose is your reading session?
How you highlight or annotate will change depending on your purpose for a reading session.
Reading to inform
If you are reading to inform, you don't need to spend time highlighting or annotating text. You are only trying to get a broad picture. You aren't ever going to delve deep into the text.
Reading to inspect
Similarly, in the case of inspectional reading, you don't have to spend time highlighting or annotating as you are only trying to decide if the book is worth a deeper reading in the first place.
Reading for fun
A large portion of reading is reading to entertain. Most of my fiction/sci-fi/fantasy reading falls into this category. In this case, it's up to you if you highlight or take notes. Unless you are a book reviewer, I see no reason to take extensive notes for this kind of reading.
Reading to understand
This is the category I spend most of my reading. Generally, if I'm reading a nonfiction book, I want to delve into a topic I'm interested in. This doesn't mean you can't read nonfiction books to entertain, but it's not as common.
This is where the true power of highlighting combined with annotating comes in. Many things fall into this category:
- Reading for class
- Reading for non-fiction to learn more about a topic
- Reading for a discussion later on
Reading to create
This is the ultimate level of comprehension and understanding. Creating something out of your reading is the best way to engage with it on the deepest level.
Because I create so much content online on my blogging website, email newsletter, YouTube channel, and now courses, I often will read something I know I want to create something out of in the future.
At this level, you still highlight and annotate like while reading to understand. Most of the time, when I read, I'm reading because the it interests me. It might be created into something later down the line, and it might not.
If I know I will create something out of it, however, I don't want to give readers a false idea of what the book is like. I want to paint a comprehensive picture.
This means I will sometimes highlight things that I already know so when I create something out of it later, I won't forget to explain the concept to my readers.
Reading to create is especially useful for writing a research paper. Your highlights and annotations will provide incredible insight into the main parts of a source for your paper. In addition, your annotations can be used to develop topic questions.
Whew. That was a lengthy exposition. But important.
We can finally get into some principle tips for highlighting and annotating.
🟨Principle tips for highlighting
Choosing what to highlight is quite simple; highlight what interests you. Anything you come across that makes you go, "Woah," should be immediately highlighted.
Generally, this means I don't highlight things I already know from other books if they get mentioned again; they don't "Woah" me anymore. Also, if I hear Pavlov's dogs referenced one more time in a psychology book, I am going to take my peanut butter and sma-
Forget I said that.
I like to highlight exciting ideas or insights in yellow, studies in pink, and anecdotes in blue. This makes it easier to tell what something is later down the line.
We will discuss later how to use a notetaking system to skyrocket your reading insights but for now, know that these colored highlights will help you later on.
For 80% of your reading, highlighting in this way works wonderfully. This process is a self behavior as your future self will reflect on the things your reading self finds interesting when coming back across your highlights later on. If your future self isn't interested in your highlights, you can take that into account the next time you go to read something.
Over time, you will understand what parts of a text interest you and want to save later. Don't worry if you don't get it perfect the first few times.
🗒️Principle tips for annotations
Annotating combined with highlighting changes the reading game. If you have a consistent reading habit, you are already in the top 99% of the people in the world. If you have this alongside an active reading protocol through annotating and highlighting, you are in the top 99.99% of people in the world.
Like with highlighting, there is a lot of personal preference in how you annotate.
Here are some guidelines I follow while annotating you might consider implementing in your reading practice:
Answer the questions from How to Read and the SQ3R framework
Use the questions from the four levels of reading and the SQ3R framework by answering them with your annotations.
Summarize large sections
There are many times when I read a section by an author and think, "wow, they could have said that way more concisely." When this happens, I highlight the entire series of paragraphs and summarize it in my own words.
My future self thanks me when I don't have to read the entire thing over again for understanding down the line.
Recontextualize the information
If you need to, recontextualize the information for your future self in the annotation. Sometimes highlights make no sense if read in isolation. This is because they have been taken out of the context in the specific chapter and subheading of the book.
When these highlights pop up in Readwise later on, you will bash your past self for not being more mindful. It's your past self's job to add the necessary background information so your future self will understand it.
Describe the context the highlight is embedded in a couple of sentences through an annotation. Define a term your future self won't know.
Highlight to indicate the structure of a book
At any reading level, whether it be a chapter, paragraph, or entire book, there are usually main points followed by supporting evidence and a conclusion.
One method of highlighting could be to highlight the main points, one type of color, and supporting evidence with another color. This would be especially helpful if you are doing textual analysis or reviewing an essay.
There are no "right" ways to highlight and annotate; only the ways that works for you.
Connect to relevant information
One of the main ways our brain stores things in long-term memory is through the process of elaboration. Elaboration is the art of connecting past knowledge with things you are learning right now.
If you read a passage and it relates to something you have already learned, one option would be to mention it in your annotation.
If you ever create a book summary, this will make it easier for your writing self to find outside information to bring in as a personal touch.
Connect to a personal anecdote
Write down a story of your own life that reflects the idea talked about in the highlighted passage. One of the reading benefits we talked about at the beginning of the course was better conversations with others.
Telling stories relevant to the books you are reading is a great conversation topic. It's easier to bring up those stories if you write them down for reference later on.
In addition, if you are an avid writer and like creating book summaries, this will make it easier for your writing self, later on, to find stories to include in your essay.
Make your future self laugh
Write down something funny! Maybe the passage reminded you of something stupid you did as a kid. It will be gold later on when you come across the annotation again.
Some of my greatest laughs have been from my past self interacting with my future. I have literally fallen on the floor crying for entire minutes after reading comments from my past self.
Important Readwise C.S.
Readwise has some amazing C.S. features in the app you can use while annotating. For anyone not taking computer science, this is technology speak for code which will cause different effects when the highlight gets sent to Readwise.
The Readwise team has released many articles on the best code to use while annotating.
They allow you to do some cool things like combine highlights. You can also make it, so your highlights pop up under their section, chapter, and subheadings indicated with some unique code.
I recommend reading all of the Readwise blog posts. They are all insightful and will broaden your perspective on the possibilities Readwise opens up for you while reading.
Don't be a perfectionist
Highlighting and annotating effectively is not an easy task; it shouldn't be. Active reading is called active for that exact reason. But reading in this way will make you get more out of your books than you could ever imagine.
To make the learning process more smooth, don't be a perfectionist. Perfectionism is one of the worst qualities you can have. It keeps too many from pursuing their dreams because they get caught up in tiny details.
Give yourself some slack. Start slow. Soon enough, highlighting and annotating will come as naturally to you as breathing.
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