These exercises use the example of highlighting this handbook, making notes on what you read here, and turning those notes into a book review. The exercises assume you are taking notes on cards. You can emulate this process in a digital tool if you really want to, although I’d suggest beginning with paper and then adapting the processes to digital once you have the hang of them. You are free to pick another book to apply these exercises to processing. If you do choose to write a review describing your impressions of this book, feel free to send it to me! I’d be curious to see what you thought worked well and what might need another look. You can reach me at danallosso@icloud.com. 

Exercise 1: Highlight

Use a writing implement or highlighter (if you’re reading this in a paper format) or the highlight tool (if you’re reading a pdf or e-book version) to mark the passages that jumped out at you as you were reading. Things you might want to highlight:

  • Anything you didn’t understand or wanted to get more information about,
  • Something you want to remember,
  • Something you agree or disagree with strongly

These highlights will later become the basis of your Source Notes. You want to include enough so you’ll be able to accurately paraphrase and summarize the parts that interested you. But you don’t want to overdo it. Usually 10% or 20% of the text is appropriate, if you’re looking for main points or particularly interesting bits of evidence in the text (although it’s always possible you’ll occasionally run into an especially rich source and want to preserve more of it).

Exercise 2: Make Source Notes

Review your highlights. Pick the ones that still interest you. On a note card (or the digital equivalent of a card, if you’re using an app) write a summary of the point made in the highlighted passage. Paraphrase rather than quoting, unless the passage contains something you’re sure you are going to quote directly in your output. Even so, ALSO paraphrase the passage you quoted, to explain the point in your own words.

Consider how the point you have just summarized relates to your own interests or question or project? Give the card a short (ideally one-word) name that encapsulates the thought you have just recorded. This is the keyword that you think best explains the idea.

If you are working in a physical note system, add an Index entry and file it alphabetically in the Index.

Finally, thinking about the trains of thought already contained in your note system, decide where this new note will fit. The new idea should relate to the idea you pair it to, as a confirmation, counterpoint, modification, etc. Give the new note a number following the note you’re attaching it to. For example, if the previous note was 1234, the new one will be 12345. If there is already a 12345, the new note follow you insert behind 1234 will be 1234a. Alternating letters and numbers will allow you to create an infinite number of branches, if necessary. Make a note of the card number on the Index card for the appropriate keyword (make a new Index card if you don’t have one yet for that keyword).

These notes will be evidence to support your interpretations and arguments, which you will record on Point Notes. Relative to your highlights, you should once again be reducing the number of Source Notes you’re taking the trouble to write, picking those you are reasonably sure will be useful on a particular question or project. You can always return to the source when you have a new question. Don’t collect ideas you don’t need right now, just for the sake of it.

Exercise 3: Make Point Notes

This is where you are going to start recording your interpretations of the sources you’ve digested. The reason I called them “Point Notes” rather than Permanent or Main or Interpretive, was to remind myself that the purpose of them is to help me shift from recording and commenting on new facts I learn, to making my own points. These points can become topic sentences for paragraphs or even, if I continue to elaborate on them, thesis statements for projects.

Point Notes should also be numbered in the same scheme as the Source Notes, since the two will interact with each other. The evidence and data on Source Notes will feed your formulation of your points, and then will support those points when you present them in output. Look at your Source Notes. Think about the implications of the information you have found for your project or question. Compare the ideas on different notes. Write down your thoughts and then, as you did on the Source Notes, add a keyword that best describes the thought on the card and a note ID number that follows the number of the note the new note will follow.

Exercise 4: Outline

This is where you get to see the payoff, when your notes come together to create a structure for output. In this case, review your Point Notes and arrange them into an argument about the book you read. Support your points using the Source Notes that led to them, and the citations from the text those were based upon.

Your outline can be as simple as a series of keywords and note IDs. That is basically what my outline for this book looked like. Then, as I was writing, I transcribed the points and source data, composing and then editing it so the argument flowed from one point to the next. Occasionally I’d have an additional thought as I was writing; I’d add it to the draft and write a new note about it. I think it worked out fairly well!

You will probably find that you have more than enough to say about the book, if you have worked through each of the exercises above. This is how an effective note system prepares you to create output. Often a concentration of notes on a particular topic will alert you that it’s time to write some output. How cool is that? Rather than struggling to find a topic and something to say about it, you will be able to take advantage of the work you have already done as you read and processed new information.


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