4 Highlighting and Taking Notes

Everyone mines every book for the things that are useful to him, especially [books that are] rich and complex. (Italo Calvino, 1923-1985)

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…
(Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862).

You’ll notice that in the chapter title, I use the words “Taking Notes” rather than what I typically say, Making Notes. This is not accidental. There is something we do that it seems appropriate to call note-taking. This is what we do when we write down what a lecturer is saying in a class, or a speaker in a meeting. Or when we jot down a couple of ideas we want to remember from a podcast or video or article. These are notes and ideas we’ve taken from another source. When we make our own Source and Point notes, we are beginning to form ideas of our own. So it’s appropriate to call this first stage of just jotting something down note-taking — but then let’s give ourselves credit as makers.

Both of the quotes above are basically talking about the same thing. Everything we read and everything we experience is valuable material for our minds. You may have heard pundits say in recent years America has shifted from being primarily busy making things and has become an information economy. More Americans than ever before have become “knowledge workers”. What we’re talking about here, thinking about texts or experiences and turning them into insights, definitely qualifies as knowledge work.

Let’s examine these quotes a bit more closely. Calvino uses the metaphor of mining, suggesting that we dig beneath the surface of things, to find the iron ore that will become steel girders supporting our structures of interpretation. And Thoreau — can you believe he only lived to be 45? He wanted to suck the marrow out of life, like a hunter-gatherer intent on getting all the nutrition out of his prey. Or like a modern-day chef, who roasts and breaks large bones and then boils them for stock because that’s where the flavor is.

These are useful metaphors. We can imagine mining the information we encounter, following veins and seams underground, then smelting and refining the ore into useful metals. Occasionally we might come across gems that are nearly perfect when we discover them, perhaps needing only a bit of cutting and setting to reveal their beauty. But mostly the work involves patience and effort, as we go through the steps of finding, collecting, refining, and concentrating information from a raw material into exactly what we need for our structure. Or, we can picture ourselves collecting bones, breaking and roasting them, and then boiling them for hours or days in a stock pot to release the nutritious and tasty marrow.

In both metaphors, the process takes time and effort. This is also accurate. You’ve no doubt heard the saying attributed to Thomas Edison, that “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Whether or not he was correct about the proportion, Edison’s point was a good one. People sometimes imagine that working with ideas is essentially different from other types of work; that knowledge workers are a special elite group (or believe themselves to be). In fact, working with ideas is just like any other type of work. It can be very exciting at times! It can often also be very routine and repetitive. But much of the value and most of the inspiration (whether it’s 1% or 10% or more) comes directly from that less exciting, more work-like part.

When we’re working with ideas, the information we are processing is just a basic raw material. We apply techniques and use tools to turn this raw material into something useful and valuable to our purpose. The techniques and tools we’re going to discuss in this section on note-making are focused mostly on texts, but they can be applied to ideas that come to you from discussion, listening to lectures, experiment, or life experience.

The first step in creating new knowledge and reporting on it, is finding sources and learning from texts. As I’ve mentioned, there are several ways to approach a text, depending on what you are hoping to get from it. First, you might find yourself assigned to read something you know nothing about. Second, you might choose to read a text because it has been recommended or cited by someone else. Third, you might be reading with a specific question in mind. We will discuss the details of these reading process as we continue this section. For now, a few observations:


  1. The way you are going to engage with a text depends on what you are hoping to learn from it. If you are looking for a particular piece of data to answer a specific question, then you are probably going to read much more quickly and with that goal in mind. This is what Calvino was saying above, about everyone mining the book for what’s useful to them. If it’s a large text, you may be searching for a needle in a haystack. You won’t be paying much attention to each individual stalk of straw, since you’ll be focused on finding your needle.
  2. This type of hyper-focus is a lot different from the type of openness to the author’s intentions that you might want to try to practice, if you were reading a novel for a literature class. Although it is probably impossible for readers to make themselves into completely “blank slates”, bringing absolutely no expectations or preconceptions to a text, there are times when it is helpful to try to be as open to surprise as possible and let an author tell their story or make their argument or offer their interpretation without prejudgment.
  3. I am not implying that openness is something you need more with literature and focus should be reserved for non-fiction. There will be times in both genres when it will be appropriate to approach a text with a specific question in mind, and other times when a better strategy will be to let the text surprise you.

We read different texts for different reasons, regardless of the subject. It’s probably useful to know, however, that when we are hyper-focused and looking for that needle of data, we may be missing something else that might be valuable in the haystack. That’s not necessarily a problem — we’re usually not planning to burn the haystack after we find the needle. We can always return to see what else the author might have had to say about other topics. Some of them might be adjacent to the needle topic, others could take us in entirely different directions.

This is one of the cool things about engaging with other people’s ideas: often their interests are just a little different from ours, and can take us in directions we may not have anticipated. We’ll explore this idea more as we dig into some of the techniques and tools of note-taking in the rest of this section.

By now you’ve probably learned in an English class how authors use plot, imagery, symbolism, and allusion to express ideas and values in literature. We often forget that authors of nonfiction do this too, using pretty much the same set of language tools. This is how reporters write the news and historians tell stories. Even physicists, when they leave equations behind and try to describe their discoveries to the rest of us in plain English, find themselves employing analogies, metaphors, and the other language tools we all use. Writing an interpretive essay uses these same language tools, so as you’re learning to recognize how different authors do it, remember that you’re going to be doing it too.

When you take notes on a lecture or a video, you’re beginning the writing process. Yes, if it’s for a class you’re recording information that might be on the exam. But you are also hearing an argument – the speaker isn’t just reciting some random set of facts off the top of her head. Most lectures are built around a central question or idea. If the lecturer doesn’t come right out and tell you what that is (clue: does the syllabus have lecture titles? Are they in the form of questions?), try to figure it out. If it doesn’t come to you in class, review your notes later and try to boil the lecture’s theme down to a sentence or two. If you’re really stumped, ask.

You’ll want to take notes when you read, too. You’ve already learned how most writers work: how they generally organize arguments, how they generally use setting and point of view to create atmosphere and mood; how they generally present narrators and characters to engage problems, etc. These are valuable clues to help you begin determining what a text might “mean” – in general. Your task is to analyze them in the specific context of the particular text you are reading and interpret how they make that contraption work. You might find once you get used to it, that such active reading doesn’t diminish, but actually increases the pleasure you get from the text.

As you read or listen, your highlights or rough notes should explore both the “facts” in the text (who did what, when, where, how, and, if indicated, why?) and what the facts might suggest. But don’t be too surprised if “facts” and “interpretations” are sometimes difficult to distinguish. And there’s a reason why we discuss these texts in groups, rather than each pondering them on our own. We’re all looking for the “truth” of our subject, whether it is a non-fiction article or a novel. As Franz Kafka noted in his diary, “one person cannot express the truth, but a host of perspectives might come close to this goal.”

I usually tell my students that discussions go more smoothly and productively if they have already read the assignment and begun a dialogue with the text before they come to class. That used to mean underlining or highlighting interesting passages and writing a few questions and comments in the margins of a book. More recently I’ve discovered that more active measures such as writing down their thoughts after reading help students remember much more than just highlighting. The effort involved in writing a note in their own words, which instructional designers like to call a “desirable difficulty” helps shift the idea from short-term to long-term memory (this is the same reason many note-makers are shifting back to hand-writing on cards rather than depending on automated apps). I’ve found that if students have written some notes and thoughts about a reading, they arrive in class as an active member of an exploratory party and not as a passive fellow traveler, just along for the ride.

So how much and what should you highlight, when you begin to work with a text? How much can vary widely, based on what and why you are reading. Generally, though, it’s a good rule of thumb to shoot for orders of magnitude. Try to highlight at most about ten percent of a text. Then try to write ten Source Notes based on each hundred of the most interesting highlights. Then try to write just one or two Point Notes for each ten Source Notes.

But what should you be highlighting? Begin with anything at all that you’re not sure about, that you don’t understand, that you’d like explained. Start with basic questions that clarify facts, then move on to interpretations. Compare the reading with other readings you’ve done, or with lecture and discussion notes. Add questions that reflect your interests and concerns – they’re usually the issues that lead to good discussions and essays.

Here are some questions you might want to answer for yourself as you read, divided between fiction and nonfiction. Use what fits:

For Fiction (mostly)

  • If it’s a narrative, who is telling the story? Is the narrator reliable? Unreliable? Biased? Recognizing the narrator’s point of view will help you evaluate the “facts” of the story.
  • What is the setting and tone? What are you allowed to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, and feel – both physically and emotionally? Is there a sense of comedy, tragedy, irony?
  • Who are the major and minor characters? What are their concerns? What motivates them?Who are you supposed to identify with?
  • What kind of language is being used? What level of diction? What might that indicate?
  • How is the plot structured? How are the issues and problems organized? Are there challenges and responses? Is there a recognizable archetype (hero’s journey, classical tragedy, etc.)?
  • What images and motifs recur? What kinds of terms, images, patterns are repeated? Can you recognize metaphors? To what do they point?
  • How does it end? What is resolved? What is the significance of the ending? Why does it end where it does?

For Non-fiction (mostly)

  • Who is the author? What is the author’s background? Is the author qualified to be the authority on the material in the piece?
  • Who is the original audience for the text? How does the author feel about the audience? Are they allies? Opponents? Neutral readers the author is trying to convince of something?
  • What is the author’s intention? Is the text explanatory? Polemical? Celebratory? Why was it written?
  • How is the argument structured? Does the author appeal to logic or emotion? What type of argument does the author use?

Fiction and non-fiction texts are generally built around narrative and argument (although, often, narrative can be a sneaky form of argument). Most readers are familiar with the basic forms of arguments described by Aristotle (384-322 BCE), the student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. Aristotle recognized logical syllogisms as the most powerful types of arguments. A series of agreed-upon premises leads to an irrefutable conclusion.

Unfortunately, most of the time we don’t have the advantage of being able to argue from premises that are incontrovertible facts. Sometimes an author’s job is to show her readers new facts in order to lead them to a conclusion. Other times, what we’re really arguing about is the truth of our premises. We live in a world of uncertainty, after all. So many of our arguments are based on premises that are tentative, leading to probable rather than absolute conclusions. Sometimes authors go to great lengths to pretend their premises are sound and their conclusions irrefutable. It’s our job as readers to come to our own conclusions.

This may all seem ridiculously abstract. We don’t spend much time these days, taking apart the way we think and looking at the parts. But when a political leader makes a claim such as “Markets should be unregulated,” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, there’s a trail of argument supporting that statement. If you want to understand (or challenge) the claim, the best place to look is at the premises that lead to that conclusion.

The form of argument we’ve been discussing is called deduction. It builds from accepted facts to a specific conclusion. There are two other forms authors use frequently. Induction goes more or less in the opposite direction, starting with observations or evidence (like data in a scientific experiment) and ending with a general conclusion. Since in the real world we never have a chance to look at all the data, these conclusions are always, by definition, tentative. But in life we often take inductive ideas as facts. We know what’s going to happen when we throw a ball, not because we’ve studied physics and calculus, but because we’ve done it before and experienced the results. Even so, careful scientists still talk about the theory of evolution. They don’t do this because scientists aren’t convinced that evolution is correct, but because there’s always the possibility that new evidence will be found that will require them to adjust the theory. The point is, inductive reasoning is supposed to follow where the data leads it.

Aristotle actually identified a third form of argument that may surprise you: narrative. Historian Hayden White defined history as a verbal artifact that we use to “combine a certain amount of data, theoretical concepts for explaining these data, and a narrative structure for their presentation.” Stories and anecdotes persuade us because we identify with the people and situations described. A good story can even sometimes take the place of data (induction) or even agreed-on facts (deduction) in an argument. The most powerful stories can reach past the logical appeal to reason, bringing the emotions of the audience into play. Fear, pride, contentment, resentment, love, and moral outrage are all powerful elements of argument, so it’s important to be able to recognize whether a writer is appealing to reason or to emotion. And then to ask why.


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