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August 13th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Habits, Productivity


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The active reading is the best way to get a lot out of the time that we dedicate to read.  With active reading I mean to get more involved in our reading materials and to work about what we are reading at the same instant we are doing it. That will allow us, in one hand, to put in order and to internalize the central ideas of the book and, in the other hand, it will allow us to refresh what we have read in the past spending a few minutes instead of hours to read again the book or complete chapters of it.

Although the active reading is specially thought to be applied in educational books (those which try to taught us something), it can be and should be applied to any kind of reading material: poetry, novel, magazines, newspapers, etc. We can draw ideas and teachings from any kind of book or text. In fact, novels and poetry are an incredible source of creative ideas.

To adopt an active reading habit is easy, you solely have to apply these simple advice stated below in all you future readings.

1- You have to have a pencil in hand to underline and to take notes.

It is not indispensable a pencil, it could be a pen or a felt-tip pen, however I recommend a pencil because you can erase it and avoid to cover parts of the text and to spoil too much the book. It is a mistake to refuse to underline or to write on books to avoid spoil them and then keep them spotless, a big mistake that many people do. Books should not be only to decorate our house. Books are a tool that we use to improve oneself. With tools we work and, in this case, there is no better way to work on a book that underlining and writing on it. See how:

Use of the pencil while you are reading:

  • Underline the parts of the text that you think are important

With this we emphasize what we think useful and necessary information to us avoiding the irrelevant. I am talking about to underline only the useful information to us. It can be a phrase that summarize a central idea, or maybe a phrase that inspire us or, simply, something that we think it could be useful to us if we read it again in the future. The most important is to underline only necessary information and thus we have to avoid underlining too much text if it is not useful.

Advantages: (1) To underline what we read helps us to read again the text and to think about it because we have to determine if the text is important or not. That is way we improve our comprehension and internalize better the reading. (2) It allows us to optimize our time if we want in a future to brush up our past readings, since we only have to read the underlined text because we know is important or interesting for us. It will allow us to brush up the book in some minutes instead of spend a lot of hours.

  • To take notes

When you are reading something is the best moment to take notes about what you read, because is the moment when the brain is more prepared to do it due to it has the information fresh. The notes may be a summary or an idea suggested by the text. From the reading will emerge ideas but if we do not want lost them in the obscurity we have to annotate them.

Advantages: (1) When we take notes we have to think about what we have read and this ensures that we can internalize the important concepts of the text. (2) The notes will be very useful to brush up what we have read a while ago because we can identify quickly what content is interesting to us. It is like a summary of the underlined text. We could read again the essential of the book in just a few minutes. (3) We will can remember those ideas suggested by the reading of the text.

  • To mark the unknown words and write its meaning

This is especially useful when we read books in other language, but we may apply this advice also in books written in our own language because there will be always some unknown word or maybe a word that we do not completely understand and we need to know its specific meaning. When I find an unknown word or a word that I need to know its precise meaning I make a signal on the top of this word with the number 1, 2, 3. . . etc. depending on its order, that is, the first word marked in the page is the 1, the following would be the 2, and so on. Then I make a margin note on the upper or lower margin, and then I write the corresponding number to the word followed by its meaning explained in a few words.

Advantages: (1) To write its meaning helps you to internalize it. (2) When you read again the text and see again that word, it is possible you have forgotten its meaning, but you will not have to waste time looking it up in the dictionary because it will be written in the same page of the text. It is important to write the meaning in the same page of the text to avoid look the word up in other source and also because you will have the word in its context.


Photo by: Timetrax23


This advice, that is, to underline and to take notes has one problem: you can only apply it if the reading material is yours.


What can we do if we have a library book or a book from a friend?

If the book is not of ours by respect we cannot write on it. Nevertheless it does not mean that we cannot make an active reading as I have proposed here. When I read a library or a friend book I always have some sheets of paper and a pen. Then I write on the sheet, in a summarized way, the central ideas of the book and also the ideas emerged while reading the text.

It is also important to have some system that allows you to identify in which part of the book is developed the annotation made on the sheet, whether it is marking the page where you find it, the chapter, etc. The ideal system for me is to write headings and subheadings indicating the chapter where you found the annotations and then write below all what you extract from the text of that chapter. This is the best way to find quickly where you get the annotation and it also allows you find the topic without have to look it up in the book, because the heading is in the sheet of paper.

The amount of sheet needed to put the ideas of the book will depend on how the book is, its pages and the substance of its content. To give you an idea, from a self-help book with 200 pages I am used to fill more or less 5 or 6 pages front and back. The key is only to put the essential or what we think will be useful for us in a future, and then may brush up the essential and the important content of a book (or any other reading material). It is recommended to do not have the sheets scattered, I advice you to number them, to group all of them and to write the heading of the book on the top of the first sheet. Finally, we have to have all book summaries and any notes of each book put all together, to avoid lost them.

It is curious how this advice, something so simple and easy to do, may mean such important improvement of the comprehension of a text and to make the most of your time. Nevertheless, it is very rare to see people in the subway underlining books or reflecting on what they read. They just read, without internalize concepts nor finding and developing new ideas. I deeply regret not applying the active reading in a lot of books read by me. If somebody would ask me something about these books I could not say almost anything interesting about its content, and also if I would want to brush up on these books I would have to read them all again.

If you put in practice these simple advice and adopt a habit of active reading in all your reading materials you will find a lot of advantages. As time goes by you will not conceive to read without a pencil in hand.

Written by: David Cantone

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Ben LumleyNo Gravatar

    David – what a great post!

    I’m always trying to do this but I also apply similar techniques to when I’m watching video or documentaries. I recently watched a talk given by Seth Godin to some folks at Google about marketing and I took notes thtough the whole thing.

    Would you advise the same technique with reading online content, like reading this post?
    .-= Ben Lumley´s last blog ..Hack Your Environment: How to Declutter and Save Yourself From Going Crazy =-.

    • David | ilcantone.comNo Gravatar

      Hi Ben,

      I don’t apply these techniques to videos or documentaries because I prefer to see the video without annoying pauses and distractions. But you are probably right, you can apply them to videos as well, and make the most of your “watching” :D .

      Did you see the video about tribes by Seth Godin?

      About your question: I think so, but it’s not the same. To my way of thinking there are three options: (1) You can apply these techniques using a word processor (like microsoft word); (2) you can use a pen/pencil and paper; and (3), you can print the post and then apply the techniques. I prefer to use the third option because I can’t be too much time reading on a computer screen.

      See you Ben.

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