Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How I Take Notes

Today several of my WEM friends and I are sharing how we take notes. If you find taking notes challenging, let me encourage you to visit each of them! You will find all the links at the bottom of this post.

When I first started my journey through The Well Educated Mind reading lists, I really had no idea how to take good notes. Early on, I tried using spiral bound notebooks for WEM journals, but I could never decide what I should write down. (And then there was the whole matter of finding the journal when I needed it -- spiral notebooks and  # 2 Ticonderoga pencils tend to disappear rather quickly around my house!)

Though I now follow some of Susan Wise Bauer's good advice for note taking in WEM, I've finally developed a system that feels meaningful to me. I'm not reading through the classics to pass a test -- I'm reading to experience and grow. My process has gradually evolved into something I enjoy. I hope my examples may inspire you to take notes in a way that gives your reading more meaning!

Confessions of St. Augustine
The first few books I read from the WEM list were autobiographies. I crawled through them and did little more than underline stuff that appealed to me, though I wasn't always sure why.

I knew I should be writing short summaries when I finished each chapter, but I didn't develop that discipline right away.

Halfway through Moby-Dick, I remembered that Montaigne wrote his summaries directly in his books. This tip was perfect for me. Maybe Montaigne was a bit scatterbrained too.

The Essays of Montaigne
To help my defective and treacherous memory a little -- and it is so extremely bad that I have more than once happened to pick up again, thinking it new and unknown to me, a book which I had carefully read several years earlier and scribbled all over with notes -- I have for some time now adopted the practice of adding at the end of each book . . . the date when I finished reading it and the general judgement I drew from it, in order to show me again at least the general idea and impression I had conceived of the author when reading it.
Michel de Montaigne

I now write a short summary at the end of each chapter I read. This really helps when I'm trying to find something later or if I lose my place.

Anna Karenina 
Often my chapter summary is just one sentence.


Writing the date and time I finish a WEM novel feels like a special ceremony!

Anna Karenina
For all of the wonderful insights and amusing tid-bits I come across -- I make lists.

I dearly love to make lists!

I feel like my lists are my own special collections. I will share some of the types of lists I keep, but they change somewhat with each book I read. The themes you choose to collect may be totally different from mine. Whenever I find something that fits into a category I've made, I follow the following procedure:

1. Mark it by underlining or circling.

2. Write the name of the category in the margin near the marked portion.

3. Write the page number under the column I've made for the specified category in the back of my book.

Back cover from The Portrait of a Lady

Here are some of the catagories of lists I keep in most books now:

BIBLE: I'm always on the look out for themes to use in my Classics and the Bible posts.

SIMILES and METAPHORS: Just because they're fun.

WHAT DOES SHE/HE WANT: In the case of Isabel Archer, the protagonist in The Portrait of a Lady, this list surpassed all else.

GOOD QUOTES: If I like it and I don't know where to else to put it, it goes here. Occasionally I see a dominate theme emerge in this category and I have to start a new list.

I CAN RELATE: I don't always share these in blog posts. Sometimes they are just too personal. As far as my inward growth goes, this is usually where it's happening.

BLINK: This is my absolute favorite theme of all. In real life I constantly challenge myself to observe facial micro-expressions and body language. My husband thinks I'm gifted with this, but I think I've just practiced it for a long time. Anyway, I'm convinced that the writers of the classics could read micro-expressions and body language quite well. Nearly every WEM book I've read so far has been laden with descriptions of them. Sometimes what flashes across a character's face is even critical to the plot.

FORESHADOWING: Again, just because it's fun. If I had been keeping lists for Moby-Dick, this list might have been the longest.

TOUCHING: If it makes me cry or even puts a lump in my throat, it goes here.

I've also noticed that each book has a special something that takes over. On the first read you may not know for sure what it is until page 40 or 50, but something always rises to the surface. Here are some examples:

In Madame Bovary, it was the landscape descriptions. I had a hard time focusing on the plot because I was positively swept away by how Flaubert described the earth.

In Moby-Dick it was the foreshadowing.

In Anna Karenina it was the classic signals of conscience: blushing, flushing, reddening, and crimsoning.

In Uncle Tom's Cabin it was sermonizing.

In addition to keeping lists I also try to pin point a few key things such as: 

What is the inciting incident?

What is the climax?

What is the author's argument?

Why did the author write this book? 

What does the author want me to believe?

Am I convinced?

What does the author want me to experience?

I hope this was helpful! 

Now I'm looking forward to finding out new ways I can improve my system by learning from my fellow WEM bloggers today!*

For more ideas on taking notes visit:

And dear readers, if you have any tips for taking notes please share them in the comments section! :)

* I've published my post early so if all the posts aren't up yet they will be soon!


  1. Oh, wow! We do some of the same, as far as writing whole sentences at the end of chapters. I had no idea. But I never considered using my back cover to the point of it falling off!!! That is hysterical.

    Well, I certainly commend you for the amount of collection of information that you do. I seriously am realizing that I do not do 1/10th of the in depth analysis as I should.

    I am really glad that we did this post b/c it is forcing me to admit my deficiencies.

    1. Deficiencies? Nonsense. We are all different women who are approaching this mammoth task in different ways. We have much to learn from each other!

      If we could visit in person, I would ask to see your system! It means SO much to me that you were willing to share. :)

      P.S. The back cover falling off of POAL was a liberating moment for me since I've spent the greater part of my life protecting my books from the tiniest crinkle. SWB's tip about using cheap paperback copies was perfect.

  2. Oh I loooooove this post! I found that note-taking is so important to me - it's what helps me make connections and understand deeply. I developed a little system for the reading I do on the subway: I use a sheet of 5x8 paper as a bookmark. When I find something I like I underline then copy it on to the sheet with my thoughts. The paper I use also has a sidebar which I use to summarize my notes and add next steps.

    I love your lists! Really inspiring. It reminds me a bit of a note-taking strategy I learned in college for theses and other big research projects. You use an index card with the title at the top, page/edition on the left, subject/theme on the right. The body of the card gets the quote and your thoughts go on the back. I think I may revive that.

    Thanks for this excellent blog post!

    1. Well, I'm glad you came by Delphine! Thank you for sharing your tips. Great ideas! :)

  3. I tell jurors that they can take notes during trial if they want but not to feel like they have to, recognizing that for some people it helps them process what they are receiving and for others it's a major distraction. I take notes during trial too, but rarely ever go back to read them over, It's just a thought process thing for me as the evidence is coming in.

    The only time I take notes on my reading is when I know I am going to have to present it later, like if I am doing a book review or something. Otherwise, no notes for me. (One bonus, I suppose, is if I don't remember that much from the first read through then I can be surprised all over again by reading something but not remembering it!)


    1. Interesting, Tim. I imagine if I'm ever called for jury duty I would be the note taker type.

      "The only time I take notes on my reading is when I know I am going to have to present it later..."

      Yes, me too. But since I've started blogging, I've found pretty much everything I read to be potential material for a post! I need to make a point of reading something in a completely carefree manner soon. (Though if I don't have my pencil in hand, I feel panicky.)

  4. Oh wow, you are good! Those are some great habits, and I think I should pick a few of them up. Although I use so many library books, I can't scribble in them usually. Thanks for a great post! (And the invitation!) :)

    1. Thank you for participating, Jean! It's been fun. :)

      Ah yes, library books. I used to come home with a heavy stack of library books every week. The library was my haven. I now purchase inexpensive paper backs for WEM and download Kindle deals for modern side reading. [sniff, sniff] I need to make a point of going into town soon to just meander up and down the aisles . . .

      BTW, how is the effort to save one of your local libraries coming? Or was it a book store?

  5. I love your idea of making the theme-lists and adding the time and date of finishing the novels. I have tried to list the quotes, but I don't know, I always forgot to write the pages. Maybe because I can't divide my focus between reading and writing something elsewhere, so I just dog-ear the page and check-mark the interesting lines.

    I agree with you about Madame Bovary, Flaubert's description of nature and landscape is very beautiful!

    1. I noticed that Christina Joy writes down the time she starts a novel as well as the time she finishes. I may have to adopt that habit too!

      So glad you agree with me about Flaubert's beautiful descriptions. I sometimes think of them when I take my nature walks.

      Thank you for participating in our link up! I've really enjoyed it! :)

  6. Oh my! You are so thorough! Like wow!

    I dont have any tips but this is how I take notes: http://www.tabulyogang.info/2013/02/how-i-take-notes.html

    1. I'm the one who is impressed! Tabulyogang. I hope my readers will take the time to visit your post. You did an excellent job! Thank you for joining in the fun. :)

      Take care, dear!

  7. ;-( i don't want to write on my books. i feel bad when someone borrowed a book from me and one of the page has a dog ear. but those tips you provided are really helpful. some works for me when doing my working book way back in college.


    1. I'm glad you stopped by, Phioxee! I can certainly understand why you would chose not write in your books. Many people prefer to keep notes on separate paper to preserve the integrity of their books. I commend you for your good stewardship!

      A few of my friends use notebooks. I hope you will visit some of the links I've posted above. I think you will find their ideas to be very helpful! Blessings to you! :)

  8. I love that you give the specific time down to the minute when you finish. That really does give it the celebratory touch!

    Your lists remind me of Gretchen Rubin's collections in her Happiness Project. And they made me happy - double bonus day!

    Thank you for organizing these posts, they're wonderful.

    1. It was my pleasure! Thank you for sharing!

      You are right -- my lists make me very happy, giddy even. :D I suppose it's better than nick-nacks or yard ornaments!

      You've just reminded me: Once upon a time, I planned to write a post called "Madame Bovary and The Happiness Project". Maybe I'll get around to it someday!

  9. I really really like your idea of keeping track of the themes/topics. I just wrote that down on a post it and stuck it on my book. I just posted to my blog about my basic note-taking too. Thanks for this challenge - I've enjoyed reading about everyone's methods.

    1. So glad you've found this helpful. Thank you for letting me know, Tonia! :)

  10. Replies
    1. Thank you very much for the feedback! I'm glad you stopped by! Come again. :)

  11. Writing your summaries at the end of the chapter is a great idea.
    I think I need to write down some of your key questions to consider while I read. It would be helpful in completing those tricky wrap-up questions. I'm going to need a bigger index card.

    1. Christina recently mentioned that she has started writing the questions down first in her notebook. I think I'm going to start writing them inside my front cover before I start reading. I'm going to add one more too: "What is the problem?" It sounds simple, but that is a question that I always ask my kids about books they read. Without a problem there is no story.
      Thanks for the feedback! :)

    2. That's a great question to get kids thinking. It goes right along with "What does the character want?" and "What is standing in his way?"

    3. Oh yes, those two questions ...

      I think I need to take another look at WEM. I forgot about those! :D


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