Twelve Ways To Mark Up A Book

The times they are a-changin’.

This post seems to be older than 14 years—a long time on the internet. It might be outdated.

Twelve tips on how to mark a book while reading. Posting mostly so I don’t forget, but also because it’s worth sharing.

From Open Loops:
What Not To Do

  1. Don’t use a highlighter – Quality marking isn’t done with a fat-tipped highlighter. You can’t write, which is an important part of marking the text, with a large marker. Get yourself some fine point colored pens to do the job.
  2. Don’t mark large volumes of text – You want important points to stand out. Although we all know that everything can’t be important, we often highlight all of the text on the page. You want to find the 20% of the text that is important (remember Pareto?) and mark that.
  3. Don’t take the time to mark up items that you read on a daily basis – (e.g., magazines, newspapers), unimportant or irrelevant items.
  4. Don’t mark the obvious – Don’t waste time marking up things that are already in your knowledge-base or skill set. If you already know it, you don’t need to mark it.

What To Do

  1. Mark the text with a pencil, pen, or, even better, colored fine-tipped pens – Remember, you are not highlighting, you are writing.
  2. Know your preferences – Some of you have an aversion to mark directly in the text. Books are precious things to many people and they want to protect them from damage and even the wear and tear of everyday use. If this describes you, grab some Post-It brand notes and do your marking and writing on them. This also gives you the advantage to move and reorganize them should you see fit. As for me, I like to mark directly on the page. I find that my books become more valuable to me when I add my contributions to the information that they contain.
  3. Underline the topic sentence in a passage – Remember, each paragraph has one topic sentence. The rest is supporting information and examples. Identify the topic sentence to find it easier.
  4. Use codes – Flag text with codes (e.g., Question marks to indicate disagreement, Exclamation marks to note agreement or to flag a strong statement, triangles to indicate a change in thinking, or a star for the topic sentence).
  5. Write the passage topic in the margin as a reminder – Just a word or two.
  6. Write questions in the margin – When you don’t understand something or when you don’t understand the author’s thought process on a particular topic, write the question in the margin as a reminder to settle the question.
  7. Circle new and unfamiliar words – Look them up as soon as possible.
  8. Add your or other author’s perspectives in the margins – Other authors have surely written on the same subject. What do they say? Do they agree with this author? If not, what do they say. Add these ideas in the margins.
  9. Add cross-reference notes to other works on the same topic – Use the author’s name and a shortened version of the other book’s title.
  10. Add structure to a narrative text – Use 1, 2, 3, 4…or an outline format I. A. B. C. 1, 2, 3, a, b, c…to add a structure that you understand.
  11. Draw arrows to related ideas – Or unrelated ideas…
  12. Summarize – Add your own summary after the last paragraph. That simple exercise will crystalize your thinking on the topic. If you can’t write it, you don’t understand it.