This is how to make your reading time more valuable
Actionable insights into how to make time spent reading compound in value.
Developing a structured method of annotation changed how I read, and made every minute spent reading more intrinsically valuable.
When I was a research student, I loved finding other people’s annotations in battered old library books. Seeing how another person interacted with a text always struck me as fascinating — personally revealing in a way even their journal probably wouldn’t be.
I could totally imagine a strain of self-conscious performativity slipping into a journal. But who really worries how they’re going to come across to others when marking up Of Grammatology?
Annotation is an odd mix: pragmatic, yet generally speaking improvisational. Most people seem to annotate books and essays in an ad hoc way, picking out sentences which seem important or potentially useful — with no real structure or goal in mind.
If you’re anything like I was, annotating books is closer to a tick than a carefully leveraged tool. And going back over old books you’ve marked up can be a baffling experience. My own are littered with nonsensical underlinings (often single words) and inexplicable exclamation points dotted throughout the margins.
But here’s the thing: reading properly is expensive. It costs a huge amount of time and discipline. And annotating books in this way makes all that time and effort you invest count for a whole lot less than it should.
Annotation is about turning your books into better tools for the future
It might seem like a strange way to think about them, but every book, essay, and article you read is a tool.
Of course, sometimes we read simply for pleasure, for the transient thrill of it. But if what you’re reading is fundamentally information, then its value resides almost exclusively in helping you achieve some end — just like any other tool.
There is one way texts differ from most tools though: their utility needs to be decoded. And this is where a system for annotating them comes in.
While most good non-fiction features a clear, accessible structure and index, this is not sufficient to get everything you might need from it sight-unseen. Instead, you need to unlock its value by reading it — and annotating it in a way which makes future use quicker, easier and more effective.
By developing a structured method of annotation — and using it properly — you will make every minute spent reading more intrinsically valuable, because you’ll be slowly turning whatever article or book you’re reading into a more potent tool for future use. And over time that value will compound like mad.
So what would a good method for annotating actually look like?
Three tips for developing your annotation method
Every person reads, and therefore annotates, in their own way — I wouldn’t want to impose my own weird method on your wholesale. Instead, I want to offer three simple tips I find insanely useful when annotating:
1. Summarise as you go
Creating a summary of a piece of writing as you go is the single most useful thing you can do. Years into the future, it will make accessing the key import of the writing extremely quick and easy.
There are lots of ways to do this — some might write a paragraph decoding each chapter, others might keep a key of concepts or ideas. Personally, I like to underline single sentences which sum the whole paragraph up, as it makes skim rereading incredibly quick and easy — it’s also great practise for editing.
2. Create a code
A good piece of writing produces many different responses — intrigue, agreement, dissent, maybe even confusion. Having a clear code for all these response allows you to very efficiently map the text out in the margins.
I, for example, often find claims made in sociological or political texts require greater scrutiny — either fact checking or further analysis. And rather than writing that out every time some dubious stat is pulled up, it’s so much easier to have a specific symbol or code I can leave in the margin, like a breadcrumb trail for myself.
3. Underline for a reason
If you’re anything like me, you probably underline things for a number of reasons — because you like the quote, because you want to remember it, because you think it’s important to the overall argument.
The problem with this is it turns texts into a sea of undifferentiated underlinings, making them far less useful in the future. And while I’m not going to suggest having different coloured pens or highlighters is necessary, I’ve found real value in clarifying to myself what I do and don’t need to underline, and what it means when I do.
Copywriter with delusions of competence. Find him at https://toby-mcinnis.medium.com/