I’ve read something, so then what?

How and when do I turn what I read into notes, for learning, for retention, for use elsewhere? Having at least some system for this I found is crucial to have somewhere to go with the ideas, associations and thoughts that reading non-fiction creates. I know this because how the absence of a system to take note of my reading feels. For an extended time at some point I did not read any non-fiction simply because I had nowhere to go with the material I learned about, no application, no outlet, and the ideas plus the urge to do something with them kept swirling around in my head creating noisy chaos and frustration.

Having some system is key therefore. What I describe below is my current incarnation of a system, it shifts over time, tools come and go, and therefore it is a snapshot. At the same time my general information strategies and personal knowledge management haven’t fundamentally changed in 20 years. The source of any continuity or consistency is me, not my tools. That said, none of what follows is very strict, it is meant to be forgiving. The source of inconsistency is also me, not my tooling. Not much of it is blind routine. Yet it is way more than doing nothing. My notes create a ratcheting effect, not allowing movement backwards, which is very valuable to me.

Inputs to outputs and the role of friction

Previously I described the flows of various reading inputs to my main tool in working with notes, Obsidian (my entire Obsidian set-up I described in Oct 2000), and the few outputs that flow from them. The image below gives an overview (click for larger version).

The specific steps and tools mentioned in the image are of less importance here. Key is the locus and role of friction in the depicted flows. There is friction in getting material, both source texts and my annotations for them, into my note making tool. This friction I seek to reduce, making it easier to get material to the place where I can work with it. Similarly I’ve reduced friction in getting outputs into the world (my blog, client websites, book lists for instance). Where I don’t seek to reduce friction is in working with notes (expect perhaps for functionality like search), because there friction is the actual work, where the thinking, rewriting, rearranging etc is happening. There is no way around friction there, because it is how I add value to my notes, how I learn and remember things.

The rest of this posting focuses mostly on what happens in the middle section, where the work is, between the inputs and outputs: what do I do there with annotations from what I read?

Web articles via browser

I use a markdown clipper in my browser to save web articles directly as markdown in a folder NewClippings that is part of my notes vault in Obsidian. Usually these come from my feedreading (over 400 individual blogs) or clicking links in those blogs. Saving is not a postponement and promise to self to ‘read later’ which never happens. It is the result of a curation decision, an intentional step, after skimming the web article. I skim looking for suprisal, and I jot down specific reasons for saving it with the web article. This way my future self will know why I was interested in the article originally. Those reasons may be a novel insight in the article, associations I make with other notes I have etc.

Two examples:

Reason: good overview of AI algo’s not doing what we think they’re doing. Types of mistakes made in training models. Rich source of examples. Compare to note [[Relevance of ethics for machine learning 20201219142147]].

Reason: Steps by Chinese gov against BATX’s ANT group. I see this in light of geopolitical positioning w.r.t. digital and data (compare to [[Data is a geopolitical factor 20180419080356]] and to [[Euproposition]]). Also see notes in [[Logic Magazine 7 China]]. Read for notes, not notions. Is there a usable contrast with the EU’s proposition?

I currently have some 825 clippings, of which about 150 are my own old blogposts recycling my earlier writings that way. I do not intend to always process them into other more permanent notes, I don’t treat it as an inbox. It is a repository in its own right, that I can search for additional material. I do pick out clipped webpages for processing, if that is logical from what I’m doing at some point in time.
Whenever I do process an article, it means deleting everything that I don’t think is interesting from my point of view, and summarising and paraphrasing the points I do find interesting. At the top, where the original reason for saving an article is, I keep track of the status of that process. The reworked article remains in the same folder as the other saved articles during this process. If I lift specific notes or notions from the article that can stand on their own, those will link to the original web article by url as source, and end up in one of three notes folders (one for conceptual notes, one for actionable ideas, one for more factual notes and examples) where they are woven into the wider collection by linking. Where that lifting is done I delete the original article from the clippings folder.

Scientific Articles and PDFs via Zotero

I use Zotero to keep a library of scientific articles and other PDFs (e.g. European Commission legal documentation). My motivation for saving them is stored as remark with the material in Zotero. When I save something I usually mention it in my Day logs in my notes, so that I can stumble across it again for processing.
I read those PDFs and highlight and comment in the PDF itself.
Until last week’s Zotero update I could easily grab those highlights and notes using a plugin and save them in markdown into my Obsidian notes vault. The update broke the plugin, so that flow is temporarily out of order. Any highlights and annotations in such a markdown file have a link to the corresponding location in the PDF in Zotero, meaning I can directly jump to the source.

Then, like with web articles I summarise, paraphrase and connect to other notes in steps. Notes/notions that stand on their own, contain the links to Zotero sources. I write, link and fill those stand alone notes from within the annotations first. Once I’ve taken out all I want from an article I delete the annotations note, because all created individual notes link to their source in Zotero. Currently some 10% of learning related notes link to a source in Zotero, after two years of using Zotero.

Books via Kindle

I don’t nearly read the amount of non-fiction I’d like. So none of this is ‘routine’ but it is what has emerged so far as workflow.

When I start reading a non-fiction book, I create a note that serves as the place for thinking and processing what I read. I prefill that note with a template that contains some datafields for my book lists and provide a structure of questions to explore the book before reading. What do I think it is about, what seems the author’s purpose with this book, why am I interested in reading it, what kind of surprisal am I after? What do the different chapters discuss, which ones seem most interesting to me and why? This all before I start reading parts of the book.

While I’m reading I follow two ways of making notes:

  • I make notes alongside reading the book, and put them in the note I created for the book. These are descriptions and summaries of key ideas, but also associations and links to other things, questions that arise while reading. Basically my half of being in dialogue with the book. This is what I’ve done exlusively until recently.
  • Recently I started using the Kindle sync plugin for Obsidian, which grabs all my Kindle highlights and annotations and puts them in a markdown note in my Obsidian vault, including links to the right paragraph in the book. I link that note with annotations to the note I made about the book. I never was a big highlighter / annotator in my e-books because of the difficulty of doing anything with it, but thanks to this plugin removing the barriers I started annotating and highlighting much more intensively.

In the book note that I created before reading I then work through the things I highlighted and annotated. Thinking about connections, contrasts etc, and linking to existing notes accordingly. It is also where I start paraphrasing and writing snippets that can become notes in their own right. The book note is the jumping off point for it. When I’m done with a book, the book note will have the links to the notes it brought forth, and the material that I didn’t in the end use for new notes. I keep the book note, and I keep the note with the highlights and annotations (it would resync from Kindle anyway), so I can always trace a note back to the book note and the location in the book itself.

Handwritten notes

I write some reading notes by hand on my BOOX Nova 2 e-ink device, as well as hand written marginalia, but I don’t have an easy flow bringing those to my notes in Obsidian yet. They are stored as PDFs on my e-ink device, and I need to bring them manually into Zotero, from which there then is a working flow to my notes.
This friction on the input side hinders regular use.

Over the years I’ve filled many note books by hand, not just with reading notes, but also annotations of talks, conversations and any other things I jotted down. Recent notes from the past day(s) I usually go through as needed and transcribe into my digital notes. I add them to my Day Log notes, which then can be a jumping off point to create additional individual notes.
Older notebooks, I have in the past scanned a lot of the key material, and have more recently scanned a few note books entirely. In my digital notes I have created an index file for each scanned notebook, where next to a link to each scanned page there’s a brief description of the content, and perhaps a link to relevant other material. That makes it possible to stumble across those notes in search.

Invitation to share

This post describes how I currently make notes from things that I read or wrote. It is a transcription and adaptation of a presentation I gave on April 3rd to the Micro.blog Readers Republic (video), an informal group of book readers around the world meeting every month for conversation. The question of note taking and learning came up as ‘So you’ve read a book, and then what?’ and a few of us volunteered to show what we do. I’m always interested in how other people organise their work, and I think that requires I also share how I work.

Essentially, this description of how I digest my reading is an invitation to you to write up your modes of working too.

Part of the conversations in the Micro.blog Republic of Readers group, are about what we do with what we read. I was invited to share a bit about how I (try to) process what I’m reading into something I can re-use over time in last weekend’s meeting. I couldn’t make it, but will do so in the next meet-up early April. As a first step I made a sketch of what my current flow and set-up looks like.

That’s not to say this is frictionless, and I’m not making claims as to its effectiveness. It’s what it is, warts and all. Also, any way you approach it, processing what I read, finding the bits that provide informational surprise, tying it to things I’ve written earlier, connecting it to the things currently relevant to me and hence to outputs, is intensive work. It is the work, and while I can strive to reduce friction on the interfaces between steps in my workflow, that work will always remain. Only through the work does reading gain meaning at all, because it is how you think things through.


Reading processing flow sketch. Click to enlarge. Image by Ton Zijlstra, license CC BY NC SA

Most of the removable friction in the reading-to-used-notes process is towards the left in the image. I use multiple devices, and getting notes in and out of them requires some jumping through hoops. It all ends up in Obsidian as my current note making tool of choice.

Only there the actual work starts: adding associations to highlights, lifting out bits and pieces from source texts and rephrasing them, creating the jumping off points for newly resulting notions. This is never a smooth process, and I usually struggle to allocate time for myself to think and write.

Output is a recombination of those notions into something that can be shared again, and if I have my notes in order it is a step that is less daunting than writing something from scratch. In the past months I have created several tools to make publishing something from my notes as frictionless as possible again.

I’ve been making notes basically always, even in primary school I filled many notepads (‘kladblok’) of grey recycled paper I bought myself. It still means I can cycle back to e.g. conversations I had in 2014 with the notes often being more or less verbatim. Two years ago in April, a few weeks into the first pandemic lockdown, I revamped my personal note taking system and added something I hadn’t done structurally before: a day log. In it I list the things that I worked on during the day, or thought about, or came across etc. Below is a basic example from July 2020 when I just started using Obsidian for my day log notes.


Example day log, with links jumping off to more detailed notes

The day logs have quickly become much more than a simple list of things I’ve done in a day. It also forms a jumping off point for any notes that belong to an entry in a day log. It is a habit fully part of my routines.

As a result I am now structurally not only taking notes during conversations as I’ve been doing for decades, but also much better documenting things as I’m doing them. Basically I find myself much better logging my actions, and thus the status of my activities. When I return to something I don’t need time to reconstruct what it was I was doing or thinking, or to figure out what I can do next.

It means that when I was e.g. figuring out how to build my own Micropub client I could do so incrementally, and even spending ten minutes could be fruitful. Before those ten minutes would be lost to switching costs. It also means I find it easier to let something rest for a while, because I know it will be easy to pick up again.

Two years on I feel keeping day logs, by structurally leading to notes jumping off of them, causes a very specific effect for me: My notes now stop me from having to go backwards whenever I pick up something again at a level unlike ever before. Ideas stay intact and usable, concepts don’t need to be reworded each time, experiments can be incremental, projects can stand still for a while but can restart immediately when I return to them. That’s valuable return on the time spent making those notes.


Ratchet, image by Paul van de Velde, license CC BY

Bookmarked Is handwriting better than typing for note taking? Surprisingly, it is not (by Donald Clark)

Donald Clark looks at what we know about whether handwriting is better than taking digital notes, and mentions 4 papers in that context. The 2014 “The pen is mightier than the keyboard” paper by Mueller and Oppenheimer, has been easily adopted in broader pubic conscience, probably as it fits neatly in a bias. I never bought into that because my own experience with 4 decades of handwritten notes, and 3 overlapping decades of taking digital notes did not bear that difference out. (I know, I know, ‘n=just me’ is no base for critique on a paper, but still) If anything, to me my speed and ease of making digital notes is more effective and less distracting (I can type blindly and without looking at the screen, but who can write blindly?). The key is what happens afterwards. Which is about active engagement with the notes I make. Hence the selected quote below, in which I would replace the final word learning with engagement.

The 2014 study has been replicated in 2019 by Morehead, Dunlosky and Rawson showing no difference at least, and the opposite at worst.
The 2022 paper by Voyer, Ronis, and Byers, “The effect of notetaking method on academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” “showed no effect of method of note taking on performance under controlled conditions. It considered 77 effect sizes from 39 samples in 36 articles, showing no effect on note taking approach.

It would seem that writing notes in your own words, and studying your notes, matter more than the methods used to write your notes. This makes sense, as the cognitive efforts involved in studying are likely to outweigh the initial method of capture. It is not note taking that matters but effortful learning.

Donald Clark

In reply to Oude notitieboeken by Frank Meeuwsen

Heel herkenbaar wat jij (en Alex) schrijft. Ik heb mijn oude notitieboeken over de periode 1988-2008 ergens rond 2010 weggegooid (nadat ik sommige pagina’s persoonlijke aantekeningen er uit had gehaald en gescand). Die van daarna zijn er nog. Die ben ik nu aan het scannen, zoals Wouter Groeneveld doet, n.a.v. de eerste Obsidian meet-up, en voorzie ik daarna langzaam maar zeker van een index in Obsidian waarmee het doorzoekbaar wordt. Ik gebruik een staande CZUR scanner met voetpedaal die een notitieboek scannen reduceert tot tien minuten werk. Dat maakt in ieder geval de eerste stap van digitaliseren eenvoudig (en weggooien mogelijk!). De inhoud beoordelen komt dan later.

T.a.v. uren schrijven en weeknotes: Ik open elke dag in Obsidian als eerste stap een daglog waarin ik activiteiten opschrijf met tijdstippen. Die gebruik achteraf voor urenstaten en voor de weeknotes (ik maak een weekoverzicht door de daglogs achter elkaar af te beelden en schrijf op basis daarvan mijn blogpost). Daglogs zijn ook mijn startpunt voor nieuwe notities over thema’s, meeting notes etc.

Steeds als ik de stapel notitieboeken zie denk ik, “ik moet er nog eens door bladeren en zien of er iets van waarde in staat wat ik nog kan hergebruiken”

Frank Meeuwsen