Week twenty-seven: How to read a book

It is week twenty-seven of 2019. How is the writing going this week?

As I promised last week, this post is all about how to read a nonfiction book efficiently. Of course, that’s not always your goal. Sometimes you need to do a thorough, deep, concentrated read of a complex book that you already know will have a lot of impact on your work or life. And sometimes you just want to take your time and enjoy the material.

But when you are researching or learning about a topic, most books will fall into a middle category. You know enough from the title or blurb or a recommendation to believe that the book will be useful, but you won’t know for sure until you dive in. What I’m going to show you now is how to quickly absorb what a book has to teach you and how to take notes so that you can add the book to your personal knowledge database.

I like to start by setting my intentions for my reading. Reread the blurb, on the back cover or online, and think about what you hope to learn from this book. You can even write down your intention at the top of your notes, which will help you stay focused. If the book has been sitting in your to-be-read pile for years, make sure you still think you will benefit from it. If you’ve moved on, take the book to the nearest Little Free Library and go on to the next. You are not in school and no one has assigned you this book. The first rule of efficient reading is to stop immediately if you aren’t getting any benefit.

Next, you want to get the lay of the land, just like you would do when visiting a city for the first time. Read through the table of contents carefully and make a mental or physical note about which sections interest you most. (If you are reading on Kindle, you’ll automatically be taken to the beginning of the text but make the effort to get back to the table of contents.) Are there exercises or checklists you want to use, now or in the future? Is there material you think you can skip or skim?

For example, looking at the table of contents for Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel tells me that chapter 1 is more introductory / overview material; chapter 2 is where Brody lays out the beat sheet, which I know from the blurb is the heart of the book; chapter 3 is an overview of genre; chapters 4 through 13 are about specific genres or kinds of stories; and chapters 14 and 15 are about how to write pitches and handle other problems. Just from studying these couple of pages, I now have a mental outline of the whole book, and I also have a reading plan: I’m going to skim the intro and chapter 1, I’m going to read chapters two and three closely, and then I’m going to read chapters 4 through the end strategically, choosing those that I think will teach me what I want to learn. If I wrote romance, for example, I might skip or skim the horror chapter.

Now you are ready to start reading. If this is a chapter you’ve planned to skim, use section headers and the first sentences of paragraphs like rocks you are landing on as you skip across a river. If you feel sure of your footing, hop forward. If you need to catch your balance or just look around, read every word. When you come to an example, skip it for now if you already understand the principle it illustrates. Remember to keep checking in with your intention and alter your reading plan if you find something unexpectedly valuable (or worthless). Not every word of every book is going to be helpful for you.

As you go, look for places where the author summarizes or recaps a section or chapter and highlight them. When you come across a section that is especially helpful, highlight the section header or make a note in the table of contents. Track your thoughts as you read and include them in your notes. Does this author disagree with another author you’ve read? Does the material raise a question you want to investigate further? Do you just need to say WTF?

When you reach the end of the book, list in your notes the things that you found valuable or may want to come back to. For example, my bottom-of-the-notes list for Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story looks like this:

  • Fantastic list of plot moves to fix a “mushy middle”

  • Clear explanation of relationship between character and plot

  • Book is funny, inclusive; has top-shelf cursing

If you have written physical notes, collect all of them in one place where you can refer back to them easily. If you are highlighting and taking notes on Kindle, go to your “my Kindle” page on Amazon and copy and paste them into another program. (Remember, always, that what Amazon giveth, Amazon can taketh away.) This is your knowledge database that you will return to when you are starting a new book and trying to decide whether to use first- or third-person point of view (who had the best discussion of that?) or remember what you learned about strong verbs (what was that great thing Connie Hale said about them?).

I learned these strategies during my many (many, many) years of grad school. In addition to reading mammoth Victorian novels in the space of a week, I also needed to read and absorb an enormous amount of secondary material. If I had read every single word of every book and article I needed to know about, I would still be working on my dissertation or, more likely, would have given up long ago. These strategies have become so second nature to me that I didn’t even realize I had them until I started getting questions from newsletter readers about how I manage to keep up this pace. Now you know!

Here’s to reading strategically, y’all,

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