Whether you’re a student, a professional, or a creator, you probably want to figure out how to take notes on books. You might be taking notes from textbooks for school. Mayb you're trying to figure out how to take effective book notes while reading a personal development book on your own time. You might want to learn how to take notes from books for work, for grad school, or for teaching. Perhaps you're writing an article, a book, or a thesis. Or maybe you just have a curious mind, and you're looking for a better way to record, organize, and recall the great ideas you learn from the books you read.
In this article, you’ll learn a five-step method on how to take notes from books. You’ll start capturing book summaries quickly and effectively, so you can remember and implement more of what you read.
About your guide, Elizabeth Butler
Why take advice on effective note taking from books from me?
Simply put— I love taking notes and I’ve spent years of my life figuring out the best, most effective ways to take notes.
A bit about me— I’m a doctor, part-time creator, and parent. In my previous life, I was a professor and a productivity consultant. I’m also the creator of the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management. I spend way too many hours thinking about the simplest, most effective ways for busy people to take notes on books and ideas— and then get on with implementing and actioning those great ideas they’ve read about.
Ready to learn more? Let’s dive in.
How to take notes on books in five simple steps
Step 1: Create one note in your personal knowledge management system per book
When you start reading a book that you know you want to take notes on, start a new, fresh note in your note taking system. You can tag that note with appropriate tags (such as author, genre, topic, etc), or simply save these notes in a dedicated folder called Book Notes— whatever makes the most sense within your own personal knowledge management system.
It can be tempting to group all related books together, or books from a given genre. And you can certainly tag them all, or put them in a common folder. But it’s best practice to have a dedicated, single note for each book. You don’t want to pore over lengthy, overwhelming notes down the road when searching. Keep it to one book = one note, and you’ll feel more calm searching for this book note in the future.
Step 2: Include all the identifying information about the book
It’s a good practice to a regular template for capturing all the information about a book. (You can even use a text expander app to efficiently include this template in your new note in a few keystrokes.)
Make sure that you include all the basic information such as book title and author name at minimum— you’ll want to include the full citation if you’re an academic or planning to use these notes for school. You may also want to include things like genre (such as productivity, philosophy, biography, etc). You might want to include who recommended this book or how you found out about it (i.e. the referral source).
Ideas on what to include in your book notes template (adapt these to suit your own goals):
- Book title
- Book author
- Full citation (publication place, date, etc) in your preferred citation format (MLA, Chicago, APA, etc)
- Referral source
- Topics covered
- Personal rating
- Top quotations
- Top three ideas
- One-sentence summary
Step 3: Subdivide your note to include headings for each chapter or section of the book
When you're taking notes from a textbook or nonfiction book, you can save yourself time and effort by using the same headings that the author uses (assuming that it is a well-organized and well-edited textbook or book). These section and chapter headings are going to encompass the main ideas of the book. That being said— if you’re only interested in one or two chapters, definitely don’t feel pressured to include all the chapters and headings. If you have no intention of taking notes on the full book, don't bother including those chapter headings.
But when you’re taking notes from a textbook or writing non fiction book notes and summaries, do a quick scan of the book ahead of time to identify key concepts and ideas.
Look carefully at things like:
- Chapter titles
- Headings and subheadings within the chapters
- Any other visuals
These elements are often great clues as to the most important themes and facts within a book. Pay attention to those as clues, though take them with a grain of salt for your own purposes.
Step 4: Put things into your own words
Even though it's good to use the scaffolding that exists in the book (in the form of headings and subheadings), you don't want to simply type out word for word what the book says.
It's fine to include key quotations from the book (be sure to put these in quotation marks), in case you want to quote these in a future blog post article, essay, your thesis of your own future book etc. Make sure that you include citations to the page and source.
But the true power of taking notes about a book comes from synthesizing the ideas and putting them into your own words. You don't have to feel pressured to take notes in full sentences. Bullet points are just fine. The important thing is to capture the key ideas, insights and concepts that the book has given you.
Your book note should reflect what matters most to you. It should capture what resonated with you while you were reading it, as well as any facts, ideas, and inspiration you want to use in your own work and projects. A high quality book note should be a summary of the main ideas that resonated with you, personally. That’s why finding and reading someone else’s book note, while helpful, is never going to be as valuable as creating your own.
You want to be able to go back to these down the road to serve as inspiration without having to reread the entire book again. At the end of the day, the reason we create book notes is so that we can remember where we found good ideas and knowledge before— and to speed up the process of finding these ideas again in the future.
Step 5: Revise and edit as needed
A good book note is a living document. You should 100% feel comfortable revising and editing it down the road. Try not to think of a book note as a single project that has to be done perfectly all in one go. The beauty of a personal knowledge management system and note taking system is that it is a living database of ideas and knowledge. You can always go back and edit, delete, add, refine and build on the notes that you've taken about a book.
A personal knowledge management system is meant to be your own private repository of ideas and works in progress. Don't feel pressured to make things perfect. Just capture your ideas on the page. Keep a learner's mindset so that you can keep successfully taking notes about books— and keep on learning and growing.
Apps for effective book notes & note taking while reading
There is no one single perfect app for taking book notes or note taking while reading. I’d say that the best app for taking notes on books is one that is quick to load and easily available wherever you do your work. If you want to create a more advanced note taking system (such as using tags and backlinks), that works too. But try not to fall down the rabbit hole of app research. Pick an app, start capturing, and you can always refine and change your note taking system down the road.
Here’s a selection of reliable, modern note taking apps you can use for taking notes on books:
Further examples, tips, and tutorials about book notes & how to take notes from books
Want to explore more about how to take notes on books? Check out these examples, tips, and tutorials from other note taking and personal knowledge management enthusiasts for more inspiration and ideas.
You might enjoy Ali Abdaal’s approach to taking book notes outlined in his video tutorial here.
If you like his method, you can download a free copy of his Notion template for book notes.
James Clear does a great job of summarising the high-level takeaways in an impressive number of personal development books at his eponymous site.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
Go behind the scenes with Anne-Laure Le Cunff, the prolific creator of Ness Labs, to learn her tips and advice on note taking from books.
Samuel Thomson Davies
Samuel Thompson Davies offers his own example of his three step approach to writing a book summary, as well as large backlog of his own book notes.
If you’re looking for an example of how someone else structures their book notes, check out Nat Eliason’s public archive of his book note summaries as well his reflections on taking notes from books.
Derek Sivers was one of the first to publish his book notes online, and he has an impressive back catalogue.
Check out his reflections on taking notes from books:
And explore his extensive archive of book notes here:
End the overwhelm and finally get organized with the Calmer Notes framework
The Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management helps busy, overwhelmed, overscheduled professionals create one-of-a-kind, perfect tailored, minimalist note taking workflows to finally organize your notes and ideas, once and for all.
- Discover the five most common note-taking myths that might be holding you back
- Join the newsletter and get a weekly dose of intentional, mindful productivity links
- Enroll in the Calmer Notes course (a self-paced, high-yield, asynchronous course designed to fit into even the busiest of schedules)
Calmer Notes: Mindful Personal Knowledge Management for Curious Thinkers
Design a one-of-a-kind, tailored digital note taking system so you never lose another idea.