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Here's the difference between highlighting and note taking (and why it matters)

Highlighting is different than note taking. Highlighting can be an excellent place to start– and it's important to be able to easily capture choice quotes from a book so we can cite them accurately in our own writing. But highlighting should be the first step, not the final step.

Elizabeth Butler
Elizabeth Butler
2 min read
Here's the difference between highlighting and note taking (and why it matters)
Photo by 2H Media / Unsplash

Table of Contents

It's easy to highlight books. Especially on Kindle. There are even great apps like Readwise that let us export our highlights right into our preferred note taking system, like Notion or Roam Research. Highlighting textbooks and books definitely has its place. I appreciate the ease with which I can capture passages and quotes that spoke to me as I read a book.

But highlighting is different than note taking. Highlighting can be an excellent place to start– and it's important to be able to easily capture choice quotes from a book so we can cite them accurately in our own writing. But highlighting should be the first step, not the final step.

Taking notes (from a book, an article, a lecture, a video– even from a Twitter thread) is different than simply copying information verbatim. When we take notes on a subject, we should be:

  • Capturing ideas in our own words.
  • Figuring out the most important ideas (from our own perspective).
  • Breaking down big ideas into constituent parts.
  • Determining how concepts we're reading about right now connect to other ideas we're learning or writing about.

Simply put, note taking is a form of deeper engagement and learning. Note taking means engaging with ideas, analyzing them, and connecting them to other concepts.

A note can take many forms. Zettelkasten, atomic note, Cornell note– they're all fine formats for note taking. And at the end of the day, the structure of the note itself doesn't matter that much. The most important thing about note taking is creating a living database of ideas, concepts, and quotes that we can draw on in the future to support our learning and creativity.

Try to use highlighting as a first-pass through a source. Grab your virtual or physical highlighter, and capture passages that speak to you in some way. Every time you read a book, at different stages of your life, different sections will jump out at you. So capture what matters right now, and use those highlights as food for thought. Export your quotes (if you've captured them digitally) and then start engaging.

Reorganize your quotes by topic. Look for common themes and build your own scaffolding. Think about which projects these quotes might support. Use the ideas in the book as inspiring creativity for your own writing or thinking.

Everyone will come to a book seeking something different. Your book notes are going to look different than your colleague's book notes– and that's absolutely correct. That's just as it should be. Find what fits your life right now– and leave the rest.

Book Notes & Reading NotesNote Taking

Elizabeth Butler Twitter

Your guide to the world of note taking and mindful productivity. Creator of the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management. Physician, PhD, parent, tea drinker.


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