How do hyper-productive writers always come up with mouth-dropping anecdotes, timely quotes and mind-boggling facts ?
And no, “Google” is not the correct answer.
Prolific online writers Maria Popova and Ryan Holiday read several books a week, regularly write long-pieces on their own sites as well as on high profile sites such as The Huffington Post, Forbes, Fast Company, 99U, or WiredUK, give talks all over the world and write good old analog books too (Holiday has written 4 books in 4 years so far).
They belong to a long tradition of insatiable curious minds who gather information, process them with efficiency and share them back through their singular prism.
The 1 million dollar question is: How do they sustain it?
The answer: By implementing a systematic note-taking habit while reading books.
Whether you are team novel, non-fiction, screenplay, play, article or original blog post, being able to access organised interestingness is a superpower that makes all the difference when you write.
Developing a routine to archive those interestingness is not only a superpower, it’s also the only way to sustain a regular and intense rhythm of production. (Unless you have a team of paid research assistants and in that case, good for you!)
With all the tools out there, from pen & paper to programs and apps, it feels like it should be easy to collect good information.
But effectively compiling a large amount of data from multiple sources over months or years can quickly get overwhelming and messy.
After reading hundred of books and realising that, my emotional memories aside, I had little left to work with, I finally developed my own note-taking habit. (I’m a slow processor)
My system is a mix between Maria Popova/Tim Ferriss’ style and Robert Greene/ Rayn Holiday’s style. And this is an important point: like any habit, note-taking will need your customisation to really work. Remixing is an essential part of the process here.
Popova and Ferriss create an Index at the beginning of a new book with codes and annotations but also Kindle books, while Greene and Holiday use marginalia (writing in the margins), index cards and Holiday is a 100% analog books only (not sure about Greene).
I’ve always believed in the unique power of handwriting to sparkle creativity and connections, so my system required me to go back to analog reading. I still have a Kindle but I’m buying back the paper version of the books I loved and plan to read them again.
When I start a book, I’m open to any possibilities so I create my categories as I read.
Step 1: Book Index and Marginalia
As I underline, I decide what triggered my brain: a concept, an anecdote, a fact etc. I then proceed to write in the margin the initial of the category I create and report the page number in the index section at the beginning of the book under its brand new category.
For the latest book I’ve read, Holiday’s Ego Is the Enemy, my Index contained 8 categories:
1 — Anecdotes
2 — Concepts
3 — Definitions
4 — Facts
5 — Quotes
6 — Sentences (aka Wording)
7 — Themes
8 — Vocabulary
So for exemple, the first quote I underlined was on page 21 of the book:
After underlining it, I created the category titled Quotes in the Index section and wrote under it: 21,
And after that, each time I’d underline a quote, I’d add the page number next to 21: 21, 27, etc.
If I were to stop here, this first step only would still allow me to pick a book anytime, scan through the Index and find in a heartbeat where all the quotes, the anecdotes, or the facts I’ve liked were. That’s already a big jump in efficiency.
I don’t stop at this step though.
Step 2: Selection for Digital Archiving
A few weeks after reading a book, I go back through it for a second round, going from one underline section to the next.
This step is basically me deciding if what I’ve underlined in the heat of reading still stands strong or if it no longer makes sense as a stand-alone.
I then proceed to type all the underlined content that made it through the second round in Evernote. I break down the Themes category into sub-topics I’ve noticed while reading: Creativity, Time, Worth, Win, Sport etc.
I don’t write down the sub-topic name the first time I read so if the theme is not obvious to me the second time around, then the sentence or paragraph doesn’t make it to Evernote.
As you can imagine, this can go pretty broad.
I then add tags, so I can easily make cross-research if I want to find everything I’ve selected from one author, or about one word that might have elements under concepts, definitions, quotes etc.
Evernote is linked to my phone and my computer, so anytime I find something good that doesn’t come from a book, I can add it easily, even when I’m offline.
Paper vs. Digital
I’ve debated for a long time between paper and digital for this second step and I had to go digital for practical reasons, even though I’d much rather do it on paper. I travel a lot, each time carrying technology, books and personal notebooks, and there’s nothing worse than being heavily packed when you travel a lot. So adding hundreds of notecards doesn’t feel like a wise move for now.
Step 3: Back to Handwriting for Selected Content
I’m currently rewriting my first feature film so all the interestingness I’m gathering are stored for when I’ll decide to write another screenplay, a long-piece or a book (who knows).
When the time comes, the third-step is to write down from Evernote to notecards everything I want to use and have around me at all times. It’s a neat compromise to still stay analog as often as possible, activate surprising connections digital can’t provide, and review what I’ve accumulated while traveling light-ish.
Thanks to this habit, I’m finally proactively building a treasure of knowledge tailored to my storytelling needs and sensitivity. I no longer want to find myself trying to remember Where did I read this cool anecdote about this woman I don’t remember the name but I believe was Swedish? No, thank you.
I’ve made an Index Template you can download here to insert in all your books and start archiving what interests you. (Or use it to decide how best to create your own!)
If you’ve developed your own note-taking system, I’d love to hear how you proceed, so let me know below!
One last note: Holiday has always been generously transparent about how he works and he recently released a video on his process to write a book from note-taking to final print. I loved it, you might too.
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Nathalie Sejean is Activate® Creativity co-founder, a company dedicated to help you reconnect, stretch and nurture your creativity. Click here for more.