How to Read a Non-Fiction Book

Recently, my wife, Gail, and I had dinner with some close, neighborhood friends. As we always do with this group, we soon began discussing the books we were reading. A few minutes into the discussion, Gail asked, “So, how do each of you read a book? What is your practice?”

The Word Leadership Highlighted with a Yellow Marker - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #3800432

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We then spent the next hour going around the table. Each person shared how they approached reading a book. I was fascinated by the variety and depth of the answers. I picked up several great tips.

When it came time for me to share, I ticked off three or four things I have found helpful. However, now that I have had a few days to think about it, I have come up with several additional items.

When I read a non-fiction book, I typically observe these ten practices:

  1. Don’t feel that you need to finish. Not to be cynical, but most books aren’t worth finishing. I read until I lose interest. Then I move onto the next book. This is the secret to reading more. I also listen carefully to what my friends recommend. If they suggest a book, I am more likely to like it—and finish it.
  2. Start with the author bio. Every book flows out of an author’s heart and mind. I want to know something about the person I am going to be spending the next several hours with. Usually, the bio in the book is enough, but often I will Google the author before I start reading.
  3. Read the table of contents. I learn best when I understand the context. I look at the contents just like I look at a map before I begin a journey. I want to know where we are starting, where we are going, and how we are going to get there. Note to authors: I especially like annotated tables of contents that give me more than just the chapter titles.
  4. Quickly scan the whole book. I like to do a quick “fly over” to sample the author’s writing. I notice how long the chapters are and how they are structured. I might read a few “pull quotes” or subheads. I note his use of lists, diagrams, and block quotes. I am trying to set my expectations for what is ahead.
  5. Highlight important passages. I cannot read a non-fiction book without a highlighter. (On the Kindle, I use the built-in highlighter function). I prefer yellow, though I have been known to use pink in a pinch. I highlight anything that resonates with me in some way. The better the book, the more I highlight. I keep lots of highlighters handy in my desk drawer and briefcase.
  6. Take notes in the front or the margins. I often take notes in the front of the book, so I have a convenient summary of what I have read. I also like to write in the margins. (My wife, Gail, has a written conversation with the author and fills the margins almost completely!) Interestingly, I rarely go back and re-read these notes. They simply help me think while I am reading.
  7. Use a set of note-taking symbols. I use the same set of symbols I use when taking notes:
    • If an item is particularly important or insightful, I put a star next to it.
    • If an item requires further research or resolution, I put a question mark next to it.
    • If an item requires an action on my part or follow-up, I put a ballot box (open square) next to it. When the item is completed, I check it off.
  8. Dog-ear pages you want to re-visit. I bookmark the really, really important passages by folding down the corner of the page. These are usually passages with a quote I want to use in my writing or speaking.
  9. Review the book and transfer actions to my to-do list. When I have finished with the book, I go back and do a quick scan. As I mentioned above, I don’t pay much attention to my notes—unless they have one of the three key symbols or the page is dog-eared. If there is an action I need to take, I put it on my to-do list with a reference to the book title and the page.
  10. Share the book’s message. As we say on Thomas Nelson’s site, “great books are contagious.” They are meant to be shared. I blog about them, teach them to others, and buy multiple copies to give away to friends and colleagues. This is one way to ensure that the message lives on—and is passed on.

Please note: I don’t read fiction this way. I don’t highlight passages, and I rarely take notes. I read novels purely for pleasure.

What about you? Based on the survey data I have collected, I know that most of my readers are book lovers. As such, I’m sure you employ some disciplines in your reading that would benefit all of us.

Question: How do you read non-fiction books?
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  • Melody DuBois

    Great list of ideas for getting the most out of non-fiction books. I especially like the "ballot box" symbol as a way to easily look back through and note the action items. (In my opinion, if a book — especially a non-fiction book — doesn't change me in some way, it probably was a waste of time. And most often, that change only comes when I translate concepts into action and… ACT on them!)

    Another thing I like to do with non-fiction is to make brief notes at the top of each chapter — capturing what I found to be the main (or most important to me) point of that chapter. Sort of my own annotated table of contents, I guess.

    • Michael Hyatt

      This is a great idea. It might be easier for me to do this and then summarize them at the front of the book. Hmm.

  • Linda

    A lot depends on what I'm reading it for. If I'm picking a book on writing at the bookstore, I do check the author's bio before I buy. If they've never published fiction before but are writing about how to write fiction, I don't buy the book. Experience has taught me that they won't give good advice, and may even give inaccurate advice.

    If I'm reading for research, it'll depend on how much content is relevant to the research. I got one book where I went from cover to the cover, but in another one, I hopped to the appropriate chapter and discovered immediately it wasn't what was looking for. If there is anything of interest to me, I take notes in my spiral bound notebook. While outlining or notes inside would be inappropriate (given many of them are library books), that's just something I never did. Notes in my notebook I would see, but I would miss them entirely if they were in the book.

    There was also a book I recently got–from the library, but I'm going to have to buy a copy–called Organizing For Your Brain Type. I read the first two chapters, hopped to my section, read through those to get the most important stuff, then went back and read the entire book.
    My recent post The Woes of Proofreading

  • Frances Marsh

    There is a great book called “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren.

    The suthors call what you have described above “Inspectional Reading” and outline very similar steps to the ones you have recommended.

    Before I picked up this great book on impulse on the budget rack at Barnes and Noble one day, I had no idea that I could go much more deeply into reading books than I had been.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Yes, the book by Adler and Van Doren is fantastic. I almost cited it but didn’t want to borrow from their work. It is worth the read.

      • PC

        I also loved the Adler book. I had to read it grad school, and I am glad I did because it revealed to me I don’t actually have to read many other books like I always had; Most books are only worthy of a browse.

        * Don’t worry! I still read all my booksneeze books front to back as required. :)

  • Ron L

    Thanks for writing this Michael. I use some of the same techniques in my reading of non-fiction books. I generally read the dust cover of my books and then look at the table of contents to get an idea of the book. I then skim the books chapters and make mental note of how the chapters are presented.

    When I have the actual paper copy of the book, I will take notes, highlight or underline things in the book that speak to me as well. I also try to speed read each chapter and then go back and read it at a slower pace to help me to get all I need out of the chapter.

    One thing that I find interesting is that you read until you lose interest and that you may not finish a book. That is something that I haven't done before, but is something that I find very interesting and will have to start trying.

    My recent post Happy Birthday Son!

    • Michael Hyatt

      I have sometimes call this “The Art of Non-finishing.” It can be very liberating.

      • @johnflurry

        I still need to work on that one. I have a hard time not finishing a book, even if it is painful. Maybe it has to do with all those dinners I was forcede to finish. Lol

        To add to the list, I have found that I am beginning to read more books by authors that are interacting via social media. It enhances the reading experience as well as fosters discussion and community involving readers. I really enjoy seeing what other quotes spark interests and sharing mine. There has never been chance to have that type of discussion about a book. I hope more authors take advantage of the tools available.

      • Ron Lane

        The Art of Non-finishing. That is very good, it sort of frees you to stop a book. Being as successful as you are, do you find not finishing something hard to do, even when it is just a book?

        My recent post Happy Birthday Son!

  • David J Dunn

    I also keep one of those spiral-bound, index card things on my desk, so that if a quote jumps out at me, I can write it down right away. These are often easier to find than my many dogeared pages.

    I would say that some fiction (like The Brothers Karamazov) can only be understood when highlighted and reflected upon. (But that my only apply to 19C Russian literature; we don’t write fiction that way anymore.)

    • Michael Hyatt

      Yes, there are a few fiction books I highlight, especially literary fiction.

  • Daniel Decker

    I don't do much of the pre-reading research you do, although I do scan the book briefly and fully re-read the jacket/flap copy before diving in. I use exactly the same symbols that you use in #7 above (and in the same way ironically). For important pages I don't dog-ear them but I do write them down in the back of the book with a brief note as to why the page was important so I can quick reference later. I don't use a highlighter when reading, I use a red pen and underline or circle things I like. I note expanded thoughts in the margins for things that the book inspired me to think of (practical take-aways, inspired thoughts of my own, etc).

    • Michael Hyatt

      Gail uses a red-pen, too. When she is done, the book is a mess, making it almost impossible to loan. However, she, too, orders additional copies of books she likes, so she can give them away. “Book” is a budget category in our house right below “Food.” ;-)

      • Daniel Decker

        Haha. Usually for me, if I find that I red-lined enough to make the book a mess then the book is worth A) me keeping a copy of so I can re-read my notes B) stepping up and investing in my friends by either recommending the book or buying them a copy. I actually allocate a % of my Amazon affiliate revenue to what I call "Book Ministry." I buy good books for people I am close with IF I think the content is profound enough to help them in some way.

  • Amy Sorrells

    I write and highlight all over them too, and dogear (which infuriated my gradeschoolers who are taught NEVER to dogear) and tweet my favorite sentences, and then keep the books piled all over my bedroom, dining room, livingroom and wherever else I can get to them again in a hurry. Oh, and I lurk online to find out more about the authors, too. :) Love this post!
    My recent post Book Review: Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide?

    • Michael Hyatt

      We have books everywhere! We are like those people you watch on Oprah who are hoarders. We are book horders. (And proud of it!)

  • Rachel wojnarowski

    Great advice from a great resource. I do wonder
    about your allowance to stop reading if you
    are disinterested since we, the bloggers of Booksneeze,
    do not have that luxury . :) The requirement of
    reading a book in its entirety is not feasible with concordances or reference books so tapping
    into that channel is not honest. Maybe some
    exceptions could be formulated?

    • Michael Hyatt

      Yea, it's like anything else: there are exceptions. You could write in your review that you didn’t finish and here’s why. Just a thought.

  • Claude

    This is the post I was waiting for. Great teaching. Well done. Thank you Michael for doing such a great job. Reading a non fiction book, I will first scan the chapter. I call this reading "diagonally" then I will re-read and annotate the important passage. I may do a third reading (especially if this is a school project)

    God Bless


  • Sandra King

    I have to say that I read a lot of fiction this same way, especially books I plan to review. It helps me find more depth in what the author is trying to convey.

    I always try to finish a book. I was quite bored with a couple lately in the beginning, but was so glad I finished because I would have missed great stuff at the end.

    I cannot loan out books. They're a mess when I'm done with them.
    My recent post How Do You Want to Die?

    • Michael Hyatt

      Mine are, too. Plus, I want my marked up books—just in case I ever have to go back.

  • Chad Williams

    Great post. For my current stage in life, when I read non-fiction, I take notes on sheets of legal pad that I keep with the book that I'm reading. After finishing the book, I have one of my children transcribe the notes into a Word document. This has transformed how I take notes–I'm not just taking them for myself, but also what I want them to review.

    Because time is so limited, I use Amazon's Wish List to track the books people have recommended to me–and use their "comments" field to note who made the recommendation. When more than 2 people recommend a book, I will give it a higher priority and usually purchase and read it.

    • Becky Miller

      I use my Amazon wish list to keep track of recommended books and books I want to read as well.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I generally just order the books when I hear about them. At the same dinner party I referenced in my post above, I ended up ordering three books on the spot via my iPhone. That Amazon one-click thing should be regulated by the government. (Just kidding.) It is addictive!

  • Pat Layton

    This post is AWESOME!!! I do all of these things except number one!! Thank you for that freedom. I have always felt a little guilty when I don't finish a book but sometimes I get all I need in the first chapter.
    Right now I am researching for an upcoming speaking engagement/retreat and have been pulling books off my shelves that are over 10 years old.
    Because of my past ACTIVE reading (which I love to re-read after 10 years, I am finding all the amazing tips that I need!
    I love waking up to your tips every morning!

    My recent post Only 4 days left to win!

    • Michael Hyatt

      I personally think it is the author’s responsibility to keep me engaged. I come to the game prepared to play. But if I get bored, I assume it’s there problem, and, like Simon Cowell, I send them packing!

  • Becky Miller

    I dog-ear pages with passages that speak directly to me. I do this with both fiction and non-fiction. But when I finished Donald Miller's "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years," I turned the book sideways and realized I had turned down at least a quarter of the pages! So I probably need a more effective system…

    I love the idea of marking action points in the book and adding them to a to-do list. My husband just got me started using Things on my Mac, so I could easily add notes from books to my scheduled Things.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I use Things, too. Awesome app. The iPhone version is also great.

      Don's book is extraordinary. I plan to re-read it, which I almost never do.

  • ronedmondson

    Years ago I started writing key thoughts from the book in the inside cover with the page number, so I can easily reference what I had learned from each book. It's been helpful over the years when I need an illustration, quote, etc, to quickly find that thought without scanning the whole book again.

    I love the "release" not to read the entire book. That's always been a struggle for me, but I'm trying to do better. With most books, and even some articles and speeches, I try to grasp one central idea or theme . Many times it is a waste of my time after I have that one thought securely in my mind.

    Great post as always. I would love to sit at your dinner table sometime. Great conversations!

    • Michael Hyatt

      I need to write about dinner table conversations. We do have some amazing ones. But it is intentional, and we have a few minimal rules that help. Hopefully, I'll blog on this later.

  • Fran

    I've been grinding through a non-fiction book so I can write a review ( I tend to feel compelled to finish what I've started. Your post reminds me that finishing the book isn't a requirement. I appreciate your tips for better living!
    My recent post Sunday's Study: Judges 18 – Micah and the Danites

    • Vicki Small

      When did reading the book in its entirety (for review) cease to be a requirement? Last time I looked at the rules, it was still there. If that requirement has been removed, I'd love to know, for the next time I'm totally bored into a trance.
      My recent post A Hefty Dose of Hope

      • Fran

        I don't think it's a requirement to read a book in its entirety for review but I think good form would require full disclosure if the reviewer decides to put the book aside unfinished. In the end, I spent an hour speed-reading the remainder of the book and found some redeeming jewels. I liberated myself by assigning a specific time-frame for the effort and I'm delighted to get this book out of my stack of "to reads".
        My recent post Sometimes it’s okay to be a quitter

        • Fran

          Although the generic guidelines do not call out the requirement to read the book in its entirety, when requesting the free copy of the book ( it does highlight the expectation. I stand corrected.
          My recent post Sunday's Study: Judges 19 – a Levite and his Concubine

  • Fran

    I've been grinding through a non-fiction book so I can write a review ( I tend to feel compelled to finish what I've started. Your post reminds me that finishing the book isn't a requirement. I appreciate your tips for better living!
    My recent post Sunday's Study: Judges 18 – Micah and the Danites

  • Susan Gaddis

    Good post. I read informational books to glean data, so my approach is often to lightly skip around in my reading. Not so with formational reading. Such books are read from front to back allowing me time to marinate in certain passages. Good quotes are referenced into quote folders on my computer so I can find them quickly by subject when writing an article or post. If the quote is long, I'll simply write part of the quote and note it with the book title and page number.
    My recent post Got problems? Get focused.

    • Michael Hyatt

      This is where I get excited about the prospect of eBooks. If we could highlight a passage and the (a) copy it to a quotes file or some other (b) blog about it, (c) share it with our social media networks, it would be awesome. So far, this dream is yet to be realized, but the potential is there.

  • John Richardson

    Insightful list, Michael. I like business and personal development books. Instead of buying the book, I'll preview the audio book version on and look at the reviews. I'll usually also take a look at the reviews on Amazon. If it looks good, I'll download it and save it in iTunes.

    Once I have it in iTunes I'll transfer it to my iPod touch and listen to it on my daily commute. The great thing about audio books, is that I finish them. With a longer commute there aren't the usual distractions that sometimes hinder me when reading a hard copy.

    As I am listening I can make mental notes of concepts or chapter headings that are worthy of further review. When I get to my destination I'll jot down keywords or chapter numbers and send an e-mail to myself from my phone. This only takes a minute but gives me a memory jogger for later review.

    If the book is good in audio form, I'll order the hard copy for reference and to pass along to friends. This is where the highlighter comes in handy. I really like your note taking symbols… I'll have to add those to my review routine!

    If the book is good, I'll usually blog about it. Having keywords or chapter heads is very helpful for finding the proper section for review. Here is where Amazon can be very helpful. If the book has a "look Inside" feature you can type in keywords in the search function to find the section you are looking for. Most books have a limited number of pages available via "look inside," but even if the page is not available this search feature will show you all the page numbers the term is on. Very helpful.

    For example, I listened to "What The Dog Saw," by Malcolm Gladwell on one of my commutes. As I was listening, the story of Ron Popeil came up and really made an impression on me. I made a note of the name and did a "search inside" review the next day when I wanted to blog about it. I couldn't figure out how to spell Popeil, but I remembered him talking about rotisserie ovens. I did a search with the word rotisserie and 9 pages came up on search. And page 4 had the quotation I was looking for and was one of the included sections. You can't copy and paste from the Amazon page, but it was easy to get the quotation exactly right.

    Audio books are great to listen to, but terrible for review. Many do not even have chapter breaks in them. Hopefully someone will come up with a better audio book format in the future. Until then, you can tell if the book was good or not by the fact that I purchased the hard copy after listening to the audio version.

    BTW… I noticed that Seth's Linchpin book disappeared on Amazon today… and then it reappeared later. Is he part of the iPad controversy that MacMillan is in?
    My recent post Shorten Your Tweets For Success

    • Michael Hyatt

      I like your routine. I often do the same: I start with the audio book and then go back to the print or Kindle version. (I occasionally do all three.)

      I do not know about Seth's book. Interesting.

  • @cheersears

    Fantastic post Michael – your blog is one of three must reads for me. I build a list in the front of the book by subject and page number allowing for faster filing by subject later – that way I can always find the quotes and ideas i require much faster in the future too. Following John Maxwell's advice if an author inspires me to change something, take action or start thinking about something in a completely new way I always try and let them know by email/mail.

  • Marla Taviano

    I don't know why, but I can't stand highlighters. I go through the book with a purple pen–underlining, asterisking, writing notes in the margins. If I love the book and read through it again later, I use a different color pen. I have 1 book with 4 colors of notes in it.

    • Michael Hyatt

      You and my wife are in the same camp. She doesn't like highlighters either. I think it's a matter of personal preference. Whatever works for you is fine by me. ;-)

  • Forrest Long

    I am usually reading five or six books at a time and go from one to another. Very seldom do I read fiction. If a book isn't something I am interested in I will stop and not torture myself with it. If I am really getting into a book I will do alot of underlining or highlighting. If it's a book relating to theology or biblical studies I often will make notes from it in a separate notebook to refer to later. And on my blog I often use quotes from some of my favorite books or ones I am presently reading. Thanks for the post and opportunity to share this.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I typically have 5-6 books going at one time, too. I call it “multi-channel reading.”

  • PaulSteinbrueck

    Thanks for the post. Perfect timing for me. I've been experimenting with different ways of reading books lately.

    I think #9 "Review the book and transfer actions to my to-do list" is huge. The main reason I read non-fiction is because I want to learn something that will help me live a better life. If I don't act on what I learn, it has little impact on my life. And if I don't put actions into my to-do list/schedule they don't happen.
    My recent post NBC News Video – One Person Making a Difference in Haiti

  • Ali

    I am like your wife and underline and fill the margins. I have found that doing this keeps me more engaged with what I am reading and helps me to remember the material. With particularly dense works that I know I will come back to, I might put a post-it note on a page with a reminder to myself about what the passage I liked said.

    I also might summarize at the end of a chapter some ideas if the book is difficult, and I have started using the front pages to add further notes. If something I read is particularly noteworthy, then I might copy a sentence or two into a small notebook that I carry in my purse. Usually such notes are restricted for theological ideas that I have heard over and over again that I want to remember.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I don't personally use post-it notes, but I know several people who do, including some in our dinner group the other night. I think this is a great idea.

  • Jodi Whisenhunt

    Whoa! "Don't feel that you need to finish…most books aren't worth finishing." Gee, it's so nice to read this from the HEAD of a BOOK PUBLISHER. How do you think that makes your authors feel? Or any author feel? Books contain not just pieces of a message but a complete message. They are meant to be read in their entirety. You cannot accurately share the book's message (#10) unless you have read the book through. I've read plenty of books that lost my interest partway through. Sure, some ended up boring me all the way through, but some picked up the pace and rolled with action, finally developing characters, or for non-fiction, finally making a pertinent point. Your message seems to tell us it's OK to judge a book by its cover (or its table of contents), and I must disagree.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Sorry but I have to disagree. It's the authors job to keep the reader engaged. You can argue all day long with what readers should do, but that isn’t going to change the reality that most won’t.

      What I am really arguing for is writers who write better books. With each turn of the page, the reader is making the decision to continue or to bail. I am not willing to give authors a pass. If a reader gives them the gift of attention—and this is not an entitlement—it is their job to be a good steward and not squander it.

      • Vicki Small

        I agree, Michael, and I'm not "kissing up"; this is what I tried to drill into my Freshman Composition students, when I was teaching. It is the writer's job to be engaging, clear and accurate (in the case of nonfiction). It is not the reader's job to read the writer's mind or to interpret correctly what the writer has said. The same principles hold true in public speaking, as well.
        My recent post A Hefty Dose of Hope

        • Jeremy Varo-Haub

          I'm also completely on board with this. There is no reason at all to feel compelled to finish *any* book. A good recommendation might keep me going, or an excellent table of contents that suggest something better coming down the road; but I just don't have time–especially with non-fiction–to struggle through a book that doesn't show early value.

          Also–and this just is what it is–so much non-fiction covers already-covered ground. I'm absolutely willing to "ransack" a non-fiction volume for whatever value it might have.

    • Gail

      I have a pile of unfinished books and don't feel guilty about that. I find that it's usually not the Content that bores me but the Style of the writer and how it has been written. When I find great content but unengaging writing I will skim the book to pick out some gold without the torture of the full read or go and find another author who covers the same territory.

      I refuse to read bad writing – period. I have discovered that the styles that annoy and bore me the most are more to do with a difference in personality and learning style between the author and myself More than anything else. Very detailed, melancholy, analytical books clash with my global, sanguine, activator self so I now don't even buy them in the first place.

      The joy in boring books is that they are a great antidote for insomnia :)

  • bondChristian

    Fantastic post. I love how most of these tips aren't actually about the reading of the book – they're about applying it or making it easier to get the information you want out of the book.

    One I'd add: set how much time you're going to spend with the book. Depending on how important the concepts are, you can spend longer or shorter reading it. Usually, we mindlessly read until we have the information we think we need. Sometimes it's good to set a time, which creates motivation to stay on track instead of lallygagging.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.
    My recent post 8 easy card games to rock any party… er, fellowship

  • Rick Yuzzi

    Thank you for #1. That relieves a lot of guilt. I often don't finish a book, either because I lose interest, or because there is a nugget of truth that could be said in 25 pages, but that is then seemingly repeated in various ways in order to stretch it into 250.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Unfortunately, that is publishing’s dirty little secret. Many books get published that should have been a magazine article or a blog post.

  • Brett Barner

    Wow, this is some of the best reading advice I’ve heard in a while. #1, Don’t feel that you need to finish, is such helpful news.

    I always feel I let someone down when I don’t read it all. Then I’m stuck with something I’m not enjoying and takes months to finish before I get another book that I actually enjoy reading. Thanks!

  • Kelly@Tabithas-Team

    I'm laughing in relief because I thought I was the only one didn't finish every book. It doesn't mean the book wasn't good – sometimes I just think the point was reached 3/4 of the way through.

    I also need to mark up my non-fiction books. I can't process the thoughts without a pen or pencil in hand. Once an author sent me an electronic copy of his book I would be reviewing in advance. I don't have an electronic reader, so I was reading on the computer screen and couldn't make notes. It was very frustrating. By the time the book came in the mail, I was 4 chapters into it but started back at the beginning so that I could take notes. I was much more relaxed and enjoyed the book.
    My recent post Have you ever attacked "Lillian Miller?"

  • Amber

    I need to employ a few of your "tips" in my reading! But then I like for books to remain in perfect condition :) I'll have to come up with my own system. Especially when I am reading books for review – sometimes I can't remember the important points I wanted to express in the review – a system is needed!

    My recent post Tea With Hezbollah by Ted DekKer & Carl Medearis

    • Michael Hyatt

      One of the most voracious readers I know, won't write in his books or even “break the spine.” He reverences books. However, he takes copious notes in a journal. I can’t argue with his approach. It works well for him.

  • Dave Stadel

    Great topic and great ideas. I don't use a highlighter; it is too distracting for me the next time I read the book. Some books I read, re-read, and will continue to read. An example of a book that could be re-read annually is The Magic of Thinking Big.

    I create an index for myself in the back of a book. In this I put the page number where my bracketed marks are and a one line note about what I've highlighted. On the actual page and in my index I code some things too. The coding: QQ for Quotable Quote, IT for Important Thought, NT for New Thought.

    The index w/ page numbers, a note, and the coding makes it very simple to get back into a book and find important ideas at a later date

    Thanks for continuing to share of your wisdom.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I loved the Magic of Thing Big. I have read and re-read that book. I have even bought it for my staff in the past.

  • Scoti Domeij

    ** I write "WP" beside every word picture.

    ** For topics I'm researching or a Bible study, I write a word in the margin, for example, "miracles."

    ** I create an acronym from the proposed title of the books I'm writing or thinking about writing. When I read content that's writing compost for a particular chapter, Bible study or research topic, I write the acronym in the margins. That way I can quickly flip through the book when I begin writing a chapter or want to brainstorm an idea with myself or pull a quote.

    ** Then I place that book on my writing compost shelf in my library related to the specific book or topic.

    ** For fiction books, I use different highlighter colors to dissect, for example, how the author weaves in a character's description or setting, how the author writes a page turning paragraph, foreshadowing, and paragraphs that elicit emotion, etc.
    My recent post Finding Balance

    • Michael Hyatt

      Excellent advice. I think John Maxwell uses a system where he marks the passage and then literally tears the pages out of the book so his assistant can enter relevant illustrations and quotes into his speaking prep system. I haven’t been quite that brave. (I revere books too much, I suppose.)

  • Amy Alkon

    As an author and columnist, I think the best thing I have going for me is a feeling of deep insecurity about boring people, and a willingness to edit the hell out of my work and pay an editor to tell me my writing sucks, and why, so I can make it unsuck. As a reader, I think more writers should think a whole lot less of themselves and their work, and we have many more readable books. -Amy Alkon,

    • Michael Hyatt

      Amen and amen!

  • lisa

    If it's not your book DON'T WRITE IN IT! I just had a library book this weekend that a previous reader had felt the need to make notes in the margins. If you're a margin writer, please please please, buy your own copy of the book. Don't deface public property.

    • Michael Hyatt

      That's an important point. One more reason to buy your own copy!

  • Chris Perez

    Thanks 4 the tips! I try 2 read 15 mins. per day and generally have multiple notepads where i take notes, etc. I especially like the idea of writing the notes in the front of the book…I start that 2day
    My recent post 12 Traits to Remember

  • Jaymie

    I read non-fiction books armed with a pen. I underline statements I like. I put stars by ones I really, really like. I will write comments or questions in the margins. When I am reading library books, however, I read with a notebook so I can take notes. I also have to frequently remind myself that I am reading a library book. Recently I got so excited about something I read, I put a bracket around a section before remembering it was a library book. The librarian was very forgiving when I confess what I had done.
    My recent post FRIDAY: Love Her to Death and Love You Madly

  • Jaymie

    I read non-fiction books armed with a pen. I underline statements I like. I put stars by ones I really, really like. I will write comments or questions in the margins. When I am reading library books, however, I read with a notebook so I can take notes. I also have to frequently remind myself that I am reading a library book. Recently I got so excited about something I read, I put a bracket around a section before remembering it was a library book. The librarian was very forgiving when I confess what I had done.
    My recent post FRIDAY: Love Her to Death and Love You Madly

  • Bill Whitt

    I have a system of underlining and dog-earing that works pretty well for me. I also like to check out author bios and tables of contents. I also use Visual Bookshelf on Facebook to rate and review books. Looking back on these helps me remember what I've read, and what I took away from each book.
    My recent post iPad = iYawn

    • Michael Hyatt

      I’ll have to check out that Facebook app.

  • @AndreaAresca

    Thanks for the post!
    What do you think about:
    1. reading just what is bold (titles…)
    2 .reading just the first sentence of each paragraph
    as methods for scanning the book?

    My recent post Ricordarsi le cose… quando serve!

  • Pat

    Excellent ideas, Michael. Thanks for sharing and for stimulating our thinking. As a fairly new, fairly old grad student (started seminary at 59) I'm always looking for better ways to not only read, but also retain and retrieve what I've read. I find highlighters to be annoying when I go back to a book, want to sell it, or buy one used. And don't like dog-earring pages. So here are my best ideas.

    –I underline in pencil, with a ruler to keep it nice and neat. That way if the book is a dog, I can erase the underlining and pass it on. If I keep the book, the underlining is useful without being obtrusive.
    –I use small post-it notes to tab pages that have a concept I'll want to go back to. I write one or two words on the edge that will stick out over the edge of the pages, and can make additional notes on the body of the note. Or not. This helps me find not just "a" page I want to go back to, but "the" page. Most of my books now have MANY tabs — the sign of a well-read book.
    –If I need to remember more, I'll make notes on a larger Post-It and stick it right on the page. This may be dialogue with the book, a numbered list or outline, key points, or something I will want to pull for a talk or paper.
    –I also make lots of penciled notes in the margins and sometimes in the white space above the chapter head.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I used to read with a pen and a small ruler. In fact, that’s exactly how I read the Bible. (The highlighter soaks through the thin paper.)

  • @FraserStrategy

    Great tips and comments thus far!

    I have the attention span of a 5 years old so the only place I can read is on the bike at my gym. I like it though, works my body and my brain, I challenge everyone to try it.
    Because I am on a bike I don’t have a highlighter but I must say my favorite books have many ‘dog-eared’ pages. What I don’t do hardly enough is go back and review my flagged pages.
    I really like the idea of putting these things on a to-do list, I’m going to try and will report back!

    Thanks for the insight.


  • dannyjbixby

    I've thought about implementing a note-taking strategy while reading. But since I read most of my books through the library system, I may have to come up with a bit of a variant on the one you've got listed up there ;)

    Though tips 1-4 & 10 are perfectly usable already, and #1 is some easily overlooked gold nugget advice.

    My recent post How Has God Changed You?

  • KarenEJordan

    Thanks for the tips! I like the highlighting feature on Kindle, too. But how do you "read" a fiction book for book reviews? I'm having a difficult time trying to read every book completely–especially if they don't interest me. Help!

  • PJ McClure

    Thanks Michael. I use many of the same methods when reading non-fiction and I also employ a little bit of my manufacturing experience.

    In order to get through the amount of reading I needed during my trek through a master's degree, I instituted a Just-In-Time (JIT) philosophy. I used to read cover to cover in order "not to miss anything that I might need." This was miserable and more of a Just-In-Case approach.

    When I pick up a book now, I make a note just inside the cover about what I expect to get out of this book. Then I review the author, table of contents, and cover notes to decide if I feel like I can get what I'm seeking.

    I might adjust my settings a little, but for the most part, I go through the book with an objective and once I accomplish that objective, I move on. If I get far enough in and don't feel like I'm on track, I usually put it down and head to the next book.

    My recent post Loss, gain, and the gift of life

  • Rachel H. Evans

    When I read, I like to circle words I don't know (or don't use very often) and then go back and look them up. The cool thing about my (oh-so-old-school) Kindle is that I can look up words immediately.
    My recent post Embracing Doubt

  • Lynn Kehler

    I rarely finish a book. For the longest, I felt guilty about this practice. However, I believe that most books could be significantly shorter and still get the point across — perhaps even more effectively!

    I usually read and scan non-fiction books for the key take-aways, and skip over the detailed and laborious examples and illustrations. It’s good to know that you and others follow this practice…now I don’t feel as guilty!

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  • @ReachingWomen

    Michael, excellent post as usual!

    When I read non-fiction I have a black pen and a yellow highlighter handy. In books that I re-read I go back through them with a different colored pen or highlighter. It's always interesting to see what strikes me most after each reading. I use most of the techniques you listed. However, I could never dog ear pages! Guess the school librarians drilled that one in good!

    I like symbols. I use the star for important things I want to remember and an arrow if I will use it for a quote. I really like your ballot box idea; I’ll have to try that one. I rarely read fiction, although now that I'm in BookSneeze maybe that will change.

    Thanks for your wonderful blogs! I look forward to getting them every day. Blessings…

    My recent post: Perseverance

  • @tangentrider

    Here's my take on reading non-fiction books:

    1. Don’t feel that you need to finish. => I'm working on this one.
    2. Start with the author bio. => This is one of those things I know I should do, but forget.
    3. Read the table of contents. => I do this as part of Adler's "inspectional reading," along with dust jacket/back cover, index scan, and your #4
    4. Quickly scan the whole book. => yup
    5. Highlight important passages. => I don't do highlighters (I had to go cold turkey, as I was, in my younger years, one of those who highlighted entirely too much).
    6. Take notes in the front or the margins. => 3 types of notes prevail: summary/function notes, disagreement notes, connection elsewhere in book or in another work
    7. Use a set of note-taking symbols. => I use symbols as well. I put a double vertical line next to book main claims, an asterisk next to chapter main claims, a vertical wavy line next to key points, a vertical line next to quotable sections, and a question mark next to points that need dialogue (usually disagreements)
    8. Dog-ear pages you want to re-visit. => I am part of the anti-dogear crowd…
    9. Review the book and transfer actions to my to-do list. => this is a great idea!!
    10. Share the book’s message. => I have just started posting micro-reviews on one of my blogs and larger reviews on another (some of which will be booksneeze books, as I just joined and received my first book).

    Great summary!
    My recent post Journey to Health: From Pudgy to Primal

  • Colleen Coble

    I mostly read non fiction for research for my novels. I have those little post it tabs to mark pages of critical research and I highlight what is important on those pages where I put the tab. It works great for me!

  • Shawneda Crout Marks

    For books I give five star reviews I keep and put on my calendar to create a Sunday School curriculum other than that I post a review and donate to a library so I know I can always borrow if needed again!

  • Lucille Zimmerman

    Mike, when I went back to grad school I was taught the fine are of skimming. It helps me to read triple the amount of books I could typically read. I don't know if it's true, but I was also told you actually learn and retain more when you skim. Does anyone know if that's true? Unfortunately, becoming a skimmer makes if difficult for me to slow down and savor a really juicy novel.

    • @tangentrider

      I don't have any research evidence, but my experience since starting my doctoral program provides some anecdotal evidence. We learned about skimming last term–inspectional reading–and were encouraged (AKA nagged) into implementing it.
      My recent post Journey to Health: From Pudgy to Primal

  • Vicki Small

    "Don’t feel that you need to finish"–unless, of course, you're a brb and reading the book for review! ;)
    My recent post A Hefty Dose of Hope

  • Jeremy Varo-Haub

    We're just in the middle of wrestling with "rapid reading" concepts in my Master of Arts in Global Leadership cohort at Fuller Seminary. One of the references we used in our discussion was a little book called "Reading on the Run" by Bobby Clinton. Michael, it takes your recommendations further and actually suggests six levels of reading, ranging from scanning to studying.

    Here's what's neat about this conversation: well-written non-fiction books can be difficult to unpack, but when you scan the book first, and especially when you ask yourself, "what is this author telling us? What is his/her thesis?" it makes a deeper read easier to absorb–because you understand how every paragraph fits into the larger picture.

    If anyone is interested in grabbing Clinton's book, you can buy it on Amazon, or you can get a PDF of it here:

    It's been incredibly useful to me.

    And by the way, I was a lit. major, and I also NEVER rapid read fiction. Different literary form, different set of requirements for reading.

  • WordVixen

    I rarely read non-fiction because in most cases the author spends far too much time inflating what should be a long article into a full length book. Self Help is especially bad about this. What could be very useful gets buried under a lot of drivel. (Sorry, just noticed that Rick Yuzzi said the same thing)

    This doesn't seem to be the case with history and some other types of non-fiction, though. So, often I borrow books from friends, use their recommendations, or scan a book before buying it to make sure that it actually has useful or interesting information (bonus if it has both). Once I get it home, I read it straight through. If it fails to interest me, it usually gets shelved with my To Be Read pile with the intention of getting back to it eventually (though it rarely happens, or it happens in increments). If it can't be read straight through, it's not worth reading (in my opinion). If something really strikes me or I want to spend more time on a particular spot, I jot a note down with page number, approximate placement on the page, and usually a portion of the text as an added reminder. Then I stick that paper into the book at that page number (or I keep a post it at the beginning with all the notes together).

    That said, I just received In Search of God and Guiness from BookSneeze and I'm loving it! The author has a great style and a genuine interest in his subject. I may be purchasing his book on Churchill after this. I may also be buying a Guinness.
    My recent post Mrs. Winterbourne’s Big Fat Greek Wedding

  • Leslie Raney

    Thank you. Out of respect to the author I feel I need to finish a book but if the author does not captivate me by the end of chapter 1 – I'm done. Sorry, author.

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  • Bonnie

    I cannot read a non-fiction book without some kind of writing instrument in my hand. For several years medication & stress significantly hampered my ability to concentrate. So I often use a pencil to mark & annotate a book on my 1st read-through, which is usually fast. And if it didn’t keep my interest, I don’t finish.

    There are some authors whose books I ALWAYS read at least twice (Beth Moore, Henry Cloud, John Townsend. At this point I switch to highlighter or pen. If a book contains more than 2 colors, it’s a book that significantly impacted me or expect to weave into my teaching or writing.

    I also make notes and use symbols in the margins, but haven’t followed a consistent system. I plan to try your symbols, Michael.

    One of the most valuable things I’ve done lately is to create my own index of Scripture references when the publisher hasn’t done so. (Hint! Hint!) Quite often a Scripture will trigger a memory, but not enough detail to find it. If Google, Amazon or Barnes & Noble have not made the book searchable, I can waste a lot of time looking for the reference. (Kindle isn’t in the budget yet.)

    Thanks for the tips, Michael. Sounds like it was a great dinner party!

  • Geoff Webb

    I love how C.S. Lewis starts Chapter 25 of Mere Christianity (Time and Beyond Time):

    "It is a very silly idea that in reading a book you must never 'skip'. All sensible people skip freely when they come to a chapter which they find is going to be no use to them. In this chapter I am going to talk about something which may be helpful to some readers, but which may seem to others merely an unnecessary complication. If you are one of the second sort of readers, then I advise you not to bother about this chapter at all but to turn on to the next."
    My recent post 3 Ways to Make Yourself Easy to Follow

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  • Tiffany Stuart

    I read my books almost the same way. Except I don't like to dog-ear books, I feel it ruins them. Yellow highlighter and a pen are a must for non-fiction books I own. I often use my journal too if I really want to remember something. I struggle when I read a library non-fiction book because I cannot make them mine with added words and color. :) I stop if the book bores me and I don't feel guilty. There are too many good books to feel like I have to finish one I'm done with. I sometimes speed read or skim books to get the general idea. Books are the best!!
    My recent post Question for You Today

  • patriciazell

    Wow, the effort everyone puts into reading books. I wonder what would happen if a lot of people would read the Bible the same way–it is the only book that I have dug into like Michael suggests. Most of the non-fiction I have recently read has been for my master's degree, has been about writing, or has been about health, exercise, and food. At most, I underline because I'm pretty good at remembering where I read things. I heartily agree with those who have said that non-fiction writers need to be concise–one of things I like most about writing my book through my blog is that it forces me to get to the point quickly. I no longer sound so technical and boring.
    My recent post #28 BECOMING A SON OF GOD: THE NEW BIRTH

  • Joe

    I am thankful to hear from such a well respected person, "I read until I lose interest. Then I move onto the next book. This is the secret to reading more." Liberation! Nah, seriously, great blog post!

  • Daniel Decker

    Woops. Smiley above was supposed to be B )

  • David Horne

    one method I have learned to use is to read chapter one with a hi-lighter. Then read the hi-lights from chapter one then read chapter two. Before reading chapter three, read the hi-lights for chapters one and two. By doing this for several chapters at a time you can read a book several times by the time you get finished.

  • Darren Ethier

    I highlight as well but then after I'm done reading the book I go through it again and record any quotes that significantly impacted me into my tumblr. The main reason for this is so I can recall that quote using search when I remember something I read related to what I'm speaking on or writing about BUT can't remember where I read it.

    Also, going through the book a second time to pull out the highlighted quotes really helps to solidify the things I learned from the book.

  • David A Knapp

    When I like a book I find myself on Google to see what kind of life the person lived. I can't get myself to Dog-ear the pages. That would be like throwing my children in the mud ;)

    I am glad I have permission to stop reading boring books. I always feel so guilty for doing so.
    My recent post Is Intense Debate Worth It?

  • Keng-Sheng CHEW

    This is one of the best post I have read in your blog, Mike! In addition to what you have mentioned, I find the practice of random reading of chapters particularly helpful: when I am in the mood to read a particular chapter in a book, say, Chapter 6, I would rather jump straight to read that particular chapter that interests me, rather than going through chapter by chapter from 1,2,3,…. 'cause by the time I reach Chapter 4, I could have lost my willpower to read Chapter 6 especially if the first few chapters are lengthy and draggy!

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  • @allenkenya

    I almost always finish a book that I start. The exceptions are usually works of fiction when the language or violence or sensuality "cross the line". I laughed reading you post because I do some of the same things — write in the margins (an ongoing conversation, like your wife, if I disagree with the author), notes on the back pages for things that I might want to look at again, arrows in the margin pointing to underlined sentences, quotes typed into my iPhone notes that I want to use in my e-mail signature, dog-eared pages when I want to quickly find something again.

    A college textbook that I've kept now for 35+ years and reread a couple of time is How to Read a Book by Mortimer & Doren Adler. Seems silly to read a book about reading books but it's an excellent guide to reading thoughtfully and critically.
    My recent post Is Running a 'Waste of Time'?

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  • Alyssa

    Totally with you here, I tend to “study” a non-fiction book. I underline, or highlight and I take notes. I often stop reading even if I’m not done and the parts I like I tend to go back and read again. I have read many books like this more than once.

  • Melissa Knauer

    Michael, I'm currently reading a book on Nonverbal Learning Disorders because my daughter has Asperger Syndrome. There is so much in this book that is helpful to me and I can't get my mind to focus on any one section or chapter. I tend to go back and forth, here and there, whatever catches my fancy at the moment. As haphazard as this may sound, it really works for me. Melissa Knauer

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  • @healingsoul

    Simply beautiful. If we can only stay open to such experiences God will place them in our life just when we need it. We need to be willing though to see it with our spirit, like you did, are we miss the gift.

    • @healingsoul

      Michael, I posted this comment to another article your had written and I thought it didn't go through because it popped up again. So I am sorry the same comment got posted to this send article and it is not applicable to the article here.

      Just wanted you to know so you can delete this one.
      My recent post Tea Party Convention in Nashville Truth

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  • Micah Green

    Great post! I've found Steve Leveen's _Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life_ very helpful-he echoes some of the tips that you offer here. Your blog provides some great counsel to believers who desire to be good stewards of the leadership roles that they have been given. I cannot believe I have only recently discovered this site-thanks again!

  • Clara Tenny

    Since I don't have a lot of money, I check out many of my non-fiction books from the library, or borrow them from friends. I also have a favorite local used bookstore where I can resell books I don't intend to keep. So marking in books is not always a good option for me. Instead, I make use of post-its and I also have a three-ring binder where I keep a collection of favorite quotes as well as notes from things I've read. That way the books I own are not damaged to a point where I can't resell them and library books are kept in good condition for the next person to borrow them.

  • Lyndie Blevins

    I always read the extras – forward, intro , epilogue
    I find the author often hides the best in these, either intentionally or not

  • BarbaraBoucher PTPhD

    As a frequent public library user I use those little sticky arrows to mark sentences I want to revisit. If it is important to me I create a document file with reference information and type-in marked passages.

    My recent post Childhood Expressions Blog Carnival

  • helinbill

    This is the post I was waiting for. Great teaching. Well done. Thank you Michael for doing such a great job. Reading a non fiction book, I will first scan the chapter. I call this reading "diagonally" then I will re-read and annotate the important passage. I may do a third reading (especially if this is a school project)

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  • wordsbyrobin

    I employ many of the same practices. I recently got so frustrated with a paper back book by a well known pastor that turned out to be the opposite of what I believe Jesus' teaching to be on a certain subject that I "retitled" the book in ball point pen right across the front. I usually take a book with me wherever I go because you never know when you'll be able to squeeze in a few minutes of reading time. I always have that ball point pen.

  • @SkipsMKGirl

    so glad you re-posted, will use this when I receive my signed copy of Max Lucado's new book!

  • Doug Orwig

    I'm curious how reading a Kindle or Nook version of a book changes how you go mark pages and passages.
    I teach and I often suggest my students do almost exactly as you recommend, but I'm not sure how to "translate" this to an ebook format.

    • Michael Hyatt

      It is pretty similar to a physical book. You just highlight the text and mark it as a highlight. On the Kindle, all of these get uploaded as a text file to your account on the Kindle Web site. It is very hand for pulling quotes, as you don’t have to re-type the text.

  • Donna Clute

    I read with a highlighted, pen & small post it’s. I Highlight what stands out to me or resonates with me. I write notes next to things that really catch my attention and I want to remember how I think I’ll use it when teaching. I’ll also make notes if I’m pre-reading for somebody else of things that I think are important for them. Finally in addition to dog eared pages I use small post it’s to lead me back to anything that I frequently need to reference or to point somebody to someplace specific. This gives me a place to make temporary notes that I don’t necessarily need for the long term. Post it’s also help me to be reminded of stuff when I shuffle my library. When organizing books on my shelves I review post it’s in my books. If I still need the info I leave them and if I don’t I pull them and continue to sort my shelves.

  • Joshua Hood

    Another great article, Mike. Doesn’t it seem tragic that we waste so much excellent materials from books simply because we read through them without ‘digesting’ them? What good is an encounter with great information if we don’t remember and apply that information to our lives?

    Joshua Hood

    • Michael Hyatt

      Amen to that. Thanks!

  • W. Mark Thompson

    Seems like I do all of these except #1. My OCD mind won’t let me stop reading until after I finished the book. Consequently, if the book is bad, it takes me forever to finish. BUT, I have been known to be reading 3 books at a time.  :)

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  • Raj Thandhi

    Thank you for sharing this. For years I’ve been using my collection of non-fiction books as a learning tool, and have had several people tell me how crazy it is to “mark them all up”. I also highlight, take notes, and even use post-it flags to mark pages. Somehow I get more out of the book this way.


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  • Doyouneedtheland

    Hi Friends!

    Have u read an interesting ‘The Heaven’ fiction book by Pimpoyo de Loyola?

  • Catalyst John

    Loved this bog Michael! I use an star (important), an “A” (action), and a “Q” (quote I want to capture).