The Art of Highlighting

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For many years I never really understood the point of highlighting markers. Or why some people preferred highlighting while others wrote notes. But blame it on my youth. As I grew and read more, I learned to read between the lines of notemaking as well. I thought I’d post some of the highlights (pun not intended) of this art — and it is an art — as I wish someone would have done for me when I was younger.

I distinctly remember that I fully understood that highlighting/taking notes was about turning a large chunk of text into a short, descriptive summary. That’s exactly what it is of course, but there’s a lot more to it. There’s an art to identifying what to summarize. To be able to read over a large chunk of text, put it into context with your goals (or emphases, or your instructor’s emphases, or other) and then using that to find the shortest sentences possible that yet say as much as possible: that’s the art. A skill that can (unfortunately) only be developed by practice and more practice.

A Problem

There are no specific how-to’s on how to filter out what’s important, as it depends on multiple factors. One was mentioned before (emphasis), another is the field of study – there’s a difference between reviewing a novel as opposed to a book on artificial intelligence. An added issue is the form of presentation; are we taking notes from a lecture, or a book, or a movie, an article, a presentation, webpage or a blog entry? Each of these tend to follow different writing styles (including author-specific writing styles) and hence, in addition to what your study interests are, no specific recipe can be universally applied to filter out the juicy bits.

A Solution

What you can do is realize up front what it is you’re interested in summarizing and consciously apply yourself throughout the reading/lecture/other to find correlations with your topics of interest. Don’t take it for granted that the author has already put his material forth in a manner which fleshes out the good parts. Critically examine the text and you’ll soon realize that often the writer treats remarkable information like trash — and leaves many things out completely. Sometimes this is inadvertently, or due to lack of space, but more often because his interest and way of thinking differ from yours.

More Solutions

After having read more than a few books, articles and other literature; I’ve developed a basic repertoire of how I take notes. Below is the general layout of my Scientific Research Mode, but is useful to many others nonetheless. I find that to do a basic review of something, I need at least three types of pens. These are:

  • A Yellow Highlighting Marker
  • An Orange Highlighting Marker
  • A Black, regular pen

The yellow highlighter I use for highlighting what I find really interesting. The orange highlighter I use for things that I need to examine more closely, think about, or what bothers me. Finally, the pen is for writing down questions, thoughts and ideas that I think of while reading.

Using a sweatband as a placeholder for pensI recently discovered that a rather useless fashion object had academic value in this context: I started using a wristband (or a sweatband) for storing the pens while reading (see picture above). Really useful, as you don’t have to continually recap the suckers, misplace them or even take your eyes of the text to use them. For any university student, this is the bomb. A small sidetrack: Did you know Wikipedia has an entry on wristbands? For deeper exploration than basic reviews, taking notes in a notebook would additionally be the way to go, with added references to other works and the whole package.

Some minor tips are (1) highlight text, when there’s other non-important stuff in between, so that it can be read as a sentence, skipping the details. (2) Take notes when the text is too long to waste your precious yellow-highlighting ink on, summarizing it from the original. (3) When you use the orange “I Wonder?” marker, add a short blurb on the side explaining what your beef is.

Obviously, honing your skills at identifying what’s important or interesting will increase your productivity manifold. Becoming adept at quickly identifying the essence of texts will help you understand the rest of what you’re reading more easily, simultaneously making it easier to remember. We live in a time where information is basically overflowing – effective summarization is vital to get an overview of what’s available out there. And then to gain deeper understanding of the material you wish to inspect further.

This has been my highlighting the Art of Highlighting. I hope you found it useful. Feel free to share more thoughts and tips on this subject as comments.

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16 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Dani

    very very good advice. I liked it.

  2. Brian

    This is an awsome article. 5/5.

  3. Glad you enjoyed it Brian.

  4. names

    thanks for sharing with us this great method of highlighting & the meaning behind it

  5. hazeeq from malaysia

    wow dats good enuf . =) but i got a question. How if i want to highlight notes in a book where the book is abridge already? It looks like i need to highlight all the points given bcoz i think it is important. U guys got any idea?

  6. Patricia Gibson

    I am a devoted Highlighter from way back and I will never stop highlighting because I want the part I am trying to focus on and remember to go back too stand out. I truly feel that it is daily ritual that I must do to be good at my courses at Kaplan University. In fact I just bought a whole big box of them just for my studies. So Hale To The Highlighter…

  7. Antonio K

    Awesome article. The wristband is a fantastic idea!! Purchasing tomorrow, thanks!

  8. Loarn Austin

    You are obviously lefthanded.

  9. Harris

    Would you know of an app that allows one to highlight the way you described highlighting to be.

  10. You mean automatically. If so, no. That’d require an AI capable of understanding context as well as the reasons you have for actually studying something. That tech doesn’t exist. Sorry.

  11. That dude

    Thanks bro

  12. William Chong

    Thanks for the tips – very useful! However, I am troubled when one of my colleagues told my students that using highlighters (with fluorescent ink) can actually make you stupid. Care to comment on this?

  13. Very interesting tips, i learned from it. I’ve been using one highlight for entire book which sometimes gave me hard time a bit where i should concentrate much. You made it, thanks.

  14. joanna

    This is Exactly what I have been looking for; I’ve had some ideas on How to highlight and What to highlight, but this is a much cleaner method. I am totally into it and am practicing the ‘Art of Highlighting’ at this moment!

  15. Rachel

    Very helpful article, thank you! I like the idea of using different colours and the wristband idea is awesome.

  16. Arun

    Indeed, helpful! Thanks for sharing.

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