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Field Report #5: How I Prepare Reading and Processing Effective Notetaking by Fiona McPherson

imageField Report #5: How I Prepare Reading and Processing Effective Notetaking by Fiona McPherson

When you process a book into your Zettelkasten you should prepare both the book and your Zettelkasten. I set clear expectations and why I am reading a book; I review the table of content to generate a mental map; I review the table of content to generate a mental map; I plan what I will use the book for within my Zettelkasten.

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Post edited by ctietze on

Comments

  • Thanks for this.
    How we select reading material is becoming more and more critical. I love that you and Fiona McPherson map out specific strategies for prepping to read a book and checking the validity of the author's claims.

    I didn't want to read yet another theoretical book by an educationalist. So I reviewed the bibliography to see the ratio of articles to books. Many books and few articles is a sign that the book is not based on primary research. Luckily, the ratio was satisfying and there were no red flags that popped up when I skimmed the titles. (If you want to have a glimpse into the reason behind this read Layers of Evidence).

    @Sascha, this is the first time I've heard about considering the ratio of books to research papers in a bibliography as a measure of the tenor of a book, but it makes perfect sense. Skimming the titles of the bibliography listing is another excellent tip. Reviewing a bibliography is something I could be doing with more regularity.

    Reviewing the TOC and creating my mental map of a book in preparation for reading is something I don't do. I see this now as a failing, a character defect in myself. I know better and want to do better. I'd avoid reading mistakes if I took the time to create a mental map either in my noggin or on paper or with mind mapping software.

    Will Simpson
    “Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
    kestrelcreek.com

  • @Will said:
    @Sascha, this is the first time I've heard about considering the ratio of books to research papers in a bibliography as a measure of the tenor of a book, but it makes perfect sense. Skimming the titles of the bibliography listing is another excellent tip. Reviewing a bibliography is something I could be doing with more regularity.

    Yeah. I was happy when I figured that out. It is case by case metric though.

    Reviewing the TOC and creating my mental map of a book in preparation for reading is something I don't do. I see this now as a failing, a character defect in myself. I know better and want to do better. I'd avoid reading mistakes if I took the time to create a mental map either in my noggin or on paper or with mind mapping software.

    I think this step is useful but overrated. It helps to understand the authors intentions and how they tackle the issue at hand. But it is only the first anchor and it is very likely you'll develop this map during the reading process anyhow.

    I am a Zettler

  • @Sascha said:

    Reviewing the TOC and creating my mental map of a book in preparation for reading is something I don't do. I see this now as a failing, a character defect in myself. I know better and want to do better. I'd avoid reading mistakes if I took the time to create a mental map either in my noggin or on paper or with mind mapping software.

    I think this step is useful but overrated. It helps to understand the authors intentions and how they tackle the issue at hand. But it is only the first anchor and it is very likely you'll develop this map during the reading process anyhow.

    It is overrated for the experienced, skilled reader. But I'm maybe approaching the journeyman phase. The beginner wants to do this at the beginning of the read, revise it during the read and refactor it again as they onboard it to their ZK. Sure, with deliberate practice and feedback skills will develop, making parts of this process redundant for the expert. But I'm not there yet.

    One clear lesson from Effective Notetaking by Fiona McPherson is that reading and note-making are learnable skills with proven approaches.

    Will Simpson
    “Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
    kestrelcreek.com

  • Thanks for sharing this.

    I recently went through the text fairly quickly. One thing that I thought afterwards was that the book seemed to be a bit more about reading than taking notes.

    Not sure if others came away with that.

    Any way. I appreciated the post. I liked your emphasis on having an intention/goal in reading. That too stood out a lot in my reading and I find it difficult to stick to since learning is fun. :smile:

  • @Will said:

    @Sascha said:

    Reviewing the TOC and creating my mental map of a book in preparation for reading is something I don't do. (...)

    I think this step is useful but overrated. (...)

    It is overrated for the experienced, skilled reader. But I'm maybe approaching the journeyman phase. The beginner wants to do this at the beginning of the read, revise it during the read and refactor it again as they onboard it to their ZK. Sure, with deliberate practice and feedback skills will develop, making parts of this process redundant for the expert. But I'm not there yet.

    You have a point. I need to scale back my claim a little bit. From memory, I even think that McPherson stated that this technique benefits the inexperienced more than the experienced since the experienced ones are doing this automatically/subconsciously.

    There is a deleted paragraph in this article which perhaps highlights my fallacy. There are two structural guides that orient the reading process in my view:

    1. The "nature of the book". This is basically a mental model of the entire book. Sometimes, it can be compressed to a single atomic thought (like Conscilience by E.O. Wilson). Sometimes, it can be compressed into a flow diagram (like Effective Notetaking).
    2. The usability hypothesis. This is basically the incrementally growing set of structures you want to improve your Zettelkasten when processing the book.

    To me, reading is divided into two components:

    1. The ongoing building of the mental model (1).
    2. Selecting and isolating ideas and their (to me) useful connections to everything I am aware of (within the book but also in my Zettelkasten)

    My intuition was that (1) Is something that happens anyhow (hence my claim that this conscious step is overrated). But it is an empircal question that should be answered evidence based.

    But using the Zettelkasten Method we are ripping books apart anyhow. So, the whole is less important I think. And it becomes less important the more own structures you build in your Zettelkasten.

    One clear lesson from Effective Notetaking by Fiona McPherson is that reading and note-making are learnable skills with proven approaches.

    Definetely. The emphasis should be on skill it is not something you learn once but that you practice continuesly.


    @rwrobinson said:
    Thanks for sharing this.

    I recently went through the text fairly quickly. One thing that I thought afterwards was that the book seemed to be a bit more about reading than taking notes.

    There is no real difference if you think about the boundaries between reading and notetaking.

    1. Moving the eyes over text: Sounds like reading.
    2. Highlighting key words while reading: Still sounds like reading.
    3. Jotting down keywords in the margins: Some writing, but still could count as reading.
    4. Writing tasks in the marings (e.g. "Should compare that to Buddhism"): Don't know.
    5. Reformulating key sections in your own words: Sounds like writing. But could be just the externalisation of what could be internal. Does make a difference if you stop and think about what you read or do it in written form?

    Not very formal. But hopefully my point gets across. I think it is more productive to think about the expected outcome: Learning. Notetaking and Reading are just two tools on a spectrum from passive-receptiv to active-productive.

    I think the book is in the difficult (and not important) to define grey zone.

    Any way. I appreciated the post. I liked your emphasis on having an intention/goal in reading. That too stood out a lot in my reading and I find it difficult to stick to since learning is fun. :smile:

    My suspicion is, however, that it narrows the mind in some harmful ways (open question: Are there more benefits than downsides?). Very often, I just harvest everything that I can find without any pre-defined purpose.

    I don't know how easy it is to keep open-minded with various intensities of commitment to the reading goal.

    I am a Zettler

  • For posterity and search engines, I'd like to point out that the RPG mechanics including different "runs" between which you level up is typical for the Rogue-like sub-genre. So if anyone remembering this post as "the roguelike Zettelkasten metaphor post", here you go :)

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • @Sascha said:
    My suspicion is, however, that it narrows the mind in some harmful ways (open question: Are there more benefits than downsides?). Very often, I just harvest everything that I can find without any pre-defined purpose.

    I don't know how easy it is to keep open-minded with various intensities of commitment to the reading goal.

    That makes sense.

    One of the best examples I have seen of someone reading knowing their intended goals in read was in Andy Matuschak's live stream from September of 2021.

    I took notes on this live stream and wrote the following:

    As he is going through it’s a very slim reading. He can do this because he knows exactly what he is looking for beforehand. That is, he isn’t really looking for what the author is trying to do in their structure, but finding the ideas he cares about.
    He wants to find the conclusions that are interesting to him.
    What is juicy? Juicy would have to be determined by his deeper knowledge of the domain beforehand. He can see what is a new idea to him.
    His background knowledge really helps him to know what he is looking at and interested in. Once he figures out what he finds interesting, he dives into the details and thinks through it carefully while writing notes.

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