Atomic essay #19 – how I do research: part two (reading and highlighting)

Once I've prepared my pre-reading list and lines of enquiry, I can start reading.

Atomic essay #19 – how I do research: part two (reading and highlighting)
Photo by Thought Catalog / Unsplash

Once I've prepared my pre-reading list and lines of enquiry, I can start reading. When I have a big list, I pick one of the following to help me choose where to start:

  • The text that looks like it might give the best overview of the topic
  • The text that looks like it'd be the most fun to read
  • The text that looks short / accessible

I'm not joking with 2 and 3. More often than not, they're the ones I go with. I should , I suppose, start with 1, and I do sometimes, but a lot of the time I find the text that has a provocative title, which usually means it'll have a bit of vim to the writing. When I'm facing a big reading list, I want to get stuck in quickly to the topic positively and get some ideas bouncing around. Lively and short texts are a good way to do that. Once I'm in the zone I'll tend to tackle meatier tomes. I do this because I have the attention span of a toddler. So working with and not against my brain helps: your mileage may vary.

So, I read. Wherever I can, I read digitally. Here's what I do as I read the following:

  • Kindle books: I read on either my Kindle or on my iPad. As I read, I use the highlight function. I have all highlights set up to be automatically synced to a service called Readwise. Readwise is excellent and I recommend it to anyone who wants to keep track of what they read. You set it up to receive book highlight and comments from many sources, of which Kindle is one of many. There's a subscription cost, but it's worth it, because app developers need to buy shoes for their children too. I'll explain what I do with all these highlights later.
  • Online articles: I save these to Pocket, which is a read-later service. Instapaper is the other one; I use Pocket for research because it lets you add multiple tags to a source, whereas Instapaper is folder-based (I use Instapaper for saving non-research articles). Why not just read directly off the web? There are a few reasons. Most websites fall somewhere on the readability scale between just bearable and abjectly awful; one has to fend off pop-ups, wrangle multiple tabs, and be distracted with all the other content on the page. Pocket strips this all away to the raw text and images. Much better. Pocket (and Instapaper) both let me take highlights as I read on any device; these then automatically sync to Readwise.
  • Fiddly online articles: some webpages are a pain to navigate and don't save into Pocket / Instapaper properly. For this, I use an iPad app called Command. This lets me highlight webpages within its browser, save the highlights and have them sync automatically to Readwise.
  • PDFs: these are not fun. I've been through lots of different ways to extract highlights from them. I now use a Mac / iPad app called Highlights, which lets me highlight a PDF digitally and extract the highlights into a separate document. I like having the highlights; you could always just read a PDF and write your notes as you go, like a normal person.
  • Physical books: Readwise lets you use its mobile app to capture images from physical books and highlight them, but as impressive as this is I don't use it because it breaks my immersion, and then I get distracted by my phone (which I sometimes have to leave in someone else's house to avoid getting distracted by it). Instead, I read with a small notepad and pencil. If something resonates with me as I read, I make a small mark in the book in pencil and jot a quick note in the notebook. The note contains the page number and as little information as possible to jog my memory later.
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Why do all this? Why funnel everything into Readwise? Why not just read things and write notes down as I go / afterwards? The proper answer comes in subsequent posts, but I can offer a partial explanation now.

I mentioned earlier that I wanted the highlights. The reasons I want the highlights is because of what was going on in my head when I took them; it will have been one of these things:

  • I learned something new. This might have been from scratch, or it might have given me a fresh perspective. I love learning new things and I associate it with a particular physical frisson as well as a mental one. When I re-read the highlight, I recall how I felt when I took it. I might annotate a note to go with the highlight, too (Kindle, Pocket, Command and Highlights all let me do this) to remind me of the nature of the resonance. I don't take a note like this very often; I don't want to be brought out of the reading and distracted.
  • I had my preconceptions challenged and/or changed. This is memorable and I love it when it happens. Being wrong is glorious no matter how much it seems like my fragile ego pretends it doesn't like it. Suffice it to say such moments are memorable and are jogged by re-encountering the highlight.
  • One of my questions (see part one) was answered, in whole or in part. I might leave a note here.

These are the reasons I highlight; the highlight jogs my memory when I take Literature Notes post-reading. Originally I was going to include the making of LN in this post, but it deserves its own, which I'll post tomorrow. But back to the reading process. It's an active process – I am looking for answers to my questions, challenges to my pre-conceptions and unexpected discoveries. Funnelling everything into Readwise means that I don't lose track of any of the highlights, because the highlights are proxies for the insights themselves, which are the whole reason I'm reading and researching in the first place. All these highlights ultimately make their way into my note-taking app, and I use them as the foundation for all notes that follow.

I'll leave you with a scrawled post-it that probably doesn't help in explaining the workflow so far whatsoever.