I’m Lou Franco and this is episode 33 of Write While True.
The name of this podcast is a program that goes into an infinite loop, and that’s because I think of writing as an infinite game.
It’s like a game of catch, which is even more fun when you get better at it, but the only way to do that is to keep playing.
So in each episode, I’ll tell you something I learned about writing, and then I’ll throw you the ball with a writing challenge or a prompt.
Way back in Episode 2, I talked about the concept of Smart Notes, which I learned from the book How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. Listen to that episode to get the details of the methodology, but the thing I want to stress here is that when you read books, most of the notes you take—most of the notes you should take—are your synthesis of the ideas in your own words. They might be summaries, or you might have a dialogue with the book. What I do most is I try to apply the ideas in the book to my own research areas and my own topics of interest.
Sometimes, though, you might want to actually quote the book. In Obsidian, the note taking app that I use, I actually have a separate folder for these kinds of notes. I don’t want quotes to get mixed up with the original writing. So I have a reference folder where all of the notes in that folder are notes about the sources themselves, and those notes contain quotes from those sources. This is something that was also recommended in How to Take Smart Notes. The idea is that you don’t want to get confused by what quotes came from the book and what original writing you have done that is your own synthesis—your own ideas.
The idea of collecting quotes is not something new. I think that’s the way most people think of note taking in general. There’s even a style of journal some people keep called a Commonplace book, which builds on this idea. In a Commonplace book, you are mostly collecting the thoughts of others. You might also put in your own reaction to those—your thoughts on those thoughts—but the focus is on the collecting.
This journaling style has been around for millennia. There are examples by ancient philosophers and renaissance thinkers.
I want to recommend a spin on this idea.
The normal reason that you collect a quote into a Commonplace book is because of the idea behind the words. You think it’s good advice or a piece of useful knowledge. That’s what most commonplace books do.
You should do that if you want. But, what I suggest you do is also collect passages because they are constructed well. In the past few episodes I’ve talked about the advice from classic books on writing. How to order clauses. How to order words. How to find verbs, etc. Use that as a starting point—think of how the quote you’re collecting applies those ideas. But, let your own taste be your guide. Let your intuition about good style be a signal that a passage is worth collecting. Then, after you have transferred it to your Commonplace book, try to figure out—what is it that was resonating with you?
My steps for collecting and analyzing passages
Here’s the way I’ve been doing it, and what I suggest you use as a starting point
- While I’m reading, if I notice an idea was conveyed well. I highlight it. I try not to dwell too much on it in the moment because I want to stay in a reading zone. I’m particularly interested in how nuanced ideas are conveyed. Especially if they require complex sentences to explain. If I get it on one read through the passage and felt propelled through the paragraph, then I am likely to want to collect it.
- Later, when I’m not reading. So after I finish the chapter or whatever I was going to read that day. I go back through what I’ve, and look for the highlights. I don’t necessarily need to be finished with the book.
- If I still agree that the passage is worth collecting, I handwrite it into my Commonplace book that I am dedicating to this purpose. In episode 21, I spoke about the idea of dedicated journals—journals that are about one thing. I don’t recommend that you collect these quotes into, for example, a daily bullet journal that you use for tasks and appointments. I’m afraid they would get lost in there.
- I make sure to include a good enough reference to the source so that I can find it again.
- In a different color, I write my own thoughts about the passage. I am mostly trying to react to the construction of the writing, not the underlying idea, but honestly, I am going to have a reaction to the idea, and that’s ok to put in there too. I write the passage in black and my own ideas in red. I might also underline parts of the passage that I’m mostly writing about.
- At some point later (maybe many months later), I’ll use this journal—when I do, I will mostly want to read my own writing. In episode 22, I talked about harvesting journals and how you should write them to help you read them later. That’s why I’m using a red pen for my own analysis because later, when I read the journal, I’m mostly going to focus on that.
That’s the way I do it. But, find a way that works for you. What I recommend is that you focus on what would make it easiest to use the book later.
Thanks for listening. This has been Write While True, a podcast where we’re ok with infinite loops, as long as they’re fun.