memory and recall in reading

Take Your Reading to the Next Level: A System for Recall, Research, Indexing, and Growing as a Human


The aspiring and experienced writer must do two things: read a lot and write a lot. I’ve preached this mantra for years (thanks Stephen King for the advice).

I know it sounds like law, but it is. A non-negotiable for writers is to write a lot because by definition that’s what writers do. A runner doesn’t sit on the couch and watch You Tube videos about running. They run.

Writers don’t read about writing, talk about writing, listen to podcasts about writing, or dream about writing. They place butt in the chair and tap on keys and dream up worlds. You got it, I’m preaching to the choir.

Read a lot. A second law that’s a non-negotiable for the writer. We read to see how writers turn a phrase, how books are constructed, and to enjoy the gift of books and reading and learning.

But how can we get more out of our reading? Is there a way to dig deeper into retaining, learning, and applying what we read? Yes, I think there is.

It’s a method and process I use to index, document, and apply what I’m reading to working projects, or simply just growing as a human.

This method is a hybrid of what Ryan Holiday uses which you can read here. I like his system, but I do it with my own spin, that works for me, and is less work.

1. Pick a book, grab a pen/pencil, read, and make notes.

You can do this with nonfiction and fiction. As I work through the book, I mark it up with the following letters:

  • GP= good point. I make brackets around the paragraph so I can come back later and see what is being said.
  • GQ= good quote. Most good books have 4–5 quotes that you’ll keep with you for a lifetime. They are often not quotes from the author, rather; the author quoting someone else. Make a note of it.
  • ?= not sure what this means. If I am confused on a section of a book, I make a note. Maybe it isn’t clear of what the author is saying, or something I need more study on. Only do this if you want to come back.
  • :)= Good story, funny line, or simply agreeing with the point.
  • :(= Not a good point, sad, or something I disagree with.
  • Underline= I might underline a quote that needs attention when I come back through the book.

*I know this only works with print books. But I also use the notes and underlining feature on Kindle to do the same process. Good luck with audio.

2. Get index cards and a pen.

It doesn’t matter if you use 4x6 or 3x5. I use the bigger ones for more space to write down quotes, reflections, or ideas.

Now go back into the book and search for your annotations mentioned above. On the index cards write:

  • Name of the book, author, and page number. This will save time later when trying to dig up your research.
  • Quotes: document the quote. I typically do 3–4 quotes per card to save space. Especially if the quotes are in the same chapters and dealing with same ideas.
  • Theme/bucket: document what bucket this quote or idea falls into (spirituality, history, cooking, growth, productivity, life, etc.). I typically have a couple themes on each card.
  • Ideas: sometimes you will not quote someone verbatim. You will simply write: I like this idea, a good story or analogy, etc. Make sure to document the page number for coming back to.

3. Catalogue your index cards.

I bought a cheap index card storage box and placed dividers with letters for organizing by author. You can store the cards anyway you like (author, theme, project, etc.). The point is to find a way to come back to these quotes, ideas, and themes for further learning and research.

Some people use a new box and a set of index cards for each book or project. I don’t. Too many ideas and topics have crossover for many areas of life. I like them all in one place.

My index card storage box and dividers

What happens now?

What just happened by taking notes as you read, coming back and indexing your takeaways, is you read a book and went deeper than most. By reading the book and taking notes you’re already engaging a different part of the brain. The information is getting deeper into your mind. You could say, the wheels are spinning.

Every book you read you’ll probably have at least 10–30 cards with vital learning and new insights at your disposal.

You can use these cards for a million different purposes:

  • Feeling down and need inspiration? Grab a couple cards and meditate on the quote.
  • Writing a book? Now you have a ton of research done on the cards. Find the themes of your subject and use them.
  • Need article/blog ideas? Take out some cards and riff on a quote or idea.
  • Giving a presentation/speech? You have quotes and ideas to work into your presentation and speech. Spice up your talks with the things you are learning.
  • Creating a course or podcast? You now have a box full of ideas and topics to explore in depth.
  • Want to become wise and live well? People who are learning to become wise and live life well need many mentors. By reading and indexing books in this way will help you grow as a person. After doing this with hundreds of authors you will become a wise and deeper person.

Some have said books don’t change us, but paragraphs do. I find this to be true by using this indexing system. Not every book you read is going to be a home run. But you can find a paragraph, two, or three that is life changing, or helps you see the world in new and fresh ways.

My hope is this system will help you write or create your next project with beauty and ease. But more importantly, you will become a person of deep character, wisdom, love, and kindness.

Reading has that kind of power.

Originally published on The Writing Cooperative