Tips for reading non-fiction

I don’t like reading non-fiction.

There, I said it. It’s out in the open now.

The thing is, there are so many valuable insights available through reading non-fiction – I can’t ignore a huge swath of potential knowledge. So instead of avoiding it, I’ve been investigating different approaches to be more likely to finish reading non-fiction books and get more out of them.

Why am I reading this book? and other relevant questions

Figure out why you’re reading this book before you start. If you’re like me, you’ve chosen the book for a reason – determine what that reason is for you. Different questions may be relevant for reading different subjects. 

Here are some questions I came across while asking around:

  • How is this related to my research and the point that I’m trying to make?
  • What am I getting out of this? 
  • How can this help me? 

While you’re reading, you could periodically answer these questions, for example at the end of the chapter / section / book:

  • If I were to implement this, how would I do it? 
  • What are my thoughts? 
  • What are my key takeaways? 

Understand the structure

For me, structure is key to understand the material and giving myself a framework for understanding.  It turns out that the table of contents of relevant for more than finding on which page a chapter starts on. 

I’ve started writing / typing out (depending on the materials I have at hand) the structure of the book in a structured list format, usually at least the chapters as well as the sub-headings within each chapter.  This gives me multiple insights: 

  • How is the material built up?
  • Are there any specific sections that I want to focus on? 

You don’t need to read from the beginning to the end

Coming from a love of fiction novels, you start at the beginning (possibly skipping the introduction) straight through to the end. If you read it in a different order, you’ll miss the story arc. 

That’s not true for non-fiction books. While the author wrote the material in a certain order and with a certain structure, you very likely can skip parts that aren’t relevant to you.  If the material doesn’t prove interesting or helpful, then you likely shouldn’t be spending your time reading it. 

Note: at least one person I spoke to did believe you need to read a non-fiction book from beginning to end to make sure you don’t miss key concepts that are needed to understand later chapters. 

Taking notes for future reference

Sometimes my reason for reading a book is to understand the concepts in it and be able to refer back to it in the future.  Sometimes it’s to learn and apply new concepts. Either way, you’ll likely need to take some kind of notes. 

  • Kindle highlights and notes – when reading on a Kindle, you can make notes and highlights while you’re reading. You can access these notes through Amazon’s interface.
  • Create an index and index everything – especially if you need to cross-reference publications and locations, having an index in a digital format is helpful.
  • Physical books – if you have your own copy, make notes directly in the margins
  • Use the bullet list of chapters to take and organize your notes and thoughts as you read 

When taking notes, take them from the perspective of what you wanted to learn from the material; you don’t need to learn every single nugget of information in the book, just the ones that are relevant to you right now. 

My current approach

Right now, the key approach for me is:

  • Work out the structure of the material and determine what I want to learn
  • Take notes by filling in the structured list
  • Write up a summary of my key takeaways

Many thanks to Valentina ThörnerDiana Holmqvist, and Job Thomas for sharing your processes and brainstorming ideas!

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash


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