What to write down when you’re reading to learn


This will be kind of meandering, so here’s the take home.

For shallow research:

  • Determine/discover what you care about before you start reading.
  • Write down anything relevant to that care.




  • 在你开始阅读以前确定/发现你关心的是什么
  • 写下来与之相关的所有事情

For deep research:

  • Write down anything you find interesting.
  • Write down anything important to the work’s key argument.
  • Write down anything that’s taking up mental RAM, whether it seems related or interesting or not. If you find you’re doing this a lot, consider you might have a secret goal you don’t know about.
  • The less 1:1 the correspondence between your notes and the author’s words the better. Copy/pasting requires little to no engagement, alternate theories for the explanations spread over an entire chapter require a lot.


  • 写下你发现有趣的任何事情
  • 写下对于工作关键参数重要的任何事情
  • 写下占用大脑内存的任何事情,不论看起来是否相关或有趣。如果你发现你正在做很多这些,思考一下你或许有一个你没意识到的秘密目标。
  • 你的笔记和作者原文之间1:1对应越少越好。复制粘贴几乎不需要出现,而在整个章节中进行代替性的理论解释则越多越好。。

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

Writing down a thing you’ve read (/heard/etc) improves your memory and understanding, at the cost of disrupting the flow of reading. Having written a thing down makes that one thing easier to rediscover, at the cost of making every other thing you have or will ever write down a little harder to find. Oh, and doing the math on this tradeoff while you’re reading is both really costly and requires knowing the future. 


I would like to give you a simple checklist for determining when to save a piece of information. Unfortunately I never developed one. There are obvious things like “is this interesting to me (for any reason)?” and “is this key to the author’s argument?”, but those never got rid of the nagging feeling that I was losing information I might find useful someday, and specifically that I was doing shallow research (which implies taking the author’s word for things) and not deep (which implies making my own models). 

我本想给你一个简单的清单来决定什么时候存下一条信息。不幸的是,我从没有开发过。有明显的事情,例如“(出于某种原因)这对我来说很有趣吗?” 和“这是作者论证的关键吗?”,但是那些从来不曾摆脱过挑剔的感觉,即我会丢失有一天可能会觉得有用的信息,尤其是我在进行浅层研究(这意味着以作者的话为依据), 而且不深入(这意味着要制作自己的模型)。

The single most helpful thing in figuring out what to write down was noticing when my reading was slowing down, which typically meant either there was a particular fact that needed to be moved from short to long term storage, or that I needed to think about something. Things in these categories need to be written down and thought about regardless of their actual importance, because their perceived importance is eating up resources, and 30 seconds writing something down to regain those resources is a good trade even if I never use that information again. If I have one piece of advice, it’s “learn to recognize the subtle drag of something requiring your attention.”

弄清楚写下什么唯一有帮助的东西就是注意什么时候我的阅读速度变慢,这通常意味着要么有一个特殊的事实需要从短期存储转移到长期存储,要么我需要考虑一些事情 。无论这些类别的实际重要性如何,都需要写下来并加以思考,因为它们的重要性正在消耗资源,而花费30秒写下以重新获得这些资源是很好的交易,即使我再也不会使用这些信息了。

An obvious question is “how do I do that though?”. I’m a mediocre person to answer this question because I didn’t set out to learn the skill, I just noticed I was doing it. But for things in this general class, the best thing I have found to do is get yourself in a state where you are very certain you have no drag (by doing a total brain dump), do some research, and pay attention to when drag develops. 

一个明显的问题是“但是我该怎么做?”。 我是一个平庸的人,回答这个问题的原因是我没有开始学习这项技能,只是注意到自己正在这样做。 但是对于这个普遍级的事情,我发现要做的最好的事情是让自己处于一种状态,在这种状态下,您可以确定自己没有拖累(通过完全动脑筋),进行一些研究并注意拖累的时间发展。

But of course it’s much better if my sense of “this is important, record it” corresponds with what is actually important. The real question here is “Important to what?” When I was doing book-based reviews, the answer at best was “the book’s thesis”, which as previously discussed gives the author a huge amount of power to control the narrative. But this became almost trivial when I switched the frame to answering a specific set of questions. As long as I had a very clear goal in mind, my subconscious would do most of the work. 

但是,如果“这很重要,要记录下来”的感觉与实际上也很重要的情况相对应,那就更好了。 这里真正的问题是“对什么而言重要?” 当我进行基于书的评论时,最好的答案是“书的论题”,如前所述,这赋予了作者控制叙事的巨大力量。 但是,当我将框架切换为回答一组特定的问题时,这几乎变得微不足道了。 只要我有一个非常明确的目标,我的潜意识就可以完成大部分工作。

This isn’t a total solution though, because of the vast swath of territory labeled “getting oriented with what I don’t know”. For example right now I want to ask some specific questions about the Great Depression and what it can tell us about the upcoming economic crisis, but I don’t feel I know enough. It is very hard to get oriented with patchwork papers: you typically need books with cohesive narratives, and then to find other ways to undo the authors’ framing. Like a lot of things, this is solved by going meta. “I want to learn enough about the Great Depression that I have a framework to ask questions about parallels to the current crisis” was enough to let me evaluate different “Top Books about the Great Depression” lists and identify the one whose author was most in line with my goals (it was the one on fivebooks, which seems to be the case much more often than chance).

不过,这并不是一个完整的解决方案,因为有“我不了解”的广阔领域。 例如,现在我想问一些关于大萧条的具体问题,它可以告诉我们有关即将到来的经济危机的信息,但我觉得我还不够了解。 很难以拼凑而成的论文为导向:您通常需要具有拼合叙事的书,然后找到其他方法来解开作者的构架。 像很多事情一样,这可以通过去元来解决。 “我想对大萧条有足够的了解,因此我有一个框架来对比与当前危机的相似性的问题”足以让我评估不同的“关于大萧条的热门书籍”列表,并确定其中最受关注符合我的目标的一本书。

I mentioned “losing flow” as a cost of note taking in my opening, but I’m not actually convinced that’s a cost. Breaking flow also means breaking the author’s hold on you and thinking for yourself. I’ve noticed a pretty linear correlation between “how much does this break flow?” and “how much does this make me think for myself and draw novel conclusions?”. Copy/pasting an event that took place on a date doesn’t break flow but doesn’t inspire much thought. Writing down your questions about information that seems to be missing, or alternate interpretations of facts, takes a lot longer.

我在开始时提到“扰乱流程”是做笔记的代价,但实际上我并不确信这是一种代价。 打破流程也意味着打破作者对您的控制并自己思考。 我注意到在“扰乱流程代价多大”和“让人自己思考并做了多少总结”之间有线性关系。复制/粘贴不会中断流程,但不会引起很多思考。 写下似乎缺失的信息或对事实的替代解释会花费更长的时间。

Which brings me to another point: for deep reading, copy pasting is almost always Doing It Wrong. Even simple paraphrasing requires more engagement than copy/pasting. Don’t cargo cult this though: there’s only so many ways to say simple facts, and grammar exercises don’t actually teach you anything about the subject.

这又引出了另一点:对于深度阅读,复制粘贴几乎总是不对的。 甚至简单的解释比复制/粘贴都需要更多的参与。 不过,不要轻信这一点:讲述简单事实的方法太多了,语法练习实际上并没有教您有关该主题的任何知识。

So there is my very unsatisfying list of how to know what to write down when you’re reading to learn. I hope it helps.

这些就是我对阅读学习时怎样知道写下什么的令人不满意的列表。 希望对您有所帮助。

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