Tip 2: Read with a Pen in Hand

When it comes to writing in books, I have no fear. I litter books with my indecipherable scribbles for three specific reasons:

1. To highlight what I appreciate.
2. To notate content progression.
3. To critique what I don’t appreciate.

Let me explain each of these specifically.

1. Highlighting Highlights

From short phrases to full pages, I identify sections that I find helpful and persuasive. With a highlighter or pen, I mark those sections so that I can I return to copy the quote into a database for later reference. A while back I posted more detail about how to organize these quotes (here and here).

My process is pretty intuitive, so I won’t develop this much here.

2. Notating Progression

My problem with highlighting (#1) is that I too frequently scrape my nose on the tree bark. I’m a detail guy myself and this practice of notating as I read has helped me to pause and consider the author’s big picture development.

For these notations, I fill the white spaces of a book. At the top of the first page of a chapter there is usually 1/3 of a blank page where I jot notes after I read every page or so. Here I can connect the small details of a chapter together into a visual linear progression as I watch the author develop an argument.

My practice is simple: As I progress through the chapter, I jot little summary phrases and connect them with arrows on the opening page. This helps me track how the chapter is developed.

Naturally, section headings are helpful for following the progression of the book. But a number of books—especially Puritans—are long paragraphs of prose smashed tighter than the stones of Solomon’s Temple. In that case it’s necessary to crowbar the text apart with my own section headings written in the margin. It improves readability and comprehension.

And I use those blank pages in the front and back of a book as a personal notebook for all types of notes, questions, and things to remember. For example, whenever I read a book on Christian living, I make a note in the back for every reference made to the gospel. Each time I find a specific reference to the gospel, I’ll scribble the page number in the back. So in the back of my books you will likely find something like this:

“Gospel: p. 12, 56, 120, 187, 220.”

And this little discipline also helps me track any number of themes throughout a book, not just the gospel. What does this book say about sin? Justification? Sanctification? The local church? As we will see next time (tip #3) first determining these categories is very important to healthy, critical reading.

Like looking through a telescope with one eye and a microscope with the other, writing in a book helps focus my attention on the large-scale development (#2) as I mark helpful stand-alone sentences (#1).

3. Critiquing Lowlights

Reading with pen-in-hand is also important because good readers are critics. And reading with a pen reminds me that I am a critic. Open to new discoveries, yes. But always a critic.

Two clarifiers here. First, when I say “critical,” I mean a state of humble evaluation, not a state of prideful negation. Next, let me say that each of our hearts struggle with sin in different ways. Some of us find it easy to thrash books with the scissors of criticism, but resist being chiseled ourselves by wise books. This is pride. Some of us will find it easy to praise good books, but difficult to criticize specific thoughts. We will lift the thoughts of others without critique and discernment. This is laziness.

My struggle is with laziness. And so I started writing in my books to confront this tendency.

Identifying the lowlights in a book is my means of drawing attention to sections or arguments that:

  1. Appear to be wrong.
  2. I know to be false and can prove to be incorrect.
  3. What I think lacks collaborative evidence and substance.
  4. What lacks biblical support.
  5. What portions of a book lack elements of persuasion.
  6. What has been recycled and developed in the book already (business books are infamous for this).
  7. What lacks vigor and consistency (for novels especially).

When I read sections that appear to be wrong I simply make a “?” in the margin or at the top of the page. When I read sections that I disagree with and can prove to be incorrect, I unsheathe the pen and start x-ing pages. At times I cross out an entire page when I disagree.

G.K. Chesterton has felt the sword on a few occasions. Chesterton is one of my favorite writers, but when he starts spewing off disdain for John Calvin I mute his mutiny with a black line.

You may be gasping that I would draw a line across a page, but please try this at least once. Unsheathe a Sharpie and, in a swift Zorro-like move, x out an entire page.

This practice is significant and important. This x-ing out discipline is important because that dark line reminds us that our books exist to serve us and our learning and our priorities. We, the readers, do not exist to gulp down the book’s entire content.

Only one book (Scripture) is inherently above x-ing. The rest are not.

Now please don’t think that I’m suggesting you read only what is easy and comfortable. Read what will stretch your mind. Read what you will disagree with. But make sure as you read with a pen in hand.

Books as Roof or Foundation?

Or take this building analogy. Books should lay the foundation for our thoughts, not serve as the roof—or cap—for our thoughts. We should think further beyond what we read (foundation). Not under, and limited to, what we read (roof).

Books help us develop and refine our own thoughts. Yet my lazy temptation is to live in the fragmented world of borrowed thoughts. Interacting with the author’s thoughts—by highlighting, notating, and critiquing—helps us develop our own thoughts, brick by brick.

I find this especially true for preachers in their use of books and commentaries. I can speak from personal experience that too frequently commentaries and books became a roof over a sermon, providing a cap for what can be said, rather than a properly laid foundation for which a sermon is constructed. As I look back, I have noticed that when I was quoting other’s words most frequently from books and commentaries, these were the periods where I was most commonly borrowing thoughts rather than building from them.

I think C.H. Spurgeon was a master of this. Just consider his wide familiarity with the Puritans, having read Owen and Brooks and Bunyan since childhood. Yet if you read his sermons you’ll notice just how few direct quotations he used in the pulpit. Spurgeon said a man who does not use the thoughts of others proves he has no thoughts of his own. He was not talking about the lazy copy-and-paste lifting of quotes, but reminding us that books help develop our own thoughts.

When I fall into the tendency of simply lifting quotes from other books without developing my own thoughts, I’m confusing the fundamental purpose of my books.


Reading with pen-in-hand is one of the most crucial and fundamental tips for reading effectively and efficiently. This discipline reminds me that books are tools, raw materials, and a foundation. It keeps books in their proper place.

With a pen, I am positioned to highlight what I appreciate, to notate content progression, and to critique what I don’t appreciate.


Series posts:

On Reading
Tip 1: Capture Reading Time
Tip 2: Read with a Pen in Hand (just read it)
Tip 3: Read With Purpose in View (next)

25 thoughts on “Tip 2: Read with a Pen in Hand

  1. Thanks Tony,

    Yeesh, and I’m only just getting over the scandalous feeling I got the first time I started writing in my books. I will admit, though, that I am getting a lot more out of them now. The idea of crossing out pages of a book seems so… daring, almost naughty. Maybe I’m a bit too English.

    For any other readers who (like me) don’t have a clue how to make a Database on Excel (the shame, I’m sure I did that in IT, *and* my dad’s an accountant), reading this PDF helped me quite a lot. (I think, if I’ve understood what Tony’s said)

    Click to access database.pdf

    I’d never thought of databasing good quotes and suchlike before. Could be a really helpful addition to my reading (and listening) arsenal. Still, it must take time (time well spent if the book’s any good) thus rendering it even more myserious how you get through all those books…

    Cheers, I look forward to the other posts in this series


  2. Tell you what, I have a friend who seems always to be coincidentally reading the same book as me. It must be a really interesting thing to have two people read the same book and swap their databases on it and see what was different/the same. Tony, have you ever tried that?

  3. Thanks for that article. I see where you coming from on this one but sometimes its just plain nice to relax in a comfortable armchair with a good book, a cup of coffee and just read for the fun of it.

  4. Thanks once more, this is really helpful stuff. How do you mark up a biography or a fiction book? And do you mark up books on first read or later when you’ve established them worthy of detailed meditation?

    P.S. It seems Ed we also read the same blogs!

  5. Thanks for the comment everyone. Your questions are helpful and I’m considering compiling them into a list with one final QA post. So please keep the questions coming. As for fun reading I agree that we should have time to chill with coffee and no expectations of attacking the book with a pen. However, I think if you are willing to impliment some of my suggestions you will find that your brain will begin evaluating books even during these ‘fun’ reads. In the next post I’ll get into developing a specific plan for reading that will help determine the most valuable books to read. Reading strategically can include what we read for ‘fun.’ That and more next time. Tony

  6. Tony,
    Great posts. Very helpful.

    I also mark up books. However, I’m often hesitant for 2 reasons: (1) I may want to read the book again; and (2) someone else may want to read it.
    I find that when I read a book for the second time, my eyes gravitate toward my marks and I find it much more difficult to think through the book with fresh eyes.
    And, I hope one day that my kids will want to read some of these great books. I want them (or whoever gets my books when I’m gone) to be able to read without the distractions of my marks.

    Anyone else sense these same hesitations?

  7. Good questions Justin! I have considered both of these questions so let me give you my $.02 and others can comment too.

    (1) On hesitating to write in books because of wanting to read the book a second time. For me, because of my revolving interests in a wide variety of genres and due to the sheer tonnage of good books published each year, I’ve come to realize that I have one shot to read a book. I’ve always thought about re-reading books but that’s not realistic for me. My goal is to read a book once and then simply to return to it as a reference tool (like rereading certain pages or a chapter). Perhaps I will have time to re-read a book. But I don’t consciously think of this while reading because when I do my reading becomes sloppy. Why read diligently when I can just re-read it for the details later? Instead I think: I know I’ll be reading this paragraph once and never again. Then I find I’m a bit more on my toes. This is the beauty of the Kindle. It’s not a device made to store books long-term. I get one shot, so I thoroughly caffeinate myself first.

    (2) On hesitating to write in books because we want to pass them on to our children. Love this, Justin. I’ve thought a lot about this question. My conclusion is that I want my kids to see what I liked or didn’t like in specific books. Because of this I have the assurance that if I were to die in my sleep tonight that in 10 years my son could pick up my copy of Calvin’s Institutes and learn more about my theology than he otherwise could have learned. He would read what I liked, what I questioned, and how I watched the contents of the book unfold. I want to model for him biblical discernment and a cross-centered mindset reflected in the notes and markings I leave in the books. I have no guarantee I’ll be able to sit with my son in the future and talk theology. But knowing my thoughts are documented in my books is a way to guarantee that he and I will dialogue through the books he reads. And if he wants a clean copy of the Institutes he’s free to spend $40 and buy a clean copy of his own.

    I think for me to have progressed in my personal reading I’ve had to overcome the what-if-syndrome. What if I want to re-read this book. What if my kids get my library. What if [fill in the blank]. I’ve come to see that I can only read for the “right now.” I cannot predict what will come of my books in the future. But I do have 15 minutes of reading right now. So how will I best use that time? And how am I to use my books as personal tools now?

    Make sense? I’d love to hear other comments on this.


  8. Good stuff, i’ve enjoyed your last couple posts! Just for your encouragement, I went to a restaurant yesterday and had 5 minutes before my friends arrived, so I pulled a book out of my trunk and read a couple pages.

  9. Tony, thanks for letting us into your mind. I could have guessed that is what you would say.

    I am freshly inspired to mark up my books!! I can hear them inviting me right now…

  10. Tony,
    Can you give us a few pictures of your markings? Maybe just pull some random books off the shelf that you have read and show us some examples of what it looks like.

    Also, Do you mark in your Bible as you read?

  11. Justin, I’ll see what I can do on pictures. And yes, I do write in my bible as I read, which is why I created my Blank Bible project. See the right sidebar column for more.


  12. Interesting! My thesis is on a 17th century puritan layman who read with a pen in hand. His method of reading seems very similar to yours. When reading sermons he wrote the doctrines on the front page, tracked along with the argument as it progressed, scored in the margin next to effective passages, and regularly created his own cross referencing (mostly to Scripture and Acts and Monuments).

    Thank you for this post!

  13. Justin,

    I always enjoy your stuff on books. I agree with your practice of notations. I couldn’t be satisfied reading a book without a pen. It keeps us mentally alert to what the Holy Spirit would have us to learn are we read through a book.

  14. Steve Leveen lays out the arguments of the Footprint Leavers vs. the Preservationists in his book The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life (pp. 49-59) and comes down on the side of the Footprint Leavers.

    This book is well worth the $17.50 just for the chapter “Seizing More From Your Reading” (pp. 33-59).

    FWIW, Tony, I’m a Footprint Leaver myself.

  15. Thanks for your sharing! Hope you could post a picture of the book page with your notations, it will be very helpful for those like me just don’t know how to start.

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