How to keep a reading journal

As many of you know, I’m big on journaling. I find it an immensely useful tool for all sorts of reasons. I have at one point or another kept various forms of journals, and now, I just sort of combine all of them as and when it suits my purpose.

This post is specifically about keeping a reading journal. I recently wrote a post about 9 reasons to keep a reading journal, so this goes further into the doing of it.

First, let’s start with a caveat: this is not the only way to keep a reading journal. As I repeatedly mention on Kaizen Journaling, there is no one way to keep any journal. The right way is what works for you. 

However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from others. If you are a beginner, other people’s methods will get you started. Even if you have kept reading journals before, by looking into how other people do it, or by reading articles such as this, you may learn something new. Journaling is a process of continuous improvement, and as such, it should constantly evolve.

First, determine why you want to keep a reading journal. Your why will affect your how.

Select a journal

The first obvious question is e-journal or paper journal? While I’m always an advocate for keeping hand-written journals, when it comes to reading journals, it is a matter of why you want to keep it. If you’re keeping a reading journal for personal reasons, to keep track of what you’ve read, or simply to scribble your impressions then hand-written journals will work. However, if you are keeping a reading journal for research purposes, for a dissertation or for a big writing project, then it may be more efficient to keep an electronic reading journal.

An electronic reading journal will allow you to easily list sources, which you can use for bibliography. You can also keep track of hyperlinks for references, or for relevant reading materials. You can rearrange your notes in whichever way you need them such as by topic or by themes.

If you decide to keep a hand-written journal, you can buy a simple notebook (such as regular school books, or supermarket brand notebooks that you can buy for less than a pound), or you can go for better quality (Moleskine, Rhodia, Paperblank etc.). You can also keep a loose-leaf folder, which will allow you to rearrange your entries. you can buy ready-made reading journals which come with templates. The possibilities are numerous. Just have a browse on Amazon or go to your local stationery store.

The basics

There are some basic rules of a reading journal, which I recommend you follow, no matter what your purpose.

Always date your entries. It’s common sense really, but so many people don’t do it. If you are making an effort to keep a record of your reading, when you look back at it, you’ll want to know when you wrote it.

Our impressions are so often affected by everything that’s on in our life at a particular time. By simply writing down a date, you’ll be able to reflect back far more easily.

Another thing I highly recommend is to always write the title of the book and the author’s name. While you may think that you’ll always remember what you were talking about, trust me, you won’t (unless you’ve eidetic memory).

Add page numbers to quotes

This is optional. If you are keeping a reading journal for fun, then you don’t need to be this fastidious. However, if you are keeping a reading journal for professional/academic reasons, and will need to provide sources for any quotes used, then keeping track of page numbers next to quotes you copy will save you future time and effort.

It also gives you an option to not copy the entire quote. By just making your notes and adding a page number and paragraph number it references, you can simply find it when you need to.

Write as you read

While you are reading, pause when you come across passages or even lines that make an impression on you. You don’t need to do it with every paragraph, but you could do it at an end of the chapter, for example, and jot down your reflections and impressions.

If you wait until you finish the book, your overall feeling towards it may have changed, because by the end, we usually have all the answers. To keep an insightful reading journal, record your insights as they happen.

For example, when you begin a book, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Was the book easy to get into? If not, what made you keep going?
  • Who was the first character you met?
  • What did you think of them?
  • What do you think of the tone?
  • How is the pace?
  • What are you hoping to get out of this book?
  • Why did you pick it?
  • How did you find the language?
  • Were there any glaring grammatical errors?
  • How about continuity errors?
  • How many points-of-view the writer used? Did it work for you?
  • Did you find it easy to lose yourself in the story?

As you continue reading, whenever something strikes you, stop and write about it. You don’t have to write an essay. A mere sentence or even a few words or phrases can be enough to capture your thought process. 

The End

After you’ve finished reading the whole book, write about your overall impressions. You can give it a score out of 10 if you want. Did you hate it, love it, or did it evoke a more neutral response?

What worked for you? What didn’t? Did you find anything relatable? Did you learn anything? Would you recommend this book to others?

Did the book impact you?

Some books change us or affect us profoundly. They touch us so deeply that just closing the book at the end leaves you stunned. Some books make you question things you thought you knew and your beliefs. Others change your world view by opening a door you never knew existed. Some books have the power to change a life. They have the power to change you.

What power did this book have over you? 

Have fun

This is perhaps the most important one. Don’t let this become a chore. Don’t restrict yourself by too many rules. Write whenever you want. If you skip a day or a whole book, don’t worry about it. Sometimes, you’ll just want to read for pleasure and nothing else. That’s okay.

Make the reading journal work for you, and enjoy the process.