In this post, I want to share with you how I read, annotate, organize, and summarize the web.
Here are the benefits I have gained:
- I read with pleasure.
- I remember more and can re-find the important info I come across on the web.
- I save a ton of time.
Most of us who read online waste enormous amounts of time: We hook our brains up to massive news streams to keep up with things. Unfortunately, even most of the information that matters to us and could help us in our life gets drowned out and is forgotten the next day, or at best a few days later.
It doesn’t have to be that way!
Yes, a lot of what we consume doesn’t really have an impact on our life; it is purely for entertainment and distraction, so it makes perfect sense to forget it.
But what about the really important information bits you come across while reading? Do you forget these too?
And if you remember these nuggets, can you quickly reconnect to the web pages where you found them? Can you remember the ideas you had when you read an article?
Simply bookmarking all “worthy” articles you come across, or worse, clipping them and putting them in a giant archive doesn’t solve the problem.
If you do that you will often have to re-read the whole page to remember why it was important.
Most of the information in your archive, you will never look at again, yet it will become a burden and demand time and effort to be maintained.
My two most common reading scenarios:
- Reading to answer a specific research question, such as “does NAC help with sleep?”
- Capturing information nuggets and the thoughts I had while reading the daily news or following a subject that interests me.
Let’s get started with scenario 1, answering a research question:
A while ago, a friend told me that the amino acid N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) helped him to overcome insomnia. NAC is widely available as a supplement and also used as an emergency room medication to save the liver and life of people who have overdosed on the pain killer paracetamol (Tylenol).
Please note: This is merely a question that I personally found of interest. I am not suggesting at all that you should take NAC or any other supplement! Do your own research and consult with a doctor!
I wanted to tap the collective wisdom of the web and understand if and how NAC could help with sleep.
Aggregate all info using a research tag
Whenever I research a specific topic, I think up a research tag to aggregate all information relevant to my research question under a specific name. For the present research, I used the tag “res-nac-sleep.”
All my research tags are prefixed by “res” to help distinguish them from subject tags.
I also use subject tags to further organize information.
For example, while doing my research on NAC, I came across a lot articles that suggested other ailments where NAC might be of help, including insomnia, anxiety, depression…
Consequently I also added subject tags to my bookmarks.
To answer my research question, I went through very different sources
1. I started with the Wikipedia article on NAC.
2. Then I conducted a few searches on Google, Google Scholar, and PubMed and skimmed the relevant articles I could find.
3. I also consulted Examine.com, a website that summarizes the research on a large number of popular supplements.
4. I found a very interesting discussion thread, spanning several pages, on Phoenix Rising, a forum supporting people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).
5. I went on Amazon to read reviews on specific NAC brands to check whether reviewers had found it to be helpful for sleep. I found very valuable experiences in these reviews, a lot of them not directly pertaining to sleep, but interesting nevertheless.
I am sure this happens to you as well. You are trying to answer a question, and come across info or ideas that help you with a different problem. You have to catch this info when you find it!
How do I keep track of the important information contained in these articles, multi-page discussion threads, and reviews, and how do I add my own thoughts?
I use a tool called Diigo to bookmark, tag, highlight, and annotate the important information I come across.
As I read through pages or skim through forum discussions or product reviews, I highlight what I deem important and add comments. If an article warrants it, I add a small summary.
The following screenshots are taken using the Diigo extension for Google Chrome. Diigo works equally well on Firefox and is also available for iOS and Android.
If you have, in the past, used the Evernote or OneNote web clipper, you will feel like you have upgraded from a Cessna to a supersonic jet plane.
1. Bookmark and tag a page to remember it. Optionally mark it as “Read Later.”
2. Highlight and add your own ideas and comments.
3. After you are satisfied that you have answered your question, generate a report and aggregate the important info from all pages tagged with your research tag. Take action.
Diigo includes all annotations together with links back to the web pages. Review your report and take action. Optionally save the report to OneNote or Evernote or share it.
Doing it this way (as opposed to clipping, and taking notes in a note taking app), I have found the time savings staggering!
If you are currently clipping information from web pages and pasting it into Evernote or another note taking app, I highly recommend that you try annotating and highlighting the web instead.
What’s more, not only do information snippets not clutter my notebooks, but online annotating also allows for completely new ways to relate and connect information.
My Library: the control center for reviewing and re-finding information
Diigo maintains a searchable library of all bookmarks, highlights and annotations.This library is accessible from all my devices (PC, Android, iOS).
Diigo can also cache web pages so that they are available even if the source has been removed.
By adding a unique tag for each research project, I can at any time get back all information pertaining to a particular research task. I also add subject tags such as sleep. This allows me to aggregate all interesting information for sleep regardless of in which project or research task I collected it.
At the same time, all highlights and notes remain connected to their source web page. If I later decide to re-visit the web page, all annotations are again overlaid on the page. At any time, I can add highlights and comments as I see fit.
Scenario 2, everyday news reading and following specific topics:
As opposed to research, which I do mostly on a PC, I currently do most of my news reading on an iPad or an Android phone while on the go.
I use Safari, Firefox, Chrome, and news apps, such as BBC News.
The Diigo app is available on iOS and Android, allowing me to bookmark and annotate content from my browser as well as most news apps.
For my subject tags, I use the categories provided by the BBC app plus some own-thought-up tags. Diigo also recommends tags.
Here is the process to bookmark and annotate on Android (it works the same way on iOS):
Accessing My Library on Android
On iOS Diigo works pretty much in the same way:
Read it later
While browsing the web, I also keep track of interesting articles to be consumed at a later time. No need to use tags for this: Diigo also maintains an unread queue and provides an uncluttered text view. I use it as a read-it-later app pretty much like Pocket or Instapaper, with the added advantages of powerful annotating, organizing, and reporting features.
Summary and call to action
I have tried most read-it-later apps when they became popular, and I am an avid user of both Evernote and OneNote.
However, clipping doesn’t do it for me when it comes to digesting massive amounts of web content.
I haven’t found anything that matches the speed and convenience with which I can bookmark, annotate, and organize web content in Diigo.
I can review my highlights and own comments without going back to the source web page and create reports to summarize and export my research with the click of a button.
This allows me to retain much more of what I read, and actually re-find what I have dug up.
It can help you too to remember the important bits of what you have read, organize your internet research, and save you a ton of time along the way.
If you are interested in maintaining a complete digital library including PDFs and web pages, and using it for citing research sources, I recommend you also read my posts on Zotero and managing annotations in PDFs.
How do you keep track of your information nuggets while surfing the web?