How to make smart highlights for Readwise

Why do you highlight? What is it that sparked your attention that makes this snippet of text—someone else’s words—worth saving?

If you’re like me, you often highlight more than you should. But, you shouldn’t be careless about saving ideas from books. If you highlight everything you highlight nothing; your attention is pulled in all directions.

Only save the part that gives enough context. Even better, write a note that explains why this resonates with you; take care of your future self by making the insight understandable in the future.

In this article, I’ll show you an approach to saving digital highlights that are useful, have the right amount of context without fluff, and are easy to resurface.

What is highlighting?

This may seem silly, but I’d like to start with definitions.

When I talk about a highlight, I mean an (almost) exact copy of text from some written source. A highlight is a piece of text that someone else has written that you find useful for any reason.

Many apps and services that have a highlighting feature, also have an option to add notes to individual highlights and export these as a complete set. Readwise integrates with many of these apps, enabling us to quickly extract highlights and our notes from a variety of sources.

Paper versus digital highlighting

If you went to college before tablets became a thing, you probably learned to highlight in paper books. While still tricky to do right, paper highlights always have one major advantage: context.

No matter how much or little you highlights in a paper book, you always have direct access to the context. Not so with digital highlights.

Most highlights in apps are extracted and saved in other apps. That’s often the reason to highlight digitally in the first place; to have easy access to your highlights and work with them. Unfortunately, the different reading apps and services don’t offer great integrations, making it difficult to extract highlights while having easy access to their original context.

To make up for the lack of context, digital highlights need to be longer to encapsulate the context within the highlight itself. But with longer highlights, how do we make sure they’re still to-the-point?

A first step is to summarize the key point you want to remember in a note attached to the highlight. But, there’s also a way to cut out the fluff in the highlights themselves; with Readwise’s tags.

Readwise’s tagging system

All of the notes we add to our highlights can be read by Readwise. This comes in handy when we’ve extracted our highlights and need some additional context, which we can provide in the note.

However, Readwise also has a tagging system. Any time it finds a note with a word that starts with a dot (.), it recognizes that word as a tag. So whereas in Roam you’d use a hashtag (#) like in #question or #idea, for Readwise you use .question or .idea (or .q and .i, and have Readwise turn them into full-length tags). When you export your highlights and notes to Roam, Readwise automatically turns the tags into Roam-compatible hashtags.

Apart from creating your own tags to categorize your highlights and notes, there is also a special class of tags that Readwise offers: actions tags.

An action tag isn’t stored as a piece of metadata in your notes. Instead, you use them to instruct Readwise to do something specific, like turning a highlight into a header or stitching several highlights together.

Let’s have a look at both of these action tags.

Headings

The first tool to add context to your highlights is by showing where they are in the book’s structure. To do this, you can turn highlights into headings—with a maximum of three levels (.h1, .h2, .h3).

Any highlight you tag as a heading won’t show up during reviews/Readwise’s daily emails, but the structure will show up in the Readwise (web) app and in your exports to Roam:

Example of a book structure created with Readwise tags
An example of a structure created with Readwise’s .h1 and .h2 tags.

Concatenation

Conca… what? Concatenation! Or in simple terms: connecting things. In our case we’re connecting highlights and combining them into one.

How often do you encounter a paragraph with a bunch of fluff sandwiched between useful bits? Maybe you want the first sentence and the last, but not anything that’s in between. That’s where Readwise’s concatenation tags come in handy.

To string together highlights, you add the .c tag to a highlight as a note, followed by an increasing number. So, you start out by highlighting and add .c1 as a note to that highlight. What tag do you use for the next highlight you want to glue to .c1? I hope you guessed .c2! Want to add another snippet to the highlight? No problem, highlight something else and add a note with the .c3 tag.

Here’s an example where I  string together two highlights:

Readwise concatenation tag example

What will be the resulting highlight? See below for the answer.

think in terms of your future self. … Verbose highlights are painful to review, take too long to reread, and contain extraneous content obscuring the big idea you originally wanted to capture.”

That’s some pretty magical stuff. Finally a way to cut out the fluff!

To create a new concatenated highlight, tag a highlight with .c1 to start a new snippet, adding subsequent highlights to it by using .c2, .c3, .c4, etc. Just make sure you don’t skip numbers or use two of the same number in a row; you might end up with a broken-up snippet after all.

You don’t need to use the concatenation tag, although it does allow for you to create to-the-point highlights. Try to strike a balance; any highlight that is clear on its own can be left untouched, even if it’s a bit “fluffy.” Often a short note summarizing the key point is better than hacking together highlights based on someone else’s words.

Get more out of your highlights

In this series, we’ve looked at setting up Readwise metadata for Roam, and just now took a look at how to structure our highlights so they make sense out of context. However, that’s only to feed our Roam databases.

Is there a way to fine-tune your highlighting process and benefit your future selves?

Apart from combining short highlights into a coherent whole and turning others into headings, you could consider adding metadata tags (also starting with a dot). Or, write your notes and already link to keywords using [[brackets]].

By already creating links while taking notes, it’ll be easier to find your way back to them. In Roam, links are simply entry points to blocks, so think in what context you’d want your future self to stumble upon the note and tag or link it accordingly.

Additional resource

Need some more time to wrap your head around Readwise’s possibilities? Watch this 70-minute How to Readwise session I held in October of 2020.

How to Readwise workshop

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