(Raises hand as a stationary obsessive)

Who doesn’t love a new set of highlighter pens, or the highlighter colour palette in any onscreen reviewing tool? Their inherent promise to bring order through use, to save us time, to bring us – cheerfully – to a better way of knowing.

I often ask PhD students about their process for marking up texts when they read, and it’s striking how often colour choice is virtually random ‘whichever pen I picked up first’, or a whim of the moment ‘I’m using pastels this week because I’m sick of violent yellow’.

Use multiple colours and give the colours consistent meaning

A lot of people do this already, and if that’s you – hurrah! – I’m encouraging others to join you in this really useful practice and you need read no further. But if you’re a bit more haphazard, freeform or restricted in your use of colour, this really is worth considering, because it’s such a simple and quick win that could really enhance the return you get on the effort you’re already putting in.

An unconsidered approach to highlighting will let you down

If you don’t have a planned mark-up system in place which you apply consistently, do any of these sound familiar?

  • I’ve been reading all week, but I’ve highlighted so much – and all in yellow – that I’d have to re-read stuff if I wanted to find a particular quotation
  • I’m right at the beginning of my doctorate, and I don’t know what’s important in what I’m reading, so I tend to end up highlighting everything
  • I read and read, but I don’t feel like I know more than I did: I can’t readily map how elements connect, or follow the development of a particular concept across different authors

When you take a step back, these frustrations are unsurprising, because you might highlight for so many different reasons: to agree, for emphasis, to disagree, to show a reference to follow up later, as a reminder to check the meaning of a technical term, to note a definition, record a useful quotation etc. etc. etc.

Unless you’re consistent in your use of colours to highlight, when you look back at a text you’ve read and marked up, how do you know at a glance what stood out for you?

If you’re a visual learner, how are you adding visual elements to your work, to support your natural preferences and play to your strengths?

This is doctoral project management stuff – the prosaic nitty gritty which, if applied consistently, can really save you time, energy and significant stress further down the line.

The benefits of having a planned system

Systems save our brains from having to reinvent approaches every time we need to carry out a particular task. The more we can make routine, the more brain-space available for the higher-level tasks the doctorate requires.

Caution: It’s not enough to have a system and use it when you remember. You’ll only reap the full benefits when you’re really consistent in applying it, over a period of time.

Quick start

A quick internet search will throw up lots of advice about different categorisation schemes you can use to get started. If you prefer or need a more monochrome solution, take your categories, and come up with different underlinings, sidebarrings, and symbols that indicate the meanings you need, with a single pen.

Assign a colour/mark up symbol to each category. Print or write out your highlighting key and keep it to hand every time you read until its seared into your memory. Use it consistently for a month, and then review whether it’s made a difference. For example:

  • can you find things more quickly in what you’ve read?
  • when you glance back over a text, do you recall better what was in it?
  • do you see more clearly how the piece was put together and where in it the most useful sections to you lie?

Wishing you more fruitful reading and less re-reading!

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