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Article: Mining a How-To Book

Between the colorful covers of mountains of books lies a vast wealth of how-to information about just about anything you could want to know. It's there for the taking, there for the mining. Sometimes those valuable nuggets of how-to advice are perfectly shaped and can be simply applied as is, but more often the value must be dug out of the pages of prose, broken up into pieces, sifted, pondered and chewed on—refined to fit circumstance and need. A simple read-through rarely gains the full value of the wisdom between the covers, for it is the very process of refining and handling the information that makes it sticky and useful. The more we handle information, the more memorable and applicable it becomes; the easier it is to bend and shape to a particular need. The easier it is to remember when needed.

Use these tools as you labor to own the information found in between the covers of some experts' book:

Prospect for and Highlight the Essential Messages—the key statements, the definitions, the telling words, the Ah-hah! sentences. Dig these out of the context surrounding them. Isolate (highlight) them for easy visual reference.

Identify what you’ve highlighted with a concept tag in the margin or tucked into a paragraph break. It can be something like “ROI defined” or “how to use stories in sales copy” or “formula for site visitor engagement” or “headlines that work.”

This exercise serves three important functions:

1) It breaks down the pages of dense grey type into quickly referenced and usable concepts—into classifiable chunks.

2) It forces you to think and ponder, rather than just read. If you must stop and analyze a sentence or passage—getting your mind around it to label it and categorize it—then you must handle it mentally, thereby increasing your ability to remember and use it later.

3) It allows you to reassemble the information in those pages in a way that is logical and effective to you. The book structure and subhead choices and examples cited are all choices of the author—it makes sense to him or her. But that doesn’t always work best for you. And what is often a briefly mentioned, stepping-stone concept used by the author on the way to teaching another point of the topic could very well be a gleaming nugget you can mine and apply in other ways as well.

Record the Concepts you Break Out and Identify. Build a database or keep a list of references in a notebook or a computer file or build your own index on a blank fly leaf in the book. The key here is to assemble for reference and application the information you mine. You won’t remember it all, and you will need to find it again when you are driven by interest or circumstance to study specific concepts and their application again. Many books have an index, but it’s not going to be as deep or indiviually applicable as one you make. Nor will it be keyed to your interests. Indexes tend to list the standard fare...but will not list the more broader themes of the subject that are made up of various combinations of concepts.

The brain learns on a need-to-know responds to interests, challenges, needs. You need to be able to easily find what you need when the need arises. Mine enough how-to books like that, recording the concepts and noting their location, and you’ll build a reference that’ll serve you in any savvy-based challenge.

—Michael Waite;