How to Read and Outline a Book

An open book with eye glasses on an open page.

Have you wondered what is the best way to read and outline a book? When most students read an assignment from a book, they pull out the book and the assignment, which says, for example, read pages 39-47. So they go and read the pages. That’s what most of us do unless you learn how to read a book better.

When you start reading the assignment on those pages, have you ever asked yourself what you are about to read? Probably not. Students will of course know the title of the course and maybe even the topic. But they probably will not have a good sense of what they will be covering for that particular assignment or even, for that matter, the course. So here are some steps to help you learn how to read books better. (If the reading is especially difficult, try out the 15 minute method video)

Table of Contents

First, review the table of contents. This will help you understand what the book is about, where the author is going, and how the author is getting there. You need to do this so you can start developing your own schema, which will help you understand and categorize the material better.

After you review the table of contents, I strongly recommend that you then use the table as your outline. If this is new material for you, then you don’t have a starting point. Presumably the book’s author is an expert and has categorized the material in a systematic manner. If at some point during the course you find a better way of organizing the material, then by all means, make changes. But at the beginning, the table of contents is a great organizational tool to help you start your outline.


Step number two is to look at the index. The index will help provide you with all sorts of great information that will give you a sense of where the author is going, what are the key terms, how much does he or she cover certain material. All of this is very valuable information that will help you learn the law better.

Chapter Summary

Step three, go to each chapter in the book and see if the author has provided a chapter summary at the beginning or ending of each chapter. Many books have this kind of summary information. Read it so you will have a sense of what the book is about.

Skim the Book

Step four, skim through the book. Read a few paragraphs here and there to get a sense of the author’s style and purpose. Also go to the end of the book and read through the last few pages since most authors summarize the book at the end.

Many of you are not convinced that this will help. So let me tell you why these steps are important by sharing a story with you.

Picture of President George Washington.

Suppose for a moment you know nothing about American history. Someone shares with you a story about some low-ranking colonial officer that served in the British colonial forces in the 1750s during the Seven Years’ War. Your initial reaction would probably be one of disdain as you wonder why you would care about some lowly colonial officer who lived some 300 years ago. But as you get more of the story, you find out that the officer’s name was George Washington. Now, without more information, that is also rather meaningless. Finally you find out that this George Washington guy went on to lead the American army during the war of independence from England and he became America’s first President. Now it all starts to make sense.

So do you see what I did there? I created context for you which helped you learn the story better. Without that context, you would have forgotten the information. But with context you were more likely to remember it because you understand where it fits in with everything else that is stored in your brain.


It’s no different with works of nonfiction. If you just start reading a book, like most of you currently do, your brain doesn’t have the place to put the new information. But your brain desperately wants to comprehend that information. So it starts working on placing that new information in categories. In effect, unless you provide some context for the new information, you’re asking your brain to do double duty. One, to create new categories for the information. And two, place that new information into those new categories. But it’s even worse than that! Because in addition to adding two steps to the process, you’re creating categories that later on may not make any sense. So you may have to forget bad categories and learn better ones.

So by following these steps, you will create context for what you will learn, which will help you learn the material faster and better than if you just jump in and read the assigned pages. To see how to take preparing your reading assignments to the next level, check out How to Prepare for Law School Classes.

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How to Read and Outline a Book