How to Read & Organize Online Articles (Without Driving Yourself Crazy)

Reading

The secret to great writing is great reading material.

As someone who uses a lot of sources and even academic research for my work on Sparring Mind and the Help Scout blog, I am often asked the question:

How do you organize all of the things you read?

It’s an important question for content creators and online writers, and when you are like me and putting out 5000+ word posts on The Psychology of Creativity or organizing giant list posts like my piece on 20 Customer Service Tips, your reading & organizational skills are something you live and die on.

My system is actually pretty simple, and it relies on organizing my regular reads, quick digesting and sorting one-off articles, and sometimes doing extensive note-taking with online apps.

Let’s break it down!

#1 — The Regular Reads

Every so often, you come across a new site that is so consistent in putting out great content on a consistent basis, they earn a spot in your highly exclusive “regular reads” list.

Besides my work, which I’m sure is at the top of your list ;), you likely have a few favorite sites that you want to keep tabs on, without actually having hundreds of tabs open just to keep up.

Fortunately, you only need 2 tools to organize your regular reads:

  1. Feedly
  2. Unroll.me

While I obviously view having an email newsletter as an essential part of doing business online, for my personal reading, I actually tend to prefer RSS feeds. In years past, Google Reader was my go-to choice, but since it is now dead, Feedly has sprouted as the superior alternative, and it’s run by a great team! (I’ve chatted with them before, they are a Help Scout customer)

I organize my Feedly categories pretty diligently, and I’d advise you to do the same.

For those uncommon instances when I do subscribe to a newsletter, I prefer to get a ‘daily rollup’ from Unroll.me, which also allows you to see every newsletter you are subscribed to, so you can safely unsubscribe to any you no longer use (or were added to without your permission).

With these in place, I can check my Feedly to see new posts from my favorite blogs, and receive only one broadcast a day for all of the newsletters I’m subscribed to.

#2 — One-Off Articles

These days, it is more and more common that you’ll come across a great read from one of the many content ‘aggregates’ out there. I actually have a daily ritual where I “batch” in certain sites to get into reading right away.

Batching is the process of having an extended session of a single activity and then subsequently blocking yourself from doing it for the rest of the day. I tend to have a long ‘batch’ of checking my favorite content sources in the morning, then I stop in totality and get to writing.

There are literally thousands of aggregates out there, but I find myself regularly visiting these few:

  • Twitter
  • Reddit (particularly the smaller subreddits, like FoodForThought)
  • Quora
  • HackerNews
  • The new Digg

Once you come across a compelling headline and click through, you pretty much have two options and need to make a decision of, “Will I read this now?” or “Will I read this later?”

To tackle this question (and organize your thoughts), you’ll need these 3 tools:

  1. Readability (specifically, the Chrome Extension)
  2. Pocket
  3. Delicious

For the latter, reading the article later, I exclusively used Pocket (I’ll explain why I don’t use Delicious for this in a second). Pocket essentially serves as my active “to read” backlog of articles that piqued my interest from the headline or introduction, but that appeared too long at first glance or were found while I had other obligations.

For the former, reading the article now, I use a combination of Readability (for Chrome) and Delicious.

I’ve found that for many sites, even those for which I am a paying subscriber, the font is size 10pt or undreadable due to the poor color combination. Dear Harvard Business Review, I’m looking at you and your 10pt Arial body font!

Instead, whenever I come across some great content that is poorly formatted, I ease up (and speed up) the reading process by using Readability to create a page with large fonts and sexy serif typography:

Easy to read

Once I’ve read an article, it’s time to make another decisive call: is this work bookmarking?

If the answer is yes, then I head over to Delicious. If you haven’t been a Delicious user in a while, I highly recommend you revisit the site, as nothing I’ve otherwise used (even Evernote, which I’ll address later) comes close to Delicious when it comes to organizing interesting articles with quick notes.

The key to successfully using Delicious is making deliberate and extensive use of the tagging system. I have tags for everything, so be liberal about it and always tag articles appropriately. For instance, I tag a lot of things with ‘psychology’, but I also get more detailed with tags like ‘habits’, ‘persuasion’, and I’ll even get hyper-specific for certain topics, such as having a tag for ‘inter-group behavior’.

You’ll also want to make use of your ability to add a quick excerpt (I do it via the Chrome Extension) to each article that you read, summing up what you found fascinating about it and what you learned, in brief.

This will come in handy later, especially for posts you tag as ‘toblog’, which is something I do when I get the sense that I’ll be blogging about the article later. For some inspiration on using Delicious, I highly recommend you check out the profile of Ramit Sethi, who has saved thousands of links and is the user I model my use of Delicious after.

In time, Delicious will become your collective “online archive” of articles you deem interesting, and it will make it easy for you to pull great sources, quotes, and complementary information and examples for your own writing from one platform (this is why I don’t use Pocket, I prefer to keep my “to reads” and “have reads” separate).

Remember that Delicious can save any web page, not just full articles. I often save comments from Reddit and Quora, or even individual images I’ve found that I plan to include in future articles (no need to create a text file or save that crap to your hard-drive)

#3 — Taking Detailed Notes

For extensive note-taking, Delicious doesn’t really make the cut, since that is not it’s intended purpose.

In fact, there is only one app up to the challenge: you know it, you (possibly) love it, and you’re probably sick of hearing people talk about it—Evernote.

The crazy thing about Evernote is that is has the potential to become your only tool for all of this stuff if you so desire, but for me, it’s main use comes in writing long articles, such as my research heavy Science of Productivity post or the link heavy Customer Acquisition hubpage on Help Scout.

For an article like this, however, I find it to be overkill, but some people love having everything in one location, so it’s entirely up to personal preference whether you rock it all out with Evernote or split things up like I do.

When writing those particularly long articles, I will start by creating a notebook. I’ll also create a basic outline as a text note. As I go through interesting content related to what I’m writing about, I will clip relevant web sites and page into that notebook, using Evernote’s features to highlight the good stuff (this is one of it’s best features) cutout the fluff that doesn’t pertain to me.

It is then easy to copy the individual link of each note, paste it in the article outline, and I’ll have a general skeleton of what that article’s will eventually look like.

I loved this tip from the article I linked to above:

If you have a ton of notes in a notebook, just create a “Table of Contents” note at the top, where you can dump links to all the notes in that notebook, organized however you see fit. This can be particularly helpful if Evernote’s sorting options don’t really fit your needs.

I know a lot of this section is dependent on you being familiar with Evernote and knowing the terms (like clipping a web page), but trust me when I say that given a small time of investment, you won’t be nearly so confused.

If, however, this still seems too complicated, remember that you can give #1 + #2 a try and I guarantee you’ll have a better reading / organizing experience. You can skip Evernote and take notes in Google Docs or on a piece of paper for all I care!

I actually find that my Delicious descriptions are good enough for me to remember the main takeaways from most articles, and I generally only use Evernote for massive note-taking like this. If Evernote appeals to you but the massive feature set does not, you can also try out Diigo or Simplenote to compare.

Follow the Rabbit Hole

My last bit of advice on this topic is a simple reminder to pursue structured serendipity.

In other words, block out large chunks of reading time and follow the rabbit hole wherever it may take you. The fact of the matter is that the “art of finding ideas” online is to simply go out and find ideas, and a lot of the time those great sources you’ll come across will fall in your lap from dumb luck.

Just make sure you’ve got a system to track that great stuff you stumble across!

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