Note-taking Systems?

A reader named Russ sent me an e-mail asking about note-taking systems that I thought would be good to pose to the group:

Q. “Have you come across any useful system for marking a study bible? I want to avoid marking it with extraneous comments or in a random manner.”

Here’s how I answered: “I’m afraid I don’t have a system and haven’t really been convinced that they’re necessary. These days, I tend to take notes not in my Bible but in a companion notebook, so I’m mainly underlining and bracketing passages in the text, and writing out whatever needs writing in the notebook. That way, if I switch Bibles (which I do pretty often in order to do reviews for the site) I have whatever I need with me. That’s probably overkill for most people, though.”
But then I began to wonder. I was writing in my Bible with a ballpoint until my readers won me over to the Pigma Micron, so maybe this is another area where I need to be educated. Is there a good system for taking notes in a Bible? If so, I’d like to hear about it.
I like how Russ described his goal — “to avoid marking it with extraneous comments or in a random manner” — because I can relate. Have I ever shared the story of my first Bible purchase? It wasn’t motivated by a distaste for bonded leather or glued bindings. No, the thing that prompted me to make my first purchase (before which, all my Bibles had been given to me) was the fact that throughout adolescence, I’d been writing notes in my Bible which later proved rather embarrassing. In a college chapel service, I had my Bible open on my lap, and the person next to me started giggling. The more she tried to stop, the worse it got. I couldn’t figure out what was so funny, but I started laughing myself, as you do. Afterward, I found out that she’d been reading the things I’d written in the margin of my Bible. (There were illustrations, too.)
If I still had that Bible, I’d post a photo, but in my embarrassment I quickly replaced it — and for a long time after that I was very circumspect in what I wrote! So if there’s a good system out there, I want to hear about it.

41 Comments on “Note-taking Systems?

  1. It is good with some kind of a system, i have some for my wide margin bible. Mostly i transfer some from Strong´s and other dictionary’s and commentarys . And I use some “signs” that to me will help me find a passage or a subject, an example is the cross i simply draw a cross. And underlining it can be good use different colors.
    But the risk is you will end up like Thomas Newberry, here is his “Newberry bible” which is a must for all serius bible students, and if you know some Greek it will bless your beyond comprehension. take a look and you can click the image to zoom in to the amazement of notetaking a la extreme

  2. I love the Pigma Microns, but for some lame reason, they bleed more through the paper of my ESV Heirloom Calfskin Bible worse than any other Bible I’ve used it on. Frustrating.
    One of my profs in seminary buys a new Bible every December and then reads through the NT twice and the OT once starting Jan 1. He’s been doing it for around 40 years and at the end of the year he gives it away to one of the students he disciples. I have one of those Bibles and his notes and underlinings are a treasure to me not because of their content but because of the passion for the Word that I find in there. I’m hoping to do the same thing with my notes.

  3. My system works fairly well for my needs:
    I use only a micron pigma pen (red…less bleed through) and make notes in a study bible format.
    If I were making a note in John 1:1 I would make a red “X” at the end of the phrase (in the top corner to let myself know in the future that I made a note) I am commenting on, then mark “John 1:1” at the bottom of the page and make my notes.
    i.e. John 1:1 – Logos in greek = …
    My system goes further in that if I mark in the left hand column I make notes at the top of the page, and if I mark in the right column the notes go at the bottom.
    I do not make notes on the side of the page since I do not like to write sideways or REALLY small.
    generally I only underline passages that I comment on, otherwise my whole bible will end up looking like one big red line.

  4. This is a great topic.
    I’m certainly no expert on making notes in a Bible but I do it often and will share the (I hope) wisdom I’ve ascertained through the past couple of years.
    (1) Use mechanical pencils often – especially when working in haste (during a class lecture or sermon). Later re-copy the notes in ink using a small-tip pen. I would even suggest a “draft” Bible where you first copy your notes to before later copying them to your pride and joy (I did this through my first two years of Bible college).
    (2) Don’t wet highlight. Use dry highlighters. (I do not use highlighters at all for my main Bible because I simply have not thought through the color schemes yet). If highlighting I would use different colors where each color means something in particular. For example, for Christology I’d use a blue dry highlighter. For eschatological notes maybe red. These are only examples. Have a general color, yellow perhaps, for all general observations when highlighting. Try not to highlight a lot (this is hard because most will have the tendency to want to highlight almost all of scripture).
    (3) Use a wide-margin Bible. If it’s a study Bible, try not to repeat the same notes given.
    (4) Apply a manual of style and use it systematically. Do not use different abbreviations for the same book (ie. Ex, Exod, or Exds, etc). I use my college’s Manual of Style. Notice also “verse” references, or in plural, “verses” (ie. v, or vv). Try to be as systematic in your choices as possible. I’ve read some books where the author will use different styles even in the same sentence and it throws off the reading and looks messy.
    (5) Write the verse your note applies to.
    (6) For overall Pauline theological notes, I would use the most empty page from one of his epistles to gather all the notes on. For me, this is the large empty space between the end of Romans and 1 Corinthians. I’ve yet to work out a system for the gospels since I have not studied those as much since I’ve been adding notes. So, if the notes are general Pauline notes (maybe, as an example, Paul’s constant use of the LXX’s LORD passages applied to Christ that are originally the tetragrammaton “YHWH”; this type of note might go on it’s own page where the data can easily be gathered and later referenced, rather than making a note at each verse where this high-implication Christological event occurs.
    (7) Do not add a note for the sake of adding a note. Only if it is something that is crucial to the text, your doctrinal beliefs and convictions, or a very relevant detail, do not add it. Like the original post suggests, you’ll later be embarrased or buy some white-out.
    (8) Buy some white-out.
    (9) Use a ruler for underlining Scripture or when separating columns or rows of notes.
    (10) Like the different colored highlighting, I would suggest using a few different ink colors that will systematically represent a certain type of note.
    (11) Avoid dating your notes unless you really want too for sentimental reasons.
    (12) Spell check everything before writing. Keep a dictionary nearby. If you’re not sure, look it up before writing it. Also, check reference verses when transfering them from a book or previous collection of notes. Sometimes they are wrong and will not need to be added.
    I only have a lot to comment here because I recently spent about 6 weeks transfering over notes to my new main study Bible (a wide-margin Key Word NASB). This was a volumous task since I had collected quite a bit of data in the past 3 years of study.
    I hope this helps. And please keep an eye on my website for a later related post on the topic. I’ll credit Bible Design’s site for the idea.
    Thanks and God bless,

  5. That’s exactly why I stick with highlighting! I love the look of the ESV widemargin, but between embarassing theology and pitiful penmanship I just can’t do it!

  6. i write (.03 pencil), highlight, tape, glue, print, and whatever else that helps me remember or study the WOG. Oh, and this is all on a ESV calfskin classic reference.
    But once, I get my ESV pitt minion i might leave that thing alone.

  7. My ‘system’ is fairly simple, altho when I get the ESV Pitt Minion and transfer my notes, I might make it a little more complex.
    I high-light (using a Papermate 2-in-1 dry chisel tip) passages that are either extremely challenging or encouraging, or that I know I will need to look up very quickly. Most of the time, those are one in the same.
    I underline (using Zig Millennium .25mm) in red passages that are encouraging, challenging, or jump out in any particular way that I will want to reference in the future. For longer passages I use [ ] at the beginning and end of the passage.
    I write whatever notes in a blue Zig .25mm wherever I have space. Alot of time I will underline the passage I am making a note on in blue. I used to draw arrows. If I’m not able to write the note right next to the passage, I will use verse numbers to reference.
    My notes are usually cross-reference in nature, but will also do a lot of translational notes (usually making the NIV more accurate). Actually that’s why I switched to the ESV because I had too many translational corrections.
    When I do write other notes, I try to keep it to a minimum. I’ve looked back at old notes and have been slightly embarrassed too. I will right things to help understand a passage better, such as in Jesus’ parables, or in Rev. I will add a really really good illustration if there is one. I also write a lot of challenges to myself or the church.
    I am thinking of developing a color system for my translational notes, cross references, and then other notes, but I haven’t put much thought into it.

  8. Great comments, one and all. This is exactly the type of information I’ve been wondering about. In fact, I wrote a post, Chasing Rabbits, about this topic. I sort of like what Mark wrote regarding keeping a notebook for notes, but if you go somewhere and don’t have your notebook, then you don’t have your notes, either.
    I’ve bought a few Bibles lately, and have been hesitant about marking in them. I know – these are tools for use, not just to look good. My 30 year-old Thompson Chain has lots of notes in it made with a variety of writing devices, and everything is readable.
    Thanks, again, for all the suggestions. Decisions, decisions.

  9. I use multiple asterisks. I will use one or more of them, and have them written anywhere in the margins. I either highlight the passage, or I write-in parentheses. I actually use one Bible for my initial notes, and then I transfer them to an identical edition in a neater fashion. That’s my obsessive compulsive nature coming out.

  10. I’ve got the perfect system – I don’t write or highlight in my Bible at all. I used to be an underliner and a margin-notes writer, but I eventually gave it up because I was beginning to pay more attention to my notes than to the Bible text.

    • This is precisely this issue I have. Historically, when I’ve taken notes in the past, when I come back to a text trying to read it with fresh eyes, I find myself distracted by my own notes and “caged in” to thinking the way I was thinking with my notes.

      • That’s how I feel about notes and how I felt at university when I saw friends furtively highlighting line after line in a textbook. What does that marking actually mean? Read only the highlighted bits when you come back to this page? In a Bible, here’s the key to what this phrase really means? You get locked into that. No, I’d rather keep the text unmarked and be able to come back to it afresh, or from a different angle, and encounter it anew, not just in the one way represented by the markings. As for what a phrase means, I’ve got all kinds of helps for that: study Bibles, commentaries, Bible handbooks…

  11. For a prescribed system of Bible study, Precept Ministries has an approach that many seem to like. It is described in the Inductive Study Bible (NASB) introduction and gives you examples in color of how to mark sections of Scripture. I have not personally used it since, for me, it marks up the text quite a bit. but it is a systematic way to read and understand…and oh, yeah “Mark” up your Bible (pun intended).

  12. One thing to add. Kay Arthur is the person who designed this approach. She also has a book on how to study the Bible that describes the marking approach.

  13. It’s fun and creative to work on annotating one’s Bible well. I love doing it and talking about it. However, I’ve begun to tip towards thinking of notes more as good discovery tools than information storage tools. (And the thought of losing years of labor if I lose my Book makes my blood turn cold.)
    For the task of storing information (mostly great thoughts from others smarter than me), I’ve been considering some kind of software solution to the issue of annotating the Bible, since I want to be able to compare how others have incorporated the Bible into their theology, missiology, ethics, and so on. Even wide margins are far too narrow for that task (and again, what if something happens to my Bible?). The best solution would allow me to print out the annotations so that I could take them to a meeting, study, lecture, or whatever, and not be tied to a computer.
    My current thoughts involve Bible software programs that incorporate an “editor” that can store comments (programs like Bibleworks, e-sword, and I’m sure that there are others). That way, I can get a bound Bible that pleases me, read and annotate that thing vigorously, and then take the best thoughts out and keep them for later.
    However, whatever approach that you take, don’t spare the printed page as you read and study. Annotating your Bible is too productive a technique to ignore.

  14. I wanted to second the Kay Arthur approach to Bible study and marking. I did a Bible study several years ago using that method, and it was wonderful (it uses color and symbols for marking). Sadly, I did not have the opportunity to take further studies using that method, and I did not continue the practice of marking that way. Here is her book. One of the reviews is by Tim Challies, who I respect a lot.
    I always reserve most marking to a hardback study Bible. I prefer to keep the leather Bibles I take to church unmarked or just underlined. I take notes on the back of a bulletin or in a notebook and transfer any essential notes to the study Bible later. I take the study Bible to other Bible studies.

  15. Rod,
    Just to clarify. Kay Arthur did not create the Inductive Study Method. It was created by Howard G. Hendricks:
    Kay can be credited with popularizing the method.
    I highly recommend the Inductive Method. It is A LOT of marking, a lot of reading and re-reading, but it is well worth it. I’ve been through Precept Ministries training and am an “approved” Precept Upon Precept course leader. I teach them at our church and everyone that take the classes comments about how this method just opens up the Bible to them like never before.

  16. Inductive Study was around before Hendricks came on the scene. This book was first published in 1952 and is one of the finest and most boring handbooks for the inductive method:
    Dr. Traina learned it from a prof at Union well before that. There’s a bibliography of inductive books in the back and some of them were written before Traina wrote his. I think a better way to say it is that studying the Bible inductively has been around for a long, long time and it was popularized by several folks in the 20th century.

  17. Matthew,
    Thanks for clearing that up. The link I had provided phrases things in such a way as to imply that Hendricks “pioneered” this method. Your way of saying it is definitely more accurate.

  18. Scott, can I push it further by saying that if all these people around the same 30 year period started moving in similar directions that maybe the Holy Spirit likes Inductive Bible Study?
    Yeah, don’t answer that 🙂

  19. I have the Kay Arthur book, but have not read it yet, perhaps I will now that you folks have brought the subject up.
    I don’t know if you could call what I do a system by any means, but I use color coded notes as follows:
    PURPLE – Notes on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit
    RED – Notes on sin & salvation
    BLACK – Notes on theology and the Spirit realm
    BLUE – Notes on prophecy & the end times
    BROWN – Historical notes and notes on the text
    GREEN – Notes on science and creation
    I use only Pigma Micron pens to make my notes and I have a self imposed rule that I do not underline anything unless I also have a note to add on what I have underlined.
    I also try to keep my note making to a minimum, I don’t make notes just for the sake of writing in my Bible. I will take a small notebook to church and take notes in it, then only after I have had time to consider those notes will I transfer what few things I consider profound enough into my Bible.

  20. My system has been tried and tested for years! 🙂 Fortunately, I have the ability to write small and neat (some can’t tell whether it’s typed or written). But the issues one has to deal with is:
    1. What notes to put in the Bible
    2. How do do it
    What notes to put in the Bible? I’ve found over the years to put notes in the margin of things I find interesting in my studies / personal devotion. I don’t try to put together an outline, dig into the Greek in detail and place notes on every word. As I read commentaries, listen to sermons, I will add notes.
    Example: Daniel 1.
    I put next to verses 1:1-2. (a) Defeat – “Lord Gave”/Divine Judgment (b) Deportation – Land of Shinar and (c) Degradation – trophies. This helps me summarize these two verses. I also box in key phrases. One phrase that’s repeated throughout the text is “God gave” or the “Lord gave” — verse 2, 9, and 17. These two words are boxed in so I can readily see them.
    How to do it?
    Pretty simple. This has worked beautifully for a long time. If there is a phrase you are commenting on, put a numeric digit at the beginning of the word or phrase. Then, whether you write at the top / side / bottom of the Bible, you put that numeric digit. This alleviates the need to have the notes in certain places. I can quickly find all notes on a page.
    Having put thousands of notes in my Bibles, I’ve learned what works and doesn’t. I’ve looked at systems such as Kay Arthur’s, and while good, it seems forced. I don’t necessarily want to make note of everything…and believe the Holy Spirit will guide in bringing to light those things in the text that prepares us for the new lesson / application He would have us focus on. Hope this helps.

  21. I’ve been using a calfskin Oxford wide-margin Brevier KJV for a long time as my note-taking Bible. It’s not my primary use Bible — that’s a small KJV/1928BCP combo. My purpose in taking/making notes is primarily to record my findings in study for the purpose of preaching and leading Bible studies. I guess I really just want to preserve the research and study I’ve done. For that reason, the books I’ve covered in sermon series or in Bible studies are those that are marked up. I don’t generally do much marking up in a book until I’m ready to tackle the whole thing. I used to make these notes in a notebook, but then I didn’t have the notebook with me all the time and sometimes I want those notes handy. For a while I tried taking the notes in my Bible software (Accordance), but had the same problem there, even though I’m more likely to have the laptop with me than the notebook. I finally just went back to putting them in the Bible. The space is limited, but it just makes sense to have them there with the text.
    I use Pigma micron pens for notes and they work very well. My wife says that I write my own commentary in the margins. Typically, by the time I’m done there isn’t a bit of empty margin, top, bottom, or side, anywhere. I’m fortunate to be able to write both very neatly and very, very small. I note the verse at the beginning of the note as they aren’t always immediately next to the verse being commented on. I make notes of any kind that help me comment on the text. I make note of the Hebrew and Greek of key words, in which case I typically underline the word in the text next to the original. I also do some underlining of phrases or passages that are key or that work as subject headings. The problem is that different books or different types of literature need to be noted differently, so I’ve never developed a general system that I use throughout — it varies a bit whether I’m dealing with Psalms, historical books, gospels, epistles, prophets, etc. It’s never been a problem. The Oxford wide-margin has about thirty to forty blank pages in the back and I find them handy for making things like historical outlines and comments that don’t fit in the margins and have also collected notes there that cover multiple books or that are topical — I often take notes there that deal with doctrine and systematic theology.
    I do use dry highlighters — the ones from Staedler. No bleedthrough problems. I use yellow and I only highlight for one purpose — I mark all the verses that I’ve memorised. It helps for periodic review of those verses. I’ve added a couple of extra ribbon markers and one is always used to mark the last page I stopped at in reviewing memory verses. Because those verses are highlighted it makes it easy to rapidly flip pages as I look for the next verse to review.

  22. I would like to add a great resource to help in Bible Study: itunes-
    1. go or download itunes
    2. go to itune store
    3. go to ituneU for university
    4. there are great down loads under the humanity, leadership, etc from Concorda Seminary, Dallas Seminary, and others. They offer downloads for greek, hebrew to learn these languages. And many other biblical christian helps. and more all the time.

  23. I’ve been using this color code for many years:
    Yellow – Godhead
    Red – Salvation
    Blue – Holiness
    Dark Green – Contending for the Faith, studying the scriptures
    Orange – Prophesy
    Purple – Healing
    Light Green – Miracles
    Light Blue – Gifts of the Spirit
    Flesh – Works of the Flesh
    Black – Wrath of God
    Tan – Faith
    Brown – Creation
    I write a sub-topic in the margin and color it and its reference the same color as the main topic (the sub-topic is usually already in the margin of my Thompson). I also write Greek and Hebrew definitions in the margins. I place an asterisks next to the word that I’m writing a definition for.
    In the past I used Prang color pencils. The last set of pencils I bought was Crayola (today’s Crayola is as good as Prang from several years ago). I recently bought a set of PrismaColor color pencils (it was a $70 set of pencils on clearance for $18). When I get my Note Taker’s wide margin from LCBP (hopefully for Christmas) I am considering using the PrismaColor pencils. I’ve also looked at the PrismaColor pens. Micron comes in 14 colors, and PrismaColor only has 8. I will probably go with Micron.

  24. Most people rely on whats called the inductive method where they have specific ideas outlined when they are studying and use colors to correspond to that. SO for example if they are looking for things that pertain to salvation then they use say red etc.
    or people use symbols as well. It goes to what you want some people are different and use abbreviations and colors so like sin and salvation may be in red together with the appropriate abreviation next to the text that applies you follow? Great post and comments by all

  25. I’ve been using Leuchtturm brand notebooks, (much like the moleskine notebook, but with numbered pages) and labeling each notebook with a letter. I use it for my journal, written prayers, taking notes in bible studies, or working out sermons and bible studies on my own. each page is dated, as is normal for a journal. I use these notebooks much like the “blank bible” idea. If i have a journal entry on a specific scripture from the days studies, i mark the book and page number next to that verse in my bible with something like [JRNL A-105] meaning that theres a subject heading about this passage in my journal “A”, page 105. I’ve been very happy with what i’ve got. Those journals do double duty as journals and as their own commentary. I just hope that i never lose the “key” that is my bible.

  26. Jason, I looked up that brand of notebooks on the internet. They looked very nice, but the website I found them on was in German. Is there a US distributor where you purchase them?

  27. Fernando, search for Leuchtturm on Amazon and you’ll find several choices. For numbered-age notebooks, they look like an interesting compromise between a TOPS and a Boorum & Pease.

  28. I have my Cambridge Concord goatskin KJV all marked up. I use a Zebra F301 ball point, and that seems to work the best for me. I had purchesd some archive quality pens, but they bled through very badly, so I stopped using them. My Concord is not a wide margign, so I am comtemplating buying a wide margign like the Cambridge KJV WM Concord. Problem is I really like my present concord, but have no more room for notes. I also like the size of my present Concord as it is handy for preaching. What say you?

  29. The HCSB has a new version called the Notetaker’s Bible. I did some calculations, and the available notetaking space rivals anything else in its class. I calculated 30 square inches per page in the top and side margin. The ESV Journaling Bible only provides 19.5 square inches. Imagine a column 2 inches wide x 5 inches tall. That’s how much more space you get in the Notetaker’s Bible. The ESV Wide-Margin Bible comes in at just under 19 square inches. The NASB Wide-Margin Bible has 18 square inches. The best part is: you can get it for under $20 at Amazon or Christian Book Distributors.

  30. I grew tired of “losing” my Bible notes whenever I gave my Bible away, or purchased a new one for a location like my workplace. To fix this I wrote a software program for myself that auto creates a note taking library for any book, chapter or verse of the Bible with a maximum of 3 mouse clicks, which makes it really is decent for taking Bible notes. I have come to realize that it has potential for others to use as well, so I have added several other features such as note sharing capabilities, search/replace, the ability to store notes on any subject (such as a sermon or recipe archive) etc etc and have decided to make it available online. I offer a free 30 day trial and a $40 retail version of this software at I am open to offer discounts for schooling situations, etc, and may be contacted via the website contact page.

  31. I wasn’t going to comment because this is such an old post. Read through all the comments though, and saw that people were still interested last year … I have really enjoyed reading the comments, and love seeing the different methods people use. I intend to incorporate some of the ideas into my Bible study.
    I use Prismacolor fine line markers. They come in an 005 line width and are archival, acid-free, and lightfast; they can be purchased at art-supply/hobby type stores. They are the only pen I have found that does not bleed through standard, onion-skin type Bible pages — I took my Bible into the store with me and tried out all the markers on one of the blank pages in the back. They come in a package of 8 not-too-bright colors. This might be a drawback for some, but I find it less distracting than using superbright colored pens. When I want something to stand out a bit more I use colored pencils to highlight.

  32. As Susan posted above, I was not going to offer any comments either. However, in case someone might benefit from my note-taking method, I have decided to let the internet know how I do things. For comfort, I use a hand-size bible with average margins because of the light weight and portability. The notes I take are in a journal. I write a date in the white column of my bible that corresponds to a date in my journal. Below the date in my journal I write my notes. Another method, in addition to this, is to sometimes underline the portions of the verse about which I have written. When note-taking is done in this way, there is no need to be concerned about the limitations of the margin and affords me the ability to ramble on if I must. In addition to all that I have said, I use a pencil—a Palomino Blackwing to be exact. Google it. Pencils are much more enduring than one might realize. The biggest threats to penciled notes are fingers and erasers. However, these obstacles to longevity are not insurmountable for one who is careful. Besides, if you are like me and your notes must be neat, the ability to erase mistakes is worth the investment of un-indelible markings.

  33. I think the BibleNote ( may be helpful for you. This software can parse notes in OneNote and automatically link them to the Bible. So you can, while reading the Bible in OneNote, see the notes that refer to this or that Biblical passage.

  34. I plan to start a digital system for my bible notes in either Microsoft excel or word. Open Office is a free “clone” that can be used. I can put the verse above or to the left side of my notes.
    I do have other challenges to consider in matching notes to verses. I guess the nice thing about digital version is it can be edited all you want. Just be consistent with whatever you do because changing all 66 books can be a daunting task!

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