How to Actually Use What You Read with Readwise: Part 3

This is Part 3 in a series of articles in which we learn how to use Readwise to establish a reading workflow.

In the first section, we learned that the basic components of a reading workflow are capture, review, and integrate. Most people struggle with the review component and this is what the Readwise email makes easy. In the second section, we learned that once you begin consistently reviewing, you'll naturally start reading and highlighting more actively. Thereafter, it makes more sense to actively review in the Readwise web app.

In this Part 3, we'll dive deeper into the two reasons that we read and show you some advanced workflows to support each motive enabled by Readwise. You'll also get a glimpse of where Readwise is headed as a product.

Theoretical and Practical Reading

Broadly speaking, there are two different categories of advanced workflows corresponding to the two different types of expository reading: theoretical reading and practical reading. To quote Mortimer Adler from How To Read a Book:

"Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do."

When you read something practical, you are seeking some sort of action — to do. When you read something theoretical, you are seeking some sort of knowledge — to know. For example, we might read a book to learn how to negotiate or we might read a book to learn about behavioral economics. These two different objectives -- what we call meaningful action and lasting insight, respectively -- require two different types of workflow.

Let us now show you how you can use Readwise to support each.

Meaningful Action

If there's something you want in life, chances are there's a book out there explaining precisely what you need to do to get it. But as most of us can probably relate, there's a huge gap between knowing what to do and actually doing it. How many times has a book made you feel so inspired to do something, only for the moment to pass before you had a chance to act?

As we learned in the previous sections, Readwise interrupts this process of forgetting, enabling your past self to send messages to your future self, reminding your present self to take action today. With the basic and intermediate workflows, these reminders are typically serendipitous. But as an advanced user, you're ready to customize your workflow to better ensure you do all the things you were inspired to do while reading. You customize using a feature we call Inline Tagging.

Inline Tagging enables you to quickly tag a highlight while you're reading without breaking immersion. These tags can then be used to customize your reviews, increasing the probability that you'll actually act on what you've read. Here's how it works: After highlighting a passage, if you leave a simple note beginning with a period (.) followed by a word or acronym, that passage will be tagged accordingly upon your next resync.

For example, imagine that one of the reasons you read is to become a better writer. As part of this journey, you collect examples of delightful prose to later reverse-engineer — a common practice among aspiring writers sometimes called copywork. Rather than simply highlighting these exceptional passages only to forget why or lose track of them, you could instead use Inline Tagging in the moment to label them .beautiful-language. Then, whenever you're in a copyworking mood, you could easily find a passage to deconstruct by referencing all your highlights tagged "beautiful-language".

Realistically, you're not going to want to type out .beautiful-language while reading. Instead, you can create your own shorthand — in this example, maybe .bl. When you resync, the passage will initially be tagged "bl", but you once you've renamed the tag to "beautiful-language" a single time, Readwise will be trained to recognize this shorthand going forward.

This example obviously pertains to a writer, but Inline Tagging offers tremendous flexibility to design a workflow around your specific objectives. If nothing else immediately comes to mind, we suggest starting with an "inbox" Inline Tag (.inbox or .i) for any passage associated with an action you think you might want to take. You can then process these inboxed notes and highlights specially, outside of the daily review.

In the future, we will be assigning special behaviors to certain Inline Tags. For example, we might make it so highlights tagged .i for inbox, like above, are accelerated into your daily reviews until you do something about them. Or, we might make it so highlights tagged .rl (for reading list) prompt you to add a book mentioned by another author to your own personal reading list. We have dozens of these special behaviors on our roadmap, so stayed tuned.

(And suggestions are always welcomed! Email us yours at [email protected])

Lasting Insight

In addition to learning how to do something, many of us read to acquire knowledge or understanding — in our words, to grow wiser. But as most of us can probably relate, there's a huge gap between thinking you understand a concept in the moment and truly getting it. How many times has a new idea made so much sense to you while reading about it, only to discover a few days later that you could hardly explain the concept to yourself or a friend?

Theories of learning abound, but most would agree that learning something once is not the same as having truly learned it. Instead, to meaningfully understand a new concept, you need to ponder it repeatedly — in different moods and in different contexts, and from different perspectives. This repetition forges lasting connections to other concepts in your mind and adds depth to the idea that was otherwise lacking.

The need for repetition also explains why reading a book is so much more impactful than reading a summary of the same book, even when the summary neatly condenses all the original ideas found therein. It's the practice of picking up the book repeatedly over the span of days or weeks, and being forced to think about the same ideas over and over again in different contexts, that leads to lasting insight.

Readwise extends this process indefinitely, helping you to revisit the best parts of what you've read weeks, months, or years later, resulting in compounding insight. Right now, Readwise resurfaces passages using a lightweight form of spaced repetition, which is a scientifically proven technique for efficient learning that progressively increases the time between reviews of previously learned material.

In the future, advanced users will be able to review specially designated notes and highlights like flashcards.[1] In particular, advanced reviews will harness the principle of active recall, which is another scientifically proven learning technique which challenges you to actively search your memory for something you've already learned, leaving a longer lasting imprint.

Getting More of What You Want

This concludes our series on reading workflows and Readwise. Our mission is to help you get more of what you want out of life by helping you read better. This is the reason, after all, that most of us read. We read to improve our lives; to find answers to the hard problems; to become better people; to advance in our careers; to grow; and so on.

By now, you understand that a reading workflow will help you with all of these goals by helping you to forget less of what you've read. You can't remember everything, however, so you need to selectively capture only the things that you think might be worth revisiting. Then, you can easily review those ideas using Readwise, transforming what you've read into meaningful action and lasting insight.

If you haven't already, sign up for Readwise and start transforming reading into meaningful action and lasting insight today.


  1. If you're familiar with spaced repetition software, think of a feature similar to Anki or SuperMemo, but purposefully designed for knowledge acquired from reading. ↩︎

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