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Marginalia: How I survive

I learned a new word today: Marginalia.

By definition this word refers to the notes, comments, asterisks, highlights, etc. that you make in the margins of a text.

I’ve based my education and career survival on marginalia, and now I finally know its name. Hallelujah! This must be what validation feels like….

Originally, I discovered the word from an article written by Ryan Holiday called Strategies that helped me write 3 books in 3 years. Holiday, for those who don’t know, is an American author, media strategist and marketer. I read him because he’s the marketing mastermind behind one of my favourite best selling authors Tim Ferriss, and was Director of Marketing for American Apparel at the tender age of 21. (He was the one responsible for blasting those infamous Sasha Grey ads all over the blogosphere. A $2,000 campaign that resulted in millions in earned media.)

The one book-writing strategy that really resonates with me is Holiday’s use of the Notecard System. Simply put, it’s a way to organize your thoughts, ideas and research into notecards.

For every note you take, every page corner you turn over, every idea, thought or word in your head you it write down on a notecard. You keep these notecards in a box, organizing them into themes as you go. I’m oversimplifying it massively, so I suggest you check it out here and trust that it’s super conducive to writing books.

The secret to the Notecard System, however, is being uninhibited when it comes to marginalia. A successful notecard system would not be so without marginalia.

Uninhibited marginalia


I need to have a tangible copy of text in front of me – something that I can write and scribble on as I go – in order for my brain to function optimally. This extremely tactile yet analogue approach is something I’ve always done when faced with the need to write or formulate something or substance.

As a grad student, I would spend a fortune printing out hundreds of pages of journal articles just so I could write notes on them and colour-coordinate these notes into themes using post-its and highlighters.

It’s something that I still do today, too. I’m always printing off documents at work instead of reading them on my computer. I can’t quite digest information without a paper copy in front of me and a pen in my hand at the ready.

And to be totally honest, I’ve always felt ashamed about my over-reliance on paper and pen. I’d feel guilty about killing trees. I’d feel guilty about the length of time it would take me to take notes. I always felt like my way – even though it worked for me – was slightly archaic and inefficient.

Wouldn’t digital be easier? Yes.

But like Holiday says, I don’t want this to be easy. The physical act of me reading, with my pen reflecting my thoughts through movement on the page in front of me, is too good of a process to tamper with. This my friends, is called marginalia. And where would I be without it?

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