I’ve noticed that one simple tool can make a big difference in my reading. It’s common, it’s cheap, and it does a superb job in helping me gain a better understanding of what I’m looking at. What is this tool? The humble pencil.

When I have a pencil in my hand, I find myself more focused on the argument and key points the author is trying to make. I can mark key terms or points or parts I have questions about. In short, it helps me be more active in my reading. It helps me to pay attention. And it’s this mode of being active, not passive, that makes all the difference.

A marker or pen could do the same job, but I prefer pencil. It’s flexible. It’s less permanent. I can use it liberally without concern, knowing I can clean it up later if I choose. I also like the tactile nature of using pencil and paper. You can certainly read digital materials actively. But I for one have an affinity for the analog version.

I don’t do this for everything. Sometimes I may only skim a book or article because I don’t want to invest much time or mental energy into it. But for the books or articles I’m willing to put a little more time into—the ones I want to get something out of—having a pencil in hand is a cheap and easy way to make the most of the time I invest.