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It is quite common for students to do so much reading and note-taking that their own response is overwhelmed. In the context of essay writing, their writing and structure is driven by their reading, by other people's arguments, rather than using that reading as a basis for their own ideas. The essay then becomes a loosely structured, descriptive account of all that they have read, as their own ideas have not had a chance to be formed. In the process of producing an essay, a well-structured approach to note-taking can be a great help in promoting structured thinking and writing later in the process. If your notes are selective and well-organised according to your own research needs, then it will be much easier to find what you are looking for later on, and there will also be much less danger of your own ideas being swamped by the sheer amount of other people's research you have dealt with. If you have thought about how you will select material and how you will structure your notes to suit the purpose for which you are taking them, your own ideas will be better developed and structured.

The ultimate challenge in note-taking for essays is to keep the text's agenda and your agenda quite separate. No book or article that you read was written with the sole purpose of helping you answer your specific assignment. Therefore, each text has its own agenda, and it is important, if your own ideas are to develop independently, not to get too drawn into someone else's reasons for writing. If your notes essentially summarize the text you are reading only according to its own priorities and structure, then your ideas will be driven by the other author's agenda instead of providing you with material on which to base your own.

CUSU's Student Advice Service website also has some guidance on note-taking.

Structuring notes

The key aspects to consider in note-taking are having a specific aim, flexibility and findability. Note-taking strategies which rely only on marking up the text (book or article) may be unhelpful in the context of reading for an essay (although they may be useful if reading for a seminar or supervision, if you are taking notes to record your response to a text). Using strategies such as highlighting and underlining, or even making notes in the margin, can be risky, as it can become a passive, unthinking process and therefore easy to become unselective and forget what you are looking for. This method is also bound to the structure of the text from which you are making notes, and therefore not flexible, which, if you are writing, may not help your own structure develop (marking up the text may have other uses, for example, aiding skim-reading to establish where any smaller points of interest are located so that they can be returned to later).

Another common strategy is to make notes in a separate place, whether a sheet of paper, notebook or computer file. Students commonly organise their notes by creating a separate set of notes (page, sheet of paper or computer file) for each separate text, and again, your notes, ideas and structure could become dependent on that text. However, you could experiment with other, more thematic ways of taking notes. Instead of allocating a sheet of paper or computer file to each separate text you read, you could try deciding in advance what topics, perspectives or questions you need to gather information on, and as you read each text, you record what you find in the appropriate thematic location. This way, your reading and note-taking is structured by your aims, not those of the texts you read.

Non-linear forms of note-taking, such as mind-mapping, may also help you to develop your own structure more clearly. They force you to distance yourself from the original structure of the text and organise the ideas yourself, whereas linear strategies such as bullet points on lined paper can encourage you to recreate the text's structure, not develop your own.

Note-taking Strategies

Your note making strategy will vary according to your personal study preferences and your purpose for your notes. Note making is a vital part of active reading, but needs to be considered carefully to avoid overwhelming yourself with copious, but irrelevant notes. Note taking can be a way of recording your responses and findings, and also a way of making sure you are reading actively and digesting the text.

Note making strategies vary as much as reading strategies.

  • Remember to record the relevant bibliographic information for each text.
  • You may simply need to locate a relevant passage again. Strategies include highlighting and underlining, use of post it notes or a brief note of the page number and keyword summary of the interesting content, depending on whether you own the copy of the text. You might also want to make a brief note of why you feel the text was interesting or useful, so that you do not become unfocussed and unselective, and to remind you later why you wanted to find that section again. Be careful not to overuse highlighting or underlining, as they can become passive and unfocussed.
  • Summarising the text in your own words, from a keyword for each paragraph, to more detailed paraphrasing, can help keep you engaged and prolong your concentration. It can also help you to gain an overview of the text's meaning rather than getting bogged down in its details. You could experiment with different formats, such as mindmapping, to help you think about the whole text and the relationship of the points it makes to your own argument.
  • Recording your own comments, whether in the margin or in separate notes, can help you to respond critically to the text.
  • Detailed copying of the text to record quotations. If you can keep the text with you as you write up, you may not even need to do this, if you can note the location of the section you want to quote. Ask yourself how you might use the potential quotation in your essay, to avoid passively copying irrelevant chunks of text. If you are tempted to copy out the text for a quotation, read the whole paragraph first, so that you can decide exactly how much you need, rather than copying as you go, which could result in a loss of focus.

Think about how to order and present your notes, so that you can easily find what you want later on. Make sure you distinguish between different types of information, such as quotation, paraphrase or your own comment.