Taking Notes: Three Easy Steps

Once you start detailed reading, it is time to take notes. People use different methods to take notes. The most common and effective method is the ‘filing system’, which can be used on paper or with a computer. The main advantage of this method of note taking is that it keeps all related material together, so you don’t have to search through all of your notes to find a point you vaguely remember noting somewhere! The filing system has three easy steps.

Step 1

Using a word processing program or a piece of paper, place a heading on the page indicating a keyword, topic or issue, and repeat this for all the basic parts of your essay that you identified earlier in your essay plan. In effect, what you are doing is making sub-plans of your essay, broken up into the various points you will cover. This is especially useful if your essay involves a complex or lengthy topic.Sub-plans are particularly helpful when explaining and applying theories. Since theories can be complex and confusing at first, it may be better to break down your theory content in the form of a sub-plan. For example, you might ask yourself:

  • Are keywords defined and referenced?
  • Is there enough detail explaining the key aspects of the theory?
  • What evidence exists to support or contradict the theory?
  • What criticisms of the theory are made by other authors?
  • What alternative theories exist?

By mapping out these sorts of questions, you not only clarify these issues to yourself, but you ensure that your essay content is relevant and logically expressed.

Step 2

On another sheet of paper or page on your computer screen, put the heading ‘Bibliography’ or ‘Reference list’. As you take notes, write down the details of each information source you use and give it a number. Then when your ecord your notes in each section, simply refer to the source by the number you gave it. This saves you rummaging through your notes trying to find the details of a particular source you need to reference. Be sure to keep your reference list in a safe place. Instead of using a numbering system, an alternative is to write the full reference of each book or article you use on the page on which you make your notes.

When taking notes, it is important to record where you found the information. In academic essays you need to acknowledge your information; this is called referencing. Referencing means accurately noting the relevant bibliographic details of each information source you use. Bibliographic details include author names and the title and publication details of the books, journal articles and websites from where you have drawn your information.

Step 3

As you take notes, enter them on the topic-headed pages. This way you immediately organise your notes into topics related to your essay. Grouping your notes in this way makes it easier to cut and paste various bits of information as you begin to draft your essay. Automatically organising your notes into distinct sections makes it easier to decide on the order of your material. Alternatively, you can write up the notes of each section individually and then place them in essay order.

Paraphrasing: Avoid copying and use your own words

Most of the notes you take should be paraphrased—that is, you should summarise the relevant information from your reading in your own words. Avoid simply copying slabs of text word for word from books or articles you read. Highlighting and copying passages word for word is time-consuming and you may later find it difficult to write your essay in your own words. After you have finished reading a section of a chapter or an article, rather than just highlighting the text you have read, summarise it immediately in your own words.

Direct quotes

Direct quotes can be used in essays to emphasise a particular point or to provide an example of another author’s perspective or theory. If you actually write down a direct quote (word for word from the author) in your notes, ensure that you have recorded the passage exactly as you found it. Identify the direct quote in your notes by quotation marks. Record the page number of the source. It is important that you do this in your notes, so that you don’t lose marks for not showing direct quotes because of sloppy note taking.

How many notes?

It is difficult to answer this often-asked question; the amount of notes you take will depend on the topic, the nature of the question and the word limit. A rule of thumb is to aim for double the word limit. So, for an essay of 2000 words, you should have around 4000 words of notes. You shouldn’t have fewer notes than the required essay word limit. In other words, don’t try to expand your notes to fit the essay length; this simply results in padding the essay out, or what essay markers refer to as ‘waffle’. Too few notes mean you are forced to make vague generalisations with little detail, making your essay unconvincing because there is no evidence to support the statements you make. On the other hand, if you have too many notes, your essay may be confused and unclear because you have been unable to clearly arrange your information, and you may find it difficult to stick to the word limit.