Research Guidelines: Notetaking


Notetaking is an indispensable part of writing a documented essay or research paper. Your notes record information from the sources that you will use in writing your paper. Therefore, it is necessary to critically evaluate the texts or articles you are reading and to make reasonable choices about what will and will not be useful for your paper. Otherwise, you will overload yourself with information and spend too much time sifting through notes. If there is an entire page in a book or article that you really need, it would be better to make a xerox copy of it.

To take effective notes, you must do the following:

  1. Understand the information. Before you can use information, you must understand it. Taking notes is a good way to develop your knowledge and comprehension of a subject; it is not just a mechanical process of recording data. Reading a source, making decisions about what is useful for your essay, and writing the notes on index cards or in a notebook will encourage you to think more deeply about what you are reading as well as how it relates to the subject of your research.

  2. Select the information: The information to be used in a paper must be gathered from a variety of sources, which also, most likely, contain much information not necessarily relevant to your topic. Therefore, when you take notes, you must sort out the material you need from other information surrounding it in the text.

  3. Record the information: To efficiently use the information in your sources, you must record it in such a way that it can be easily sorted, reorganized, and incorporated into your paper. This means that you should choose a style of recording that best suits you and that lists all necessary information-- title, author, publisher, etc., which you will need later for your bibliography.


Using your own words, take notes that briefly summarize (commonly known as paraphrasing) the most important points of each source. Try to be as clear and concise as possible in your notetaking and try to omit details that are not relevant to your topic. Stick to main points rather than involved discussion or digressions. If you record a direct quotation, you can also write a brief explanation of how the quote will be useful for your topic.

The following methods will enable you to read your sources with understanding and take good notes:

  1. A well-written article or book chapter usually makes a single main point and supports that point with a discussion of a series of subtopics related to it. Before you start writing notes, scan the complete piece of writing to determine what the main point is, what subtopics are discussed, and how each subtopic relates to the main point. An effective method of scanning is to read the first several paragraphs of a section, and then read the first (topic) sentence of each remaining paragraph. When you get to the concluding paragraph, read all of it. If your source is a book, the table of contents may help guide you to information that fits your topic.

  2. After scanning the entire chapter or article, write your understanding of the author(s) thesis (her/his main point), in your own words. In addition, it is a good idea to read the section in the text that contains the author's first subtopic. The length of this segment will vary, but in the average book or substantial article, it will usually be discussed for one to five pages. After reading, scan the section again to make sure you understand the most significant points in it. Now, write your understanding of the subtopics in that section; of course, you also need to do this in your own words. Paraphrasing will help you to better understand the author's ideas rather than just mechanically copying them.

  3. When you take notes, be as concise as possible, omitting unnecessary details and digressions. It is not always necessary to write complete sentences or even complete words-- occasionally abbreviation saves time--as long as what you have written will be clear to you when you consult your notes later. If you consider that the author's words are necessary to clarify a point, copy them exactly and put them in quotation marks. (It is a good idea to make note of the author's last name as well).

  4. Remember to record the page number(s) in the text or article that corresponds to your notes. In addition, make sure you have all bibliographical information recorded for each source either on one index card or in your notebook.

  5. Always try to review the chapter or article after notetaking to make sure your notes are accurate and complete.


Record your notes so that you can easily locate all points relating to a particular subject and readily identify the source from which a piece of information is taken.

* You can record notes either on index cards or in a notebook.

  1. Index-card style: In this method, you record each piece of information from a source on a separate card. After you are finished reviewing and recording all your sources, you can organize all your cards according to topic. This will be helpful in organizing your paper too.

    * For each source, copy the complete bibliographical information (author, title, publisher's name, date and place of publication) on one card, which becomes your bibliography card. This is not only necessary for accuracy and organization but also, technically, you are compiling the bibliography for your paper.

    * For multiple notes from the same source, in the upper right hand corner of each card, record a short form of the title and the author's last name. In the lower right hand corner, record the page number(s) from which your summaries, ideas, paraphrases, or direct quotes have been taken.

    * Write subject or topic headings on the cards in pencil to facilitate organizing and reorganizing information.


    Topic of paper: New Ways of Learning Writing Skills in College.

    Card A shows a bibliography card.

     Murray, Donald.     Expecting the Unexpected.
     Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1989.

    Card B shows a summary of the author's main focus in a chapter.

                                Murray, Expecting
     Sub-topic: Learning through mistakes
     In Chapter 10  /  Murray's main point:  "bad"
     writing can ultimately produce writing that
     excites, rather than beginning with good but
     status quo writing that says very little and
     moves no one.
                                       pp. 101-03.

    Card C shows a paraphrase of a passage.

                                Murray, Expecting
     Sub-topic: Unlearning
     In Chapter 10  /  It is the responsibility of
     college teachers to de-program their students
     from safe but unstimulated writing that has
     been over-learned throughout their educations.
     This is no easy task for students or teachers,
     requiring far more patience and daring than a
     proscriptive traditional approach.
                                            p. 103.

    Card D shows a direct quotation.

                                            Murray, Expecting
     Sub-topic: The system of rules
     In Chapter 18  /  "Old rules become comforting to us all.
     Skills--and the attitudes behind them--become beliefs
     raised to the power of Truth.  I am used to unlearning,
     but most of my students have come to learn new truths,
     not to have old ones stripped away; they have come to 
     construct a system of higher skills on the foundation of
     old ones, not to have the cathedral of their learning razed
     so that the wondrous and essential mists of unknowing can
     take their place."
     Note:  Use this quote for part of paper on social
     conditioning and how it affects our ways of learning.
                                                       p. 174.

  2. Notebook style: In this method, you record all information on a single page or a series of pages in a notebook.

* Write the author, title, place of publication, publisher, and year of publication at the top of the page for each source.

* Make notes in the middle of the page, leaving wide margins.

* In the right-hand margin, record the page numbers from the source that correspond to your notes.

* In the left-hand margin, note the specific topic to which each piece of information relates.

* Begin a new page for each source you consult, or if you have abundant information for each chapter from a text, list your notes per chapter. Another possibility is listing your notes according to topic--but this is more difficult since your notes will no longer follow the same sequence as the ideas in the article or book. Remember that if you do list according to topic, it is very important to list page numbers from the source since it can get very confusing otherwise.

* Basically, use the same methods as suggested for index style: summary, paraphrase, and direct quotation.


  1. The most common and most serious error students make in taking notes is to copy the wording of the source directly, either word-for-word or with minor changes. This not only prevents students failing processing the information fully in their own minds, but also encourages plagiarism since the notes find their way into the paper. The best way to avoid this is not to look at your source as you write your notes. That way you will be sure to use your own words.

  2. Including too much detail in notes slows you down. If you are doing this, you are not distinguishing between significant and insignificant information. Notes are meant to be concise!

  3. Direct quotations should be used only when you have a special purpose. If you use a direct quotation, copy it accurately!

  4. Remember to include page numbers in your notes. Otherwise, you will have to spend valuable time returning to the sources to find page numbers, and you will leave yourself open to error.

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