HUNTER COLLEGE READING/WRITING CENTER:
DOCUMENTED ESSAY/RESEARCH PAPER
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:
- 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
- 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
- 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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
EXAMPLES OF INDEX CARD STYLE
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.
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.
Card C shows a paraphrase of a passage.
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.
Card D shows a direct quotation.
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.
- 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
* 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.
IV. COMMON ERRORS TO AVOID
- 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.
- 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!
- Direct quotations should be used only when you have a special
purpose. If you use a direct quotation, copy it accurately!
- 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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