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Faculty of Humanities Study Skills Website

Taking Notes from Written Material

When taking notes from written material we have to do the following:
  1. Identify the main points in a paragraph.
  2. Transform the main points into note form.
  3. Show how these main points are linked.

You need to ensure that your note taking format encourages you to read texts in an active way.

It helps if you have a clear question or set of ideas in mind to direct your reading, such as a seminar or essay question. You need some idea of what you are looking for to focus your attention.

Be discriminating. Start by surveying the text: content and index pages can help you identify which aspect of the text is most relevant to your question or subject matter. If you're reading an article, or a particular chapter from a book, look at the first and last paragraphs. This will help you to find the main points. Is the text likely to be useful to you? If so, by skim-reading it in this way you are already more familiar with it.

When you transform the main points of your reading into note form you should:

  • write key words instead of sentences
  • if you own the book or if you are working from a photocopy, highlight and underline key ideas as you read.
  • personalise your notes with your own words, comments and reactions in the margins of the text. (Do not do this if you are reading a library book!)
  • try to write down the key facts or ideas in your own words, rather than simply copying verbatim (i.e. word for word). This has several advantages:
    • you are actively engaging your brain rather than passively copying
    • you therefore know you understand what you've read
    • you are also more likely to retain the information if you've put it into your own words
    • you are less likely to run into problems of plagiarism and academic malpractice
  • aim for clarity and accuracy: your notes should be briefer than the original, but it is also important to ensure that they are clear and easy to understand later
  • re-read your notes immediately after taking them to check that you can understand them and that they are an accurate record of what you have just read
  • read critically. Think and note down any objections you have to the arguments presented. If you need more help in this area, refer to the Reading section of this website.


Content adapted with permission from Introduction to Note taking by Derek Davies, University of Manchester Language Centre.