Taking notes

Note-taking is an important part of academic writing, especially during the pre-writing stage when material is collected and decisions are made regarding the argument and the focus of the text.

Some general advice regarding note-taking is provided below. As essays, reports, and other types of writing at university differ between faculties and departments, students will receive discipline-specific information on suitable ways of working from their supervisors.

The importance of careful note-taking

If you take notes while reading a text, make sure to always mark what are your own ideas, what are direct quotes and what are paraphrases. If you paraphrase - that is, rewrite something in your own words - make sure that you do so in a proper way already at the note-taking stage. When reviewing your notes at a later stage it may be difficult, indeed impossible, to recognise what is your own text and what has been taken from another source if you have not been careful in your note-taking.

The following pages in the AWELU section on Sources and Referencing are of relevance in connection with note-taking:

While writing and rewriting your text, compare with your notes on a continuous basis and double-check your use of sources in order to avoid misrepresentation of the original text. If your paraphrases are too close to the original source, change them to proper quotations or rephrase your paraphrases. In either case, make sure you give credit to the source.

Keeping record of references

The necessity of keeping track of sources

Always write down a full reference to all sources that you use, as they may be difficult to identify at a later stage. If you make a copy of an article or of some pages from a book, make sure to note the correct bibliographic source on the copy for future reference. Likewise, when using electronic material, make sure to save it or print it so that you can access it later.

Note the date of access for electronically accessed material, since some reference styles require this information in case the web address changes (for detailed information about this, consult the relevant reference style).

For comprehensive projects, there are various tools for reference management. Read more about that on the following page in the AWELU section on Sources and referencing:

About writing introductory tags

In a comprehensive project with many sources it is difficult to remember why certain sources and passages were chosen. It is therefore useful to write introductory phrases for quotations and paraphrases already at the note-taking stage as this will help you remember the context of the quotation and why you chose it.

Although such introductory phrases may well have to be rewritten when you later use the quotations in your text, they will serve as reminders of the original context of the quotations.

Read more about how to quote and how to paraphrase in the AWELU section on Sources and Referencing:

Writing an annotated bibliography

In some disciplines, it is common to write annotated bibliographies, which are commented lists of all sources that you plan to use in your project. As you read your sources, you make annotations (i.e., short, explanatory notes) for each source. At a later stage of your project, such annotations can help you decide which of the sources you read during the pre-writing stage will be useful and for what purpose. The annotations that you make will also help you locate useful passages in those sources.

In different disciplines, annotations will look slightly different, but the following format can serve as a starting point:

  • Include all entries in your working bibliography (i.e., all sources you plan to use for your project)
  • Write all entries in the stipulated references style
  • For each entry, write an annotation which describes and evaluates the source as well as  shows how you at this stage think it will be of use for your project
  • This might be a good time to reflect on your choice of sources. Are the sources you have collected representative, and do they cover your area of investigation and the requirements of the project? If not, make a note of that and identify any types of sources that are lacking.
  • Many writers of annotated bibliographies will write  50-200 words per annotation/source

In order to read efficiently, you will need good reading strategies. This LU MOOC video talks about reading strategies:

Instructional video from the free online MOOC "Writing in English at University" which was developed at Lund University in 2016.

Research indicates that students taking notes by hand learn more than those taking notes using their laptops. Read more in this article from Scientific American: May, C. (2014). A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop. Scientific American.