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How to Use your Reading in your Essays

What should you write down?

Why bother making notes?

The mental and physical process of making notes helps you to understand, think and reflect on what you have read. Making notes also helps you to formulate your own thoughts and ideas, making connections in your mind with other pieces of knowledge.
If you don’t make notes and just go straight from the text to writing your assignment, you will be bypassing key elements in the critical thinking process, and you will find it harder to develop your own independent understanding of the text. Importantly, making notes also helps you to start using your own words, which is essential for when you come to writing your essay. In summary, making notes helps you to control and exploit your sources rather than letting your sources control your essay.

In addition, making notes (rather than just highlighting or cutting and pasting) will also:

  • help you concentrate;
  • keep you motivated by tracking and signalling progress;
  • help you remember information more easily;
  • give you your own unique record of the text;
  • save you time when you come to write your assignment.

For all these reasons, students who make notes on their reading usually get better marks than those who go straight from reading a text to writing their essay. However, for your notes to be really effective, they need to be purposeful, clear, meaningful and of real use to you in the essay writing stage. This section gives you some advice, examples and practice to help you write effective notes.

Top tips for making notes

Read first, note later

Try reading the text first without making any notes and then summarise it in your mind or out loud.

Go easy on the highlighter

If you do want to mark the text at a first reading, just pick out the most relevant sections by putting a line down alongside them, using a pencil rather than a highlighter. Remember, though, that you probably won’t really get a clear idea of the  main points of a text until you have got to the end, and that if you highlight as you read for the first time, you will be stuck with it. A better use of the highlighter might be to use it on your own notes to bring out and emphasise important information.

Do more than just annotate

Annotating a text is fine, but try also to write notes that are separate from the text. Online note-making software usually only allows you to make short annotations on or around the text and so again, also make your own notes either on a separate e-document or on paper.

Explain your reactions to yourself

It’s good to react to the text but don’t just put !! or ? in the margin — write out your thoughts in full.

Five steps for making notes

Step 1 Have a clear purpose and make notes rather than take notes

To be effective, your notes need to be purposeful and meaningful. A clear purpose is just as important for note-making as it is for reading — your notes should address the questions you want answered. Think also about the function you want your notes to fulfil. Do you want your notes to:

  • extract all the essential points and arguments;
  • contain only information on a specific theme;
  • focus only on information that addresses your own angle or question;
  • clarify the way the points relate to each other and see how the ideas are organised;
  • re-organise or connect the text information in a new way?

Remember that you should make notes, not take notes. Uniess you are trying to learn something by heart, there isn’t much point in copying down lots of individual sentences or chunks from the text; this usually means that you are on auto-pilot rather than actively reading and thinking. Try to build up the confidence to read and think first and then make notes in your own words that address your own questions. Copy down phrases only if they are really special and powerful.

Step 2 Write down the reference details

You should already have written down the author, title and publication date of each source (called the reference or bibliographic details) when you found them. For books this should include the publishing company and where it was published. These days we are all used to getting information from the media and websites without knowing where it came from. However, in academic study, knowing exactly who wrote something and where the text can be found is vital, as the authors, in a way, own the knowledge or ideas they have communicated in writing (referred to as ‘intellectual property’).

Write down the bibliographic information fully and accurately, and be careful not to change the case (upper to lower or vice versa) or punctuation of book or article titles.

You should also write down where and how you found the source. This will save you time if you need to go back to check a source, and will help you find new sources in the future.

Step 3 Make notes on your reading

People make notes in different ways; diagrams, flow charts, bullet points or index cards. You may want to make notes on only parts of the text, on one particular aspect of the text, or on the whole text, depending on why you are reading it. Some people prefer to make notes on paper and others make notes online. Whatever method you use to take notes, you should always:

  • note down the reference details, page numbers (particularly for quotations) and the date on which you make your notes;
  • read carefully and make accurate notes — don’t accidentally change the meaning of the text.Common student mistakes include:
  • not noticing comparatives or superlatives such as the best / greatest / worst / one of,
  • being inaccurate about the strength, degree or extent of the author’s view: for example, if the text says business ethics is fairly important, your notes should not report the text as saying that business ethics is very important;
  • overlooking the words not or no – if you don’t notice these words you may end up with an interpretation that is the opposite of what the text says;
  • being imprecise about who says what — if the text paraphrases or quotes another author, make sure your notes record this;
  • not being precise enough in describing data from graphs, diagrams and tables.
  • Make clear in your notes which ideas are major points, which are only examples of these major points, and which are more minor points of information.
  • Don’t make your notes too brief or too detailed.

If your notes are too brief, the meaning will be unclear and you won‘t understand them in a month’s or year’s time. If your notes are too detailed then it probably means you are copying from the text too much — making notes does not mean copying whole sections from the text.

  • Try to use some of your own words and abbreviations.

You may be worried about changing the meaning of the text accidentally, of 27 ‘moving away’ from it, or feel that you can’t put things into your own words as well as the original. However, you don’t have to use all your own words, and using some of your own words will help you to start the paraphrasing process. Remember that confidence in using your own words in your notes will increase with practice.

• Have a system that allows you to distinguish between:

— exact words from the text (quotations);

— most of the same words from the text (close paraphrase);

— your own words to describe ideas in the text (paraphrase);

— your own ideas or comments.

You must record these differences carefully so that when you use your notes in your essay you do not accidentally claim source words or ideas as your own. You can use different highlight colours, separate columns, and/or quotation marks for differentiating between quotation, paraphrase and your own comments.

Step 4 Review and rework your notes

Look again at your assignment title and check the focus and relevance of your notes. Familiarise yourself with them and start to put them to work. Ways of doing this include:

• reworking your notes using a different format – linear to pattern or vice versa;

• reorganising your notes around your assignment question title, adding comments and identifying any knowledge gaps;

• reorganising your notes around your own unique question or angle to help develop your own written voice;

• using your notes to write an annotated bibliography.

Step 5 Write a short reflection

Research has shown that students who look back over their notes to check for clarity and meaning and who reflect on them are more successful learners than those who don’t. When you have finished making your notes, use them, together with your critical analysis of the text, to write a short reflection. This can be informal and so take any form you find helpful. However, it is a good idea to write in your own words and in full sentences and to use quotation marks for exact phrases from the original text. The reflection should include a short summary of what you have learnt. If the text has a diagram or table, try to summarise what it shows in one sentence. Writing a short reflection from your notes will consolidate your reading, thinking and questioning, and will maximise the effectiveness of the whole process. It will help you to restate information and ideas from your sources in your own words, and will enable you to further develop your own ideas. Finally, it will help you relate what you have read to what you already know, and will enable you to see how and where you want to use your sources in your essay.

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