How to Take Productive & Efficient Notes

This is part of the Essay Writing Crash Course Blog Series.

Note taking is about recording the information that will be relevant and pertinent to your essay. Why is it worth taking notes rather than just highlighting your pages of research? Firstly, if you highlight everything, you highlight nothing. Simply circling information is not understanding information. Through taking notes we process the information: we determine what could be relevant, we check our understanding and gather our ideas. It is a phase of organisation.

Note-Taking 101

Through your essay research you will start to become well versed in your topic; you will come across events, facts, figures, different arguments, analysis and commentaries. At this point in the essay writing process, you won’t know which information you will or will not include in your essay – this is normal and expected. The note-taking process is how you will whittle some of the information down and organise categories of information from across various sources.

So what should you look for first?

What Information You Should Note Down

First and foremost, the information you note down must be relevant to your essay question. For example, if you are looking for information on whales you would write down physical characteristics, eating habits etc. However, if the source about whales you were reading started to talk about goldfish you would need to decide whether this information was actually relevant to your essay. It probably wouldn’t be unless you were comparing some aspect goldfish and whales have in common, and only if this comparison was relevant to the point you were trying to make.

Taking notes is not a passive activity, it requires considered and critical thought to know which information is relevant and how to organise it on your page. When you are reading through your sources you should write down:

  • The key arguments
  • Scholars views (their arguments, opinions, observations and conclusions)
  • Facts and figures
  • Dates
  • Key person(s)
  • Events/anecdotes pertinent to your essay topic

How to Start Taking Notes

I personally like to start generally with my research and note-taking: get an idea of the basic layout of my topic, get familiar with who the key figures are, whether there are any key events or texts I should look at. This is where my initial question brainstorm comes in because I can start expanding on this until I get a better “lay of the land” so to speak. I may also make this information into a “background information” mind map of my essay topic and fill in some of the questions that came up in my initial essay question brainstorm.

Read more about essay question brainstorming here →

Other useful note-taking activities include:

  • Making a timeline of events
  • Mind map key figures in your topic with basic dates, important discoveries/activities etc
  • Making a list of sources mentioned by scholars or key figures to look up

⇢Get to the point

When you are taking notes you are only recording the words that tell you the information you are after. Strip off the “and/the/however/some will think/etc” filler and connecting words – they are not relevant to the essay question. Record accurately and in as much detail that you will understand what you have written in a few days time, but don’t copy and paste unless you are noting down a quote.

⇢Write in own words

Always write your notes in your own words – do not copy and paste! The reason for this is so that you can ensure you have understood what your are writing down, comprehension is not the same as understanding. Writing the notes in your own words (unless you are copying down a quote – which needs to be a written down word for word) also serves the secondary function of helping you make sure that you are not plagiarising another persons work, i.e. claiming another person’s work as your own.

Then…

Then once I feel I have a ‘general map,’ I start to go more in depth. I’ll select a key figure, event or text to look at, I will go through that source and read critically (read for understanding and look for faults & merits in the scholars argument), noting down pertinent information as I go. Once I have got to grips with their key arguments or concepts, I will look for what other scholars have said about these arguments/events/texts or subsequent events/writings and influences these key ideas had on later people and or events. 

Essay research is like a detective investigation. We don’t know, at this point, where we’re heading. We just have to keep following the clues until we find the truth.

2 Ways to Record Your Notes

In my Essay Writing Crash Course I talk about 2 strategies for note-taking: mind-mapping and linear note taking.

Personally I dislike taking notes linearly on lined paper; I find it restrictive and not easy to see how to organise the information into relevant categories. If you have watched my YouTube Channel, you will see that I mostly use mind mapping when I’m teaching.

So let’s talk about the 2 options:

⇢ 1. Mind Maps

Mind maps: why? Because it is a system that is built to let you organise information easily from multiple sources. You have your main idea in the middle, then each arm of a mind map is a topic, each sub-branch is a point relating to that topic. If you are reading a source, such as a history book, there will be a lot of information which relates to multiple topics; for the purpose of your essay you may need to group information from page 16 with information you’ve read on page 245. If you were taking linear notes, you wouldn’t have made space to insert p.245 notes in with p.16 because you couldn’t see into the future. However with a mind map, just through the way the system works, I can simply add another branch to the sub-category and hey Presto! p.16 and p.245 are grouped together – no fortune telling needed!

As your notes are grouped into themes (or categories) on your mind-map, you will quickly be able to identify corresponding ideas between sources – this is a major help when you get to the planning stage!

⇢ 2. Linear Notes

However, if you are one who really can’t stand mind-mapping because it looks too messy and hard to read, there is a good practice way to take linear notes.

Take a piece of paper, draw 3 columns: the far left column will be very thin to record the page number, let the middle column take up just over half the rest of the space, and then a third the final amount. The middle column will record your notes from the source, the right hand column will be a space for any ideas, questions and analysis that come to mind while you are researching. Your page will look like this:

Document showing how to set up your Mac Pages or Microsoft Word document to take linear notes. On the left hand column is the page number, middle column for the source notes and the right column for your own ideas, questions and analysis.

Note-Taking Quick Tips

💡Referencing

Whenever you write a note from a source, remember to write down the page number every time! It may seem like a chore, but this tiny bit of effort will save you A LOT of time when it comes to the end and you have to go back through every book and find that 1 sentence to cite.

💡Analysing As You Go

While you are researching you will get ideas, make sure you jot them down. You will be able to determine their relevancy or not later, but to make sure you don’t forget, write down any ideas or questions you get along the way. You may also want to write a note when pieces of evidence relate to each other. These little notes will serve as useful markers when you start planning. I also find it useful to write my own thoughts in a different colour pen so I can easily distinguish them from my research notes.

Want to learn more about essay writing? Why not check out my essay writing crash course>>

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