How to Take the Best Notes from Readings


Without guidance, and through trial-and-error, university students will generally discover a good system for taking notes from readings.  The art to taking good notes is to summarize, retain, and determine the academic utility of readings.

At Unemployed Professors we have researched the art of note-taking extensively, and boiled it down to three simple steps.  Master these steps, and you will save tons of time trying to refine your note-taking on your own.

Step One:  Engage systematic skimming and enter a conversation with the author.  When you first pick up a book, read the preface, table of contents, inside jacket, and index.  By doing this, you will gain a solid idea of the main argument, the principal ideas and concepts, any special terminology used, and the direction the author will take as he or she supports that argument and lays out the ideas and concepts involved.

Then I move on to reading the book, chapter-by-chapter. As I progress, I take notes.  I underscore terms I need to look up; I check mark critical points; I underline passages that seem compelling; and I fill the margins with my observations.  My mission in notetaking is to enter dialogue with the author, which helps me engage closely with what I am reading.  At the conclusion of every chapter I write down a few summary notes; and when I’m finished reading the book, I summarize the entire book.  Then, I put the book down.

Step Two:  After a week or two, I revisit all my notes.  If the book has been powerful, it may well have revolutionized my thinking on its topic and argument.  I may no longer have the same observations, nor think certain passages and ideas are as valid or important as I first did.  I end up indexing pages of the book on a separate sheet of paper, and writing different notes that have essentially replaced my original scribbles.  This helps me intellectually reorganize my thoughts and develop a clear and coherent position on the book’s merits and flaws.

Step Three:  I wait a few more days, and by this time my thoughts on the book will have fully crystallized.  This allows me to confidently go through the book and identify its most compelling and important passages.  I copy these down and keep them in a master notebook which contains similar quotes from all the books I have read.

An optional concluding step would be to go to Evernote.  This allows you to read the thoughts of other readers, and contribute your own.  Engaging in that kind of conversation is inherently enriching, and for the open-minded, it will allow you to revise or refine your original interpretation.  Even if you are convinced your current notetaking method is the best for you, we encourage you to give this method a trial period.  Implement it for your next three books, and see if it rewards you with greater knowledge and understanding.

With that in mind, ask the team of academic professionals at any questions you may have regarding their college writing services and they will be more than happy to guide you along the arduous path!

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