Productive note-taking


Note-taking while reading long texts can be a really frustrating experience. You can read 20 or 30 texts and summarize what each author has to say but what do you then do with your growing collection of summaries? And how can you ensure that each summary accurately reflects the author’s point of view?

To help you make note-taking more productive, it is useful to think about different reading ‘levels’ and what you need to record at each level to feed into your writing.

Level 1: ‘Surface’ reading and note-taking

Reading at a more superficial level involves achieving a basic understanding of all or part of the content of a text. Typical note-taking tasks can include:

  • Identifying a writer’s stance
  • Producing a short summary of the main arguments or facts presented
  • Highlighting more detailed information in response to specific questions
  • Selecting a quotation to illustrate a particular point

Level 2: Critical reading and note-taking

Critical reading goes beneath the surface level and assumes that ideas in a text will not automatically be taken at face value but may be subjected to questioning. Sometimes even a question mark next to a piece of text can be more revealing that a summarized version of what the writer has to say.  A wide range of specific questions can contribute towards the critical reading process. Here are some of them:

  • What are the underlying claims being made by this writer? For what purpose?
  • How overt are the claims and how do they contribute towards an ‘agenda’?
  • How meaningful/significant/valid are these claims?
  • What assumptions lie beneath them?
  • To what extent are claims supported effectively by other arguments and by evidence? How solid is this evidence?
  • How conditional are the claims? In what circumstances might they be untrue?
  • How logical/consistent is the development of ideas?
  • What other arguments could be added to support the underlying claims?
  • What counterarguments could be presented to refute them?
  • To what extent do the claims help to place the writer’s perspective  within an established paradigm?
  • How do the claims, supporting arguments and evidence relate to your own stance on the issues being discussed?
  • How valid are the writer’s conclusions? How do they relate to your own and to those of other writers?

Answering such questions means that you have not only read this text, but have provided a thoughtful response to it. Not every text that you read will merit this careful treatment – only those that you consider ‘key’ or ‘important’. See Managing your reading

 Note-taking can involve:

  • Highlighting key points or quotes. Annotating the text with your own critical comments on specific points. This helps you to keep a direct link to the original source text.
  • Drawing conclusions from these comments and presenting in a summarized form.
  • Obtaining analysis which is directly linked to arguments within the text itself – and therefore not based on a summarized version removed from the original
  • Identifying specific arguments and key issues which have a particular relevance to the research project
  • Commenting on language used to express arguments, especially emotive language, rhetoric, exaggeration, vague or non-specific terms