Four: Taking Notes

The college at which you take your freshman composition sequence (English 101 and English 102) will determine the types of papers you write to satisfy course requirements.

Some schools focus on personal narrative in 101 and rhetoric in 102, other colleges begin immediately with research papers, and still others will devote one or both semesters to studying literature.

The curriculum of a college writing class can vary greatly depending on the course focus and the professor who teaches it, but one thing is for certain: Eventually, you will need to write critical essays about the texts you read. And a good critical analysis always begins with a close reading of the text. Taking notes—careful, detailed notes—is crucial to your ability to craft strong analyses and, therefore, succeed as a college level writer.

In high school, you probably skated by without having to do much beyond skimming the text. If you read the whole thing, it was a miracle. Taking notes was impossible. Believe me, I speak from experience. If I could BS an assignment without doing the reading, I was in.

But when I got to college, I quickly learned this method of doing the bare minimum would no longer fly. We were reading serious critical essays that contained words I had never even seen before, let alone understood. Skimming the reading left me no closer to processing its thesis than I was before cracking the book.  I found I often had to read an article two or three times in order to grasp its argument. The days of simple summarizing were behind me. I would never succeed without learning a proper method for taking notes.

Highlighting is Not Taking Notes

In my writing classes, it was fairly common to see students reading with a highlighter marker in hand. Each time they hit an important passage or quote, they would run that neon yellow stripe across it in order to mark it for future recall.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the highlighter. Most students use a highlighter as a substitute for good note-taking strategies. They figure if they highlight everything important, they’re good to go. Highlighting is not a successful method of taking notes in and of itself. A highlighter can be a good supplement to your overall note-taking strategy, but it should not be your primary focus.

The real secret to good note-taking is not so much the notes themselves as it is the act of taking notes. Taking detailed notes forces you to be an active reader. It keeps your mind anchored in the moment and prevents you from wandering off. In order to take notes on a text, you have to be present in the reading.

This cultivation of reader presence is why highlighting can be detrimental to the close reading process. Ripping off highlighted passages left and right can become a mindless task and it doesn’t force you to focus on every word like jotting a note does.

A Detailed Strategy for Taking Notes

I’ll let you in on a little note-taking secret that I didn’t fully implement until graduate school. When you read an essay, a novel, or an article that you plan to later cite as a source in a paper, always keep a notepad and pen handy for taking notes. I’m a fan of the pocket-sized Moleskine notepad, personally.

As you read, watch for key quotes that will fit the discussion you intend to cover in your paper. Any time you find a good quote, stop reading, set down the book, and write the quote out on the notepad. Then, next to the quote, write the page number on which you found it. And if you really want to get serious, make a small mark in the margin of the article next to the line in which the quote begins.

This way when it comes time to write your paper, you will already have a list of quotes from your primary sources. And better yet, you will be able to very easily access those quotes again in the text due to your careful recording system. Plugging in support for your thesis and topic sentences becomes much easier once you have your key quotes in front of you already.

This practice of stopping what you’re doing to jot down quotes might feel contrary to everything you’ve learned previously about reading. We learned as kids to eliminate distractions and “get lost in the text.” Well, when it comes to reading for pleasure, by all means, get lost and disappear for hours on end! But the reading you do in college courses is a different kind of reading. This is critical reading. You want to examine every sentence, study the language, question the sources, search the author’s motives. Critical reading requires a certain separation from the text and taking notes is an important part of maintaining that level of critical separation.

Whether you are reading a poem, a novel, an essay, or even if you’re watching a film or listening to music, a good note-taking strategy will always help you understand the text more deeply. Learning how to take notes that are critical and detailed will be an important part of your journey to becoming an effective reader and writer.

When you’re ready, move on to Lesson Five: Summarizing and Paraphrasing, where we will use this note-taking strategy to begin critically analyzing text. Also, check out our Resources page which lists helpful books and tools for Developmental Writing students and teachers.