Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing

Tips and Tricks 3: Note Taking

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I cannot stress how important it is to take copious and accurate notes. If a lecturer sets you reading, do it! It will save you so much time when it comes to writing essays, not just this year, but in the following years of study as well. Having a good body of well-ordered notes is extremely helpful.

But many people struggle to note-take effectively, and it took me most of my undergraduate degree to develop my technique, which I’m going to share with you now.

The first question to ask yourself is: typed notes, or handwritten? I started in my first and second year as a handwritten note-taker and gradually converted to typed, the main reason being that with typed notes you can search quickly and easily through many pages using the computer without having to do the job manually, like so:

Above you can see that a search for the word “Jefferson” (a linguist specialising in the analysis of conversation) has brought up a number of hits in my “Uni Stuff” folder, I could filter these further by adding more search terms, e.g. if I had a memory of Jefferson talking about transcription techniques, I could add in the appropriate keywords to find it. The benefits of this approach, as well as the speed, is the fact that you can search through multiple folders, so rather than searching through my handwritten note folders from six subjects individually, I am capable of searching every piece of note-taking from every discipline simultaneously.

However, handwriting notes has the following benefits:

  • It encourages you to really write your notes, not just copy and paste (if copying from a searchable digital document). This can also help you remember the content of the notes better.
  • Some people remember which note page they want to find by the colour pen they were using that day, or the paper etc. and find it harder to remember from uniform documents, which you would get from typing.
  • Some people just don’t like reading from computer screens

So if your typing or handwriting, here are some important tips:

  1. Put the full Harvard or Oxford reference as it would appear in a bibliography as the document title – this way quoting into an essay is easy and no details are missing which could potentially waste time or be difficult to find.
  2. Always note the page number the quote came from. This is imperative for both accurate referencing, and in case you need to re-visit that part of the text at a later date.
  3. Make every effort to ensure the text keeps its original format, e.g. make sure italics, bold font, capitalisation etc is preserved. On a sheet of typed notes it is relatively easy to format correctly, but in handwritten notes you will have to develop a code, as you may find it hard to write in bold or italic, mine was: single underline = italic font, double underline = bold font.

A handwritten note page should look something like this:

As you can see above, I have used my underline code to indicate bold text, I have noted page numbers in the margin, I have used a blue biro for the title so it would stand out more when I was scanning through pages of notes and I have used quote marks to differentiate between direct quotes and my own paraphrasing of the text. I have also spaced things out to make the document easier to scan – you can also make scan reading easier by using a highlighter to highlight key words or phrases. I have also formatted quotes as I would want them to appear in an essay, using square brackets [ ] to change the form of a word or add words where appropriate, and ellipses … to shorten the quote where needed.

My typed notes look much the same:

Again, page numbers are listed, the title is a correctly formatted Harvard reference, and direct quotes are distinguished from paraphrasing. There is one more useful technique shown here, I have used ^^ to show the beginning and end of a personal comment (here something I remembered from a lecture which illustrated the point made in the book), it is useful to differentiate personal comments from the main text as you would not wish to accidentally quote yourself and attribute it to someone else!

I hope this has been helpful, and not too involved.

Look out for new tips and tricks next week!

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Author: Liz

Hi, I'm Liz. I like easy crafts, photography, cooking, lifestyle blogs and YouTube videos. I work as a part-time proofreader and am currently studying for a PhD in linguistics.

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