Some thoughts about taking notes on reading

A few days ago, I was asked for advice on taking notes on readings and I realized I didn’t have any clear advice to offer beyond: take notes! But that’s not very insightful and doesn’t add much to the discussion—the querent already knew that she wanted to take notes, and wanted something more specific about how to do it, so I’m going to commit myself to some suggestions in writing (and if you think I’m wrong, feel free to let me know!).

First, however, as is my wont, I will take a step back from the specifics of “how,” to look at the question of “why?” 

Why take notes?

Notes help you remember; they help you organize your thoughts; they help you focus.  All of these things are themselves contextually dependent. What you want to remember depends on the context. There may be times when you’re trying to do a wide review of literature in a field, at other times you may be interested in summarizing a specific work in some detail, and at yet other times, you may have a more specific focus on some theoretical or methodological issue. There are times that you are reading a work for a first time, and are trying to sort out the basic points, and other times where you are re-reading a work from a new perspective. In each case, what you want to get out of it, and therefore how to take notes changes. (I’ll note that there are some times when you might read without “taking notes,” such as if you’re looking for a specific quote to use.)

Contextual efficiency concerns

Taking notes takes time and effort. As with all tasks, we have limited time and effort available, so it’s very important to use available resources efficiently. Taking notes is valuable—so valuable that it’s usually worth dedicating time to it. Taking notes, however, is not so valuable that it should interfere with other, more important tasks. In particular, it’s crucial that time spent taking notes does not take away from time spent writing.  Therefore, it’s necessary to suit appropriate note-taking to the context, to achieve efficiency. To illustrate this point, I want to discuss three examples from my recent experience that illustrate different concerns.

1. Writing a book review.

Recently, I posted a book review on this blog (Write More, Publish More, Stress Less), and that post basically developed from taking notes on what I saw after a first review led me to want to write a review. I started just by skimming the book and looking more closely at a few parts. I didn’t take any notes then, but I did think that I might write a review. Then I went through the book—again pretty quickly, taking notes to mark the places that I liked best and wanted to discuss in my review. Those notes gave me a skeleton of the details that I would cover in my review.  In this case, the notes could almost be viewed as a rough first draft or outline of my review, and, indeed, they got revised into the review, so I no longer have a record of those notes. They have served their purpose and I no longer need them.

2. Preparing for a lecture

A professor preparing for a lecture might take a similar approach to the one I used in writing a review, in which the notes become the outline for a draft of the lecture. The professor would want to focus the notes on their relation to the main points of the course. Rather than simply trying to get the main ideas of the reading, the professor might want take notes about how the different parts of the reading agree or disagree with points made in other lectures or by other readings. This kind of note-taking is not just reflecting what’s in a text but also analyzing and interpreting that work for the specific context of the course. If, for example, a course is on Victorian Literature, it might still be appropriate to engage with a reading that is about Modern Lit, but that uses an analytical method that could be applied to the Victorian work. 

3. Reviewing a body of unfamiliar literature

A scholar reviewing a body of literature in an unfamiliar field would have different note-taking and reading strategies.  In the first two examples, I talk about making notes about one specific work to which there is already some level of commitment. The dynamic changes when trying to manage a whole bunch of work. In this case, there is less of any preconceived focus guiding the note taking. There is some preconceived focus—whatever reason led you to choose this body of literature should influence the note taking (and the reading)—but mostly the point is to get a sense of the different arguments and ideas being used, than to make the readings serve a specific purpose in the same way that I was focused on writing a review or the professor was preparing for a specific lecture. In this case there is, on the one hand, greater range to what might go into notes about any one reading (because the focus hasn’t been limited by specific purpose), but also greater need to be concise and highlight the most important parts because of the greater number of different sources on which notes are to be taken. In a general review of material, it would be ideal if your notes could capture all the important issues in any one reading (which takes more time), but at the same time, it would be ideal if you could review a lot of different readings in a short time. Therefore, a balancing act is necessary.  My suggestion in this case  is to go through a process of review and focus: first, just review all the titles and authors, to get a sense of the general field (reading a title offers a lot of information, at least if the title is well written); second, select some that get a closer review, reading the abstract or introduction, perhaps; finally, only a few are selected for full reading. At each step you can takes notes. Even the titles you don’t pursue might get a brief note of what you saw and why you didn’t pursue it. The same is true at the abstract/intro stage: even the ones you choose to set aside get a brief note. Only the ones that get close reading get more substantial notes. And even with the more substantial notes of the readings you examine most closely, there must be a careful parcelling out of time. After all, even if you were trying to do an unbiased review of material in a field, you still had a purpose that guided that review, and to achieve that purpose you probably need to do more than just do the review.

The dilemma

Notes of readings can help you learn, but notes also take time away from other tasks.  While it is important (indispensable) to read the literature, it’s more important to actually write the papers for which you were doing the reading.  Learning from others is necessary, but is no substitute developing your own vision of how the world works and what is important. Spending too much time with readings takes time away from developing your own ideas.

Suggestions for taking notes

  • 1. Be careful of the time you spend! Taking notes takes extra time. Be careful not to fall into the trap of saying “I can’t start my own project until I finish reading and taking notes.”
  • 2. Focus on the big picture.
  • 3. Skim the whole and maybe look closely at the introduction and conclusion before you start taking notes.
  • 4. Be careful not to get sucked into details. Details are fascinating, but they distract from the big picture. Still, a detail can be useful if it helps you contextualize and remember the main message or themes. Also, details take time.
  • 5. Note the major theories and scholars who receive the most attention, to get a sense of how the reading fits into the larger discourse.
  • 6. Limit your notes; don’t attempt to get everything. Most scholarship is very dense and filled with crucial details (good scholarly authors try to leave out stuff that isn’t important). If you look closely, you can get sucked into any number of different rabbit holes of value: looking at methods, for example, you can examine and explore variations and alternatives, and the discussion of how different methods suit a specific research question is neither trivial nor insignificant.
  • 7. Note the greatest strengths.
  • 8. Note the greatest weaknesses.
  • 9. Write briefly about how it helps your own work.

Conclusion

Notes help improve the quality of your reading, but they can be a trap.  They can distract you with details and divert your attention from your purposes. A scholar needs to be able to read and make sense of the literature in their field, and remember what they’ve read. But more importantly, a scholar needs to keep producing and developing their own perspectives and insights. It’s good to read and take notes on your reading, but it’s far more important to be developing your own work. Therefore, when taking notes, use it as an opportunity to refine your own ideas. Notes are not taken only to help you absorb the ideas of other people, but also to use the ideas to help you with your own work. Consider the purpose for which you are taking notes: why are you taking those notes? How will they help you? If you lose sight of your own purpose and your own projects, notes can be a big distraction and delay t your own work. If you take notes with a specific purpose in mind, those notes will be more useful in achieving that purpose.

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