Research Paper Basics

Taking Notes on Research Reading

Two rules

  1. You never have enough time to waste it on useless activity.
    • When you are doing this kind of research, you should always have an objective in mind. You are not doing random reading for pleasure; you are aiming at finding material to support the point of your paper.
    • Don't get too fancy with colors, highlighting, and other trivia. You probably don't have time to mess with it.
  2. You are aiming at processing information to synthesize a result—not simply reporting a pile of findings.

The procedure

Research writing textbooks used to recommend a system of file cards: small 3 x 5 cards for Works Cited information and larger 4 x 6 cards for content—one topic per card. That is great advice because it allows you to shuffle your information and organize it before you start writing. Writing by hand on those 4 x 6 cards also pushes you toward summary or paraphrase notes rather than simply copying out a huge hunk of text verbatim.

Argument in favor of handwritten notes

It's very tempting, especially when you are researching online, to "take notes" by simply highlighting, copying, and pasting. That causes trouble in several ways:

  1. The content doesn't go through your brain, so you don't get to reflect upon it and think about the connections between this item and the others in your note stack.
  2. You will be tempted to rake in great quantities of stuff, but a lot of it will be off-topic, and you won't know what is the core important item in your note.
  3. You will be tempted to pad out the paper with line after line of useless quotation that adds nothing and actually obscures the point you are trying to make.

Handwriting slows you down, forces you to be economical, forces you to think about what you are reading, and uses different brain cells than typing. (Copying and pasting uses no brain cells whatsoever!) When you are handwriting notes, the material becomes yours, and you are well on your way to a rough draft.

Whatever system you use, make it work for you. You do not want information to get lost or forgotten, and you don't want to spend a lot of time on housekeeping or searching for missing material.

Step by Step

  1. When you first grab a resource, give it a quick look-over to determine how useful it will be. Look at the opening and closing paragraphs, boldface headings, and charts or graphs. Scan it quickly. (A good way is to simply look at the topic sentence of each paragraph.) [NOTE: If you are looking at an APA article in an academic journal or similar source, you can simply read the Abstract at the beginning!] Then make a decision:
    1. This is gold. it will be a core item for my paper and I will use a lot of this information.
    2. Some of this is useful, perhaps a statistic or a quote from an authority, but I'm not going to spend a lot of time here.
    3. This is useless for the project. Put it back on the shelf or close the computer file.
  2. Before you do anything else, note down the bibliographic material for your Works Cited (or APA References) page.
    • Hint 1: If you are working with a computer, start a word processing document, then open Noodletools and fill in the form. After you have the Noodletools item, copy it and paste it to the word processing file. This new file will become your MLA Works Cited or APA References page. Put these in alphabetic order and you are nearly done with that last page! Don't forget to include the name/author of the source in your notes.
    • Hint 2: If the Noodletools option is not available, start your notes with the basic bibliographic information:
      • Name of the author(s)—Make sure you get the spelling correct!
      • Name of the piece
      • If the piece was in a larger "container" publication (newspaper, anthology, website), name of the larger container
      • Publisher or organization behind the piece
      • Most recent revision date
      • If it's a printed item from a newspaper, magazine, or anthology, the page number range of the whole article
      • If it's a website, the entire website address (not just the homepage for the organization)
  3. Give the source a good reading before you start to take notes. Do not be too lazy (or arrogant) to use the dictionary. You want to get a good understanding of what the source says before taking notes on it.
  4. Now decide what sort of notes to take:
    • Quick summary, perhaps of just a small section you will use
    • Longer paraphrase of big chunks of the source
    • Direct quotation

Direct Quotation—some warnings

The direct quotation should not be your main workhorse in note-taking or in writing the paper. The advantage of summary or paraphrase note-taking, aside from saving space, is that these techniques force you to think about the content rather than simply moving it.

You should always ask yourself why you want to quote the source's exact words. Here are criteria suggested by one textbook* for direct quotation:

When you are quoting:

*Fowler, H. Ramsey, et al. The Little, Brown Handbook. Instructor's ed., HarperCollins, 1995. p. 556-57.

  1. Finally, it is time to start writing your notes. A question in the back of your mind should always be "How can I use this in my paper?" Whether you are taking notes on a computer or handwriting them, always keep track of which source, including page numbers, material comes from. (Yes, even summaries and paraphrases need page number citations; however, web pages do not have page numbers, so do not make them up.)

More help

A Writer's Reference sections R2, MLA-2d, and MLA-3 have more information on note-taking.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.

Revised 11/14/21 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: