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Organizational Leadership

Why Take Notes?

It is possible to write papers without taking notes at all, or by relying on brief comments handwritten in the margins of the pages.  For all but the shortest papers, however, taking notes will help you to

  • Remember important facts and ideas that you might have otherwise forgotten
  • Distinguish between key points (which you might want to incorporate into your paper) and lesser points (which need not be remembered or considered further)
  • Highlight facts and ideas that are important for your own purposes even though they might not have been central to the authors’ own goals
  • Organize the information you’ve found in a way that makes it easier to present to your audience
  • Help you prepare an outline for your paper that keeps it from being just an enumeration of research studies and “what each one said”
  • Include multiple points from each article and fully represent articles that are important in multiple ways (i.e., eliminate any tendency to use and cite a particular article in just one way or in just one section of your paper, since the note-taking process described here allows any one source to be used for multiple notes that are then sorted and presented by topic rather than source)
  • Record your own ideas and reactions in real time so that they’re captured fully and are readily available to you at the writing stage
  • Cite the information resources you’ve used
  • Develop a set of notes, sorted according to your outline, that can be readily “translated” into your final text.

The last of these points may be especially important.  If you have an outline and good notes, the writing process is much easier; instead of writing “from scratch,” you can simply convert or “translate” your notes into regular text, and your outline will tell you exactly what to write first, what to write second, etc.

Common Features of the Various Note-Taking Methods

There are many different ways of taking notes on scholarly works, and you may need some experience before you find a way that works well for you.  Ideally, you’ll be able to develop a consistent method of note-taking that works well for many different kinds of papers or topics.  That way, you’ll never face a blank page and think “How should I start?”

Most good note-taking methods will incorporate three processes:

  • Creating notes (extracting the most relevant information) from each published work
  • Identifying or developing topics (headings) appropriate for your paper
  • Placing each note into/under the most appropriate topic (heading).

The order of the three steps will vary based on the method of note-taking you’ve chosen.

Suggestions for Extracting/Creating Notes

I recommend that you start by creating a notes file—a Word or Google Docs document that will include all the notes for your paper.  As you read each article, write short notes that (a) highlight important findings or methods, (b) quote or paraphrase especially relevant passages, or (c) record your own ideas and commentary.

Each individual note is no more than a few sentences, and each typically describes a single research finding, an idea or hypothesis, or an aspect of the author’s methods.  Because you'll need to assign a topic or heading to each note, no note should combine two or more idea or topics.  For an important article, you may take many notes; for a less important article, just one.  (See the examples shown below.)

The resulting notes file should be complete and self-contained so that you won’t need to refer back to a particular scholarly work once you’ve taken your notes on it.  One goal of the note-taking process is to include all the information that’s likely to be relevant to your needs, but another goal is to exclude all the information that’s not relevant.  Don’t feel the need to take notes on every part of an article.  And if you’ve downloaded or printed an article that turns out not to be helpful, it’s fine to discard it without taking notes on it.

Some suggestions:

  • Each note should deal with just one point and be understandable on its own, even without any other notes around it.
  • Start each note with a parenthetical citation to the relevant work.  Include the page number, if you’re quoting the author or referring to a very specific finding.  Maintain a separate list of References with a bibliographic entry for each cited work.  As you add works to your notes, add references to your list.
  • For each article, consider starting with a brief summary note that can be used to quickly describe the article when you first mention it in your paper.
  • Do not limit your notes to the findings highlighted in the Abstract or Conclusion of the article.  Information of low importance to the author of the article may be very important to you, and findings of great importance to the author may not be relevant to your paper.
  • Record quantitative results (percentages, statistical results, etc.) in your notes whenever you might need them.  Quantities and magnitudes become especially important when you’re comparing the results of multiple studies.
  • If there’s a particular table or graph that is especially important, you can (a) describe the table in your notes, with a reference to the page number so that you can refer to the table itself when writing your paper, or (b) copy and paste the table directly into your notes file, either as text or as an image.
  • Feel free to include your own comments on the author’s finding or methods.  Consider putting your comments in brackets [ ] to clearly distinguish between your ideas and those of the author.  It’s fine to make notes that consist of nothing other than your own comments, if you happen to think of something unrelated to the article while you’re taking notes.

Examples of Notes

These are just some examples of the kinds of notes you may want to create.  These notes are all from one source, Adkins & Budd (2006), which would be included in the References as

Adkins, D., & Budd. J. (2006).  Scholarly productivity of U.S. LIS faculty.  Library & Information Science Research, 28(3), 374–389.


Adkins & Budd (2006) ask: “How productive (in terms of research and publication) are faculty members in library and information science?  How do productivity levels vary by rank?  Who are the most productive individuals?  Which are the most productive graduate programs?” (page 375).  This study measures the article productivity of American LIS departments and faculty using 1999–2004 data for all LIS journals included in Social Sciences Citation Index.  Presents rankings of the most productive departments and faculty.  “Productivity” is measured in two ways: (1) number of journal articles, 1999–2004; and (2) number of times the articles from a particular department (or by a particular author) were cited during the 1999–2004 period.  Data source: SSCI.


Adkins & Budd (2006) count the publications of American LIS faculty, 1999–2004.  During that time, 45.6% of assistant professors had at least one publication.  Associate professors: 57.7%.  Full professors: 57.1%.


Adkins & Budd (2006) list the 20 American LIS faculty with the most journal articles from 1999 to 2004.  [An image of their Table 2 is embedded here as part of the note.]  The table shows clearly that the top 3 authors each published far more than those ranked 4th through 20th.  After #3, however, there is a very gradual decline in productivity.


Adkins & Budd (2006): The authors do not use any weighting scheme when counting articles with 2 or more authors.  For an article with 2+ authors, each author gets full credit.  [Is this fair?  The result is that an article with 3 authors “counts for” 3 times as much as an article with 1 author.  It can also lead to odd results when counting the articles published within each LIS department; if 1 author from University X writes an article, it counts as 1 article; but if 3 authors from University X write that same article, it counts as 3 articles.  Find out whether other researchers use some kind of weighting method when counting articles with more than 1 author.]

QUOTATION NOTE (use only when you may want to include the quote in your paper; otherwise, paraphrase):

Adkins & Budd (2006, p. 384): “The continued reappearance of select faculty on publication and citation rankings over a 36-year period of time indicates that productive faculty tend to remain productive throughout their careers, and that faculty whose research is highly cited remain influential throughout their careers.”

INDEPENDENT NOTE (for an idea that arose during the note-taking process but does not concern a particular scholarly work):

[Several studies present rankings of the top North American LIS departments and individuals.  Consider including a table that lists all the ranked departments (from all the ranking articles), with a column for each study (i.e., showing the rank of each department in each study).  Put the studies/columns in chronological order to show changes over time.  Consider making a similar table for the top-ranked individuals as well.  Include these tables in the literature review section, or in the results section (along with the rankings from my own study)?]

Developing Topics (Headings) and Placing the Notes Under Them

Before, during, or after the creation of your notes, you'll probably want to devise a set of topics and subtopics (headings) and to place each note under the most relevant heading.  These are just some of the methods you might want to consider.


If you have a well-developed outline for your paper, you may want to start with a set of headings that match the items included in your outline.  With this method, you can add each note to the appropriate section of the Word file (i.e., put it under the appropriate heading) right when you initially add it to the file.  Alternatively, you can write all the notes for a particular article, then cut and paste each note to place it under the appropriate heading.  Be prepared to create additional headings for topics that end up being important but are not included in your outline.


Start taking notes without using any topics (headings), then create those headings, as necessary, during the note-taking process.  For instance, your notes on a particular journal article may deal with three different topics or subtopics.  When you’ve finished taking notes on the paper, add the three headings to your notes file, then cute and paste cut and paste each note to place it under the appropriate heading.  For each subsequent article, place each note under one of the existing headings, if possible—but also create new headings as they become necessary.


Take notes without considering the headings under which they might appear.  When you’ve finished taking notes—or when you feel that you have enough notes to come up with a good list of topic/subtopic headings—go through your notes and determine which headings you want to use.  Add those headings to the top of your notes file, then move (copy and paste) each note so that it appears under the appropriate heading.


Proceed as in the previous method, except for the last sentence.  Within Word, use paragraph settings and/or manual page breaks to ensure that no single note cuts across pages (i.e., starts on one page and ends on another).  Print the resulting file, then slice the pages with scissors so that each note is a separate slip of paper.  Sort the slips and place them into envelopes so that each envelope corresponds to a single headings/topics.  (In the next stage, below, you can sort the envelopes to put your topics in the right order.)


Take notes without considering the headings under which they might appear, but be certain to end each note with a paragraph marker (the Enter key).  Also be sure to use a paragraph marker only at the end of each note.  When you’ve finished taking notes—or when you feel that you have enough notes to come up with a good list of topic/subtopic headings—go through your notes and determine which headings you want to use.  Devise a short, unique code for each heading (such as a five-letter code), then classify each note by adding that code to the very beginning of the note.  Use the “Sort Text” function in Word to sort the paragraphs (notes) alphabetically so that all the notes on a particular topic are together.  Finally, add your topic headings to the Word file.  (This method also works well if you prefer to use Excel for your notes.  In that case, the codes can appear in a separate column as long as both columns are sorted together.)

Regardless of which method you use, you should be prepared to create, merge, split, and delete topics/headings as you (a) discover what information is available for each one and (b) decide to give higher priority to certain topics or details and lower priority to others.

Final Steps

If the topics/headings/sections in your notes file aren’t in any particular order, determine the order in which you want to present them.  (If you have an outline, it will probably tell you the order in which the sections/headings should appear.)

Cut and paste each section—each heading, with its accompanying notes—so that they appear in the right order in your notes file.  Again, be prepared to create, merge, split, and delete topics/headings as part of this process.  (If you’ve used the second-last method described above—literally cutting your note pages into strips—then this is simply a matter of sorting the envelopes that correspond to the various topics/headings.)

The resulting file (or stack of envelopes) should have the “correct” topics/headings/sections in the correct order, each with all its accompanying notes.  You may want to sort the individual notes that appear within each section, or to leave that sorting as part of the writing process.  Either way, your notes file can be converted or “translated” directly into the text that will form the main part of your paper.

The advantage of this method is that you no longer need to generate a substantial amount of new text once you’ve finished taking and sorting your notes.  You already have the main text (your notes) and you already know what you want to say based on your outline, your notes themselves, and the note-taking and note-sorting processes.  Your remaining tasks are to

  • Convert your “note text” to “research paper text.”  Of course it's perfectly fine to add additional ideas that come to you during the writing process.
  • Edit and proofread the resulting paper.