Doing the PhD

a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

2. note-taking

2.2 How to take notes

How to take notes

Notes are influenced by the oral, written or electronic nature of the sources. There are different problems you need to anticipate when using various types of sources. Moreover, notes are influenced by the medium you choose to use in order to record them: handwritten notes are different from electronic notes. Furthermore, you need to decide on what strategy you are going to adopt. These are all decisions you can make in advance, the point being that one does not start the process of note-taking unprepared. 

Taking notes from lectures/seminar
When attending a lecture or a seminar, keep full details of the lecturer's name, date, title and occasion, so when you return to your notes at a later stage you can immediately identify the event and lecturer responsible for the information you put down on paper. Keep in mind that:

  • there is no need or even possibility to write down every word spelt out in a lecture/seminar, so it is important to develop skills in recording the essential. If you attempted to write down every single detail, you may miss the overriding argument. Try therefore to catch the main points and any details that are specifically tailored to your own research. Moreover, don't miss out on any bibliographic information mentioned in the lecture, as these are important resources to further your own research; to follow up on revising the material presented in the lecture; prepare for exams, etc.
  • you can maximize your own creative use of a lecture by turning your notes into a digest afterwards.

Taking notes from written material 
Time is not an issue here. You can go over and over the same text sourcing the needed information. But do you pay attention to: noting down all the bibliographic details of the sources consulted, writing clearly and leaving a space between each note, using some system of tabulation, distinguishing the more important points from the less important ones? Don't be neglectful about your note-taking technique: you will make your life as a researcher easier by

  • being diligent about bibliographic information. Whether your source is a book, an article, or a journal, write the following information at the head of your notes:
    • Author: his or her full name
    • Full Title, including subtitle
    • Publisher
    • Place of publication
    • Original date of publication
    • Date of edition
    • If taking notes from a chapter/article, then write down the full page span, journal volume and part numbers. See also our tutorial on Building up a bibliography.

Write clearly and leave a space between each note: 

  • Don't cram too much information onto one page?
  • Check whether you are concerned about untangling and retrieving information once you have taken notes?

Distinguish the more important points from the less important ones 

  • Record the main issues, not the details.
  • Write down a few words from the original if you think they may be used in a quotation. Keep these extracts as short as possible unless you will be discussing a longer passage in some detail.
  • Do you copy blindly or spend a long time rephrasing passages? Try not to.
  • Be consistent in the way you cite. There is no single way of citing bibliographical references. However all bibliographcal entries should obey a single notational pattern. Consult our tutorial on Building up a bibliography for information on different reference systems.

Taking notes from on-line documents or websites 

When quoting from Internet sites or giving reference to sources available on the web, remember to include information about: 

  • Author
  • Title
  • Title of serial
  • Type of medium
  • Edition
  • Issue
  • Date of update/revision
  • Date of citation (Required for online documents; Optional for others)
  • Location within host document
  • Availability and access (Required for online documents; Optional for others)

From Romance language material

  • Do you take notes in the original language (e.g. French) or do you translate at the same time as you take notes? The former might be preferable as a mistake in translation may prove hard to correct later if the source is not at hand.
  • Pay extra attention to spelling when quoting from a Romance source (given that quotations will appear in the original language with which you may be less familiar).
  • When taking notes from primary material it is worth quoting some chunks in full. But are you aware of plagiarism? Use obvious notational forms of reference when copying or even rephrasing a source so that later on you will be aware that you dealing with material quoted from another author.
  • Make yourself familiar with the typographical conventions used in the Romance languages, eg capitalization, punctuation, etc.

Taking notes from archives
Archives are vast repositories of knowledge so unless you know what you are looking for before you start taking notes you will waste a lot of time.

  • Archives usually store 'raw' information, which usually does not make for an easy and structured reading.
  • Archives usually contain factual information, therefore you need to personalize it in order to suit your research.
  • Taking notes from manuscripts requires lots of preparation (e.g. Are you sure you know how to read a manuscript?).