When I first started University I somehow got it into my head that the best way of taking notes was not to take notes. In other words, I reasoned that because I was at University I had to retain everything in my head without putting thoughts to paper, and that a key mark of intellectual maturity was not a capacity to produce reams and reams of notes, but a lazy foregrounding of ‘elegantly’, stupidly blank exercise paper. As it dawned on me that the quantity of information I would have to remember or consult on my courses far exceeded my ability to retain it by brainpower alone, the slightly pompous ‘I don’t need to take notes’ attitude switched into hypergraphia – an irresistible impulse to write as many notes on as many topics as I could. (I remained consistent in my attitude to lectures, however, and still think that the best way to learn in lecture-halls is simply to listen, though I should stress that this is my personal preference and won’t work for everyone.) Since then I’ve settled on a balance between the two strategies, in which substantial note-taking follows a light-touch reading model. In this post I want to share with you my approach (which is hardly revolutionary, and which I learned from my Ph.D. supervisor), in the hope that it might help just a handful of students cope with their workloads.
Note, however, that this method assumes you are using hard copy. It also assumes that you are making notes on your OWN books, rather than library copies. (Please don’t deface library books!)
1. Read the text with a pencil and piece of scrap paper to hand.
2. As you read whatever it is you’re reading, make a mark in the margin indicating the passages which to you seem important. Here’s an example from my copy of D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915):
On the right-hand side you can see I’ve marked an entire paragraph as significant, but in many cases I’ll just mark single sentences or words.
3. Every time you make a mark, write the page number on the piece of scrap paper. I use a superscript system to remind me if I have more than one mark per page (e.g. 32 would mean I have two marks on p. 3). Using superscripts might seem excessively fussy, but when you’re reviewing the marks (in point 6, below) it can be easy to overlook multiple annotations.
4. Use the piece of scrap paper as your book-mark. This means you don’t have to worry about where you left the piece of paper recording all your annotations.
5. Once you’ve finished reading the text you’ll have a scrap-paper log of pages and annotations. In some cases I’ve made marks on almost every single page, depending on the complexity of the text and/or the reasons for reading it.
6. Transcribe into a word document all the various passages you’ve marked up. This may take some time, so I prefer to spread the labour over a couple of days, depending on the length of the passages in question.
7. Once you’ve transcribed everything, group everything you’ve transcribed into headings – e.g. ‘Gender’, ‘Politics’, ‘Style’, ‘History’, etc. If you need to, group those groupings into sub-headings – e.g. ‘Anarchist Politics’, ‘Feminist Politics’, or whatever. (Having grouped all your notes you then may want to order those groups into some kind of logical or easily inspectable sequence, but this is optional.)
This method turns note-taking into theme-constructing. It’s an active way of taking notes that doesn’t result in pages of transcribed text merely reproducing the literature you’ve just been reading. On the contrary, it transforms that literature into a set of spatialized, theme-grouped reflections, which makes coming to conclusions about literature, and constructing arguments about it, much, much easier. Let me know if you find it helpful.