Writing from notes

When note-taking, it is not important to capture the source's ideas in perfectly composed full sentences - leave that for when you convert your notes into good summaries and paraphrases. Rather, focus on taking relevant and accurate notes in dot point form; notes that you can rely on to produce those good summaries and paraphrases that you can use in your assignments. How much detail you record when note-taking will depend on what is necessary to develop your overall argument or your particular ideas.

Your notes can assist you to summarise and paraphrase more easily by adopting the following strategies:

  • Only copy passages from a source verbatim if you intend to quote them;
  • Keep your assignment question in mind so that when you take notes, they are relevant for answering the question;
  • Distil the author's key points down to some dot points rather than full sentences;
  • Write down the key points in your own words but maintain the original meaning; and
  • Note your critical reaction to the ideas - do you disagree or agree? Why?

For some students, a systematic approach to summarising and paraphrasing can be helpful, especially if you are new to writing summaries and paraphrases or looking to improve your skills in this area. The following are suggested steps:

  1. Read the text several times and take notes
  2. Pick out the key ideas or key terms
  3. Try to reorder the ideas
  4. Jot down similar words
  5. Do not change technical words

When it comes to writing your summaries and paraphrases:

  • Do not look at the source
  • Rely on your notes
  • Write down in your own words your interpretation/understanding of what the author is saying
  • Compare yours to the original:
    • Have you changed the original sentence structure?
    • Have you conveyed the same meaning?
    • Used different words?
    • Provided a citation?

When writing formal summaries, Swales and Feak advise students not to try to "paraphrase specialized vocabulary or technical terms" and instead put their energy into trying to capture the original ideas accurately, and providing sufficient detail so that the meaning is clear.[1]

Indeed, it is a good idea after summarising and paraphrasing to go back to the original source and check for accuracy and appropriateness: that you have not misrepresented or misunderstood the ideas and that you have expressed those ideas in your own words. Remember:

  • Summarise immediately after having read the source so that the ideas are still fresh in your mind; and
  • Do not lose sight of the bigger picture when paraphrasing. Ask yourself: where does this idea fit within the author's overall argument?


[1] Swales, JM & Feak, CB 2004, Academic writing for graduate students: essential tasks and skills, 2nd edn, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, p. 159.