Keeping useful notes

Notes allow a researcher to quickly remember, access, and utilise ideas with academic integrity. Notes consist of four components:

  1. A summary, direct quote or paraphrase of the author's words/ideas
  2. Your own comments, ideas, analysis reflections, reactions to these words
  3. Bibliographic reference
  4. A code that connects the note to a concept from your research question.

In this section you will learn about methods to read and keep useful notes. You can effectively use one or more of these techniques depending on your preferences. Read about different note-taking methods used by other research students: What is the best way to take notes for your PhD?

Reading Top

Good note-taking relies on efficient reading techniques, particularly skimming, scanning and in-depth reading.


Skimming is used to quickly get the main ideas and logic of a text. To skim, look quickly over the page noting the abstract, headings, and words in italics, diagrams, introduction, discussion and summaries. Summaries are often indicated with words such as:

  • this paper/research will
  • in summary
  • to summarise
  • therefore
  • in conclusion.


Scanning is used for finding particular words or phrases in a text. Use scanning to quickly locate specific information or concepts relevant to your research question before reading in more depth. Move your eyes quickly over the page and look at the first sentence of each paragraph to:

  • identify new concepts or terminology so you can check their meaning
  • find information on a specific topic
  • find key words that indicate the scope of the text
  • look at the first sentence of each paragraph to get a feel for the content.

The main thesis of an article often uses words such as:

  • core
  • central
  • major
  • significant
  • underpinning
  • most important
  • crucial

As you scan the document, highlight and code sections that are directly relevant to your research question.

The fast reading techniques of skimming and scanning will save you a lot of time and frustration as you explore and categorise literature for your research. Practising these techniques will make you a more efficient and effective researcher. For more fast reading resources see books in the QUT Library catalogue on postgraduate reading techniques.

In-depth reading

In-depth reading is when you read every word in a section of reading such as a journal article or book chapter. In-depth reading allows you to analyse information more carefully and write detailed and comprehensive notes. Limit in-depth reading to critically important texts that will substantially impact your argument.

Writing notes Top

Writing notes can be done directly onto a book or document, or using specific software on your computer or mobile device. You may need to use a variety of methods depending on the resources you are annotating. Be diligent and consistent with your note-taking and note management to ensure you can track and use prior research to meet your current writing needs.

Establish a system of organising your written annotations.


Dr Inger Mewburn has an excellent blog post on how to 'tame the literature dragon'. She recommends coding each piece of information via Location, Alphabet, Time, Category and Hierarchy (LATCH). The LATCH system is described in more detail in the book Information Anxiety 2 by Richard S. Wurman (the creator of TED Talks).

  • Location - How is the author situated in the debate being considered?
  • Alphabet - Keep your information in alphabetical order.
  • Time - Order your notes in the order that the referenced articles were published.
  • Category - Sort notes by themes that can be used as sections within a chapter of your thesis.
  • Hierarchy - Order your categories to establish the logic of your literature review. Each category will play a different critical role in how you present your ideas.

A literature grid or source grid can help you keep track of your key sources and help to identify strengths and gaps of each paper that you read. It's a good place to keep a record of direct quotes and the associated references.

Example Literature Grid (Word DOC, 13.5KB)

Directly onto hardcopy

As you read your own copy of a book or printed article, code the text with the system you have chosen and write notes in the margins or on the back of the page. Be sure to code each comment and then copy those comments into a blank document (with full reference including page number) for future use.

Software and mobile apps

Using an electronic system for making and recording notes allows you to manage your notes more efficiently through the use of tags, keywords or metadata. Establish a consistent format to allow you to easily distinguish your own thoughts and ideas from quotes or ideas of others.

Many bibliographic management tools (e.g. Endnote, Mendeley, Zotero) also include ways to keep notes on each reference. Using these tools in combination with specific note-taking tools can be a useful strategy for managing your notes from reading the literature and notes from attending research seminars or meetings with your supervisor or research team.

  • Evernote is designed for note-taking and archiving text, websites, pictures, voice memos and handwritten notes. You can photograph a concept map from a whiteboard or notepad and then store it electronically with keywords, tags etc.
  • Scrivener works like an electronic 'index card' system. It allows you to move your notes and ideas around, trying different logical structures and connections.
  • Papers (Mac, PC and iOS) stores all your PDF documents and allows you to write notes on each page and bookmark those notes. Your PDFs become a database of references that you can keep with you and access easily any time, synchronised across your computers and mobile devices.
  • Microsoft OneNote acts as a notebook divided into various sections, and within each section you can create any number of pages. Use OneNote with various software packages, access, edit and manage your notebooks anywhere anytime using multiple devices.

For more ideas, ask your supervisor and peers how they manage their notes.

Activity - making useful notes Top

  1. Choose one of the note-making strategies listed above.
  2. Skim and scan quickly through ten references, coding and writing brief notes for later use.
  3. Keep your own ideas clearly separated from the authors'.

When you are ready to start writing, it can be useful to print your notes and cut them up into sections. Then, get a big piece of cardboard or paper to arrange these sections graphically into sub-sections and to write your own ideas around them in the empty space. Physically moving sections spatially can generate new ideas about how ideas fit together or relate to one another.

Use the critical thinking template from QUT cite|write to conceptualise your argument and the logical structure of how your notes provide evidence for answering your research question.

Summary Top

Skim your reading to quickly understand the main ideas and logic of a text, and scan your literature to locate specific information or concepts relevant to your research question before reading in more depth. Code your literature using keywords, symbols or numbers that assist you to group ideas as you read and take notes. Establish a system of recording and managing your notes that suits you, and apply that system diligently and consistently throughout your research.