Making Notes and Summarising

Making notes

You will be given a lot of reading to do. You need to examine the reading material to see if it is relevant for the task at hand, for example, the development of an assignment. Even if material is not immediately usable, appropriate notes can be taken so that the information can be filed away for possible future use. Below are three steps that make up one way to take efficient and effective notes on any piece of academic writing – it is essentially a very basic reading log.

     1. Define the writer's purpose/ argument

All writers write for a reason. It is important to recognise the purpose of their writing or the argument/point they are trying to communicate. You don't have to read the whole chapter or article to see what the writer's purpose/argument is - read the objectives of the chapter if they are listed, or read the abstract if it is an article and one is provided. (The abstract is the piece of writing at the start of the article and is sometimes in italics.) Read the introduction and the headings. In 1-2 sentences and in your own words, write down the argument of the chapter or article - the author's purpose or the overall theme of the reading.

Now read the summary or conclusion. In many readings you will find that the argument or purpose is restated in the conclusion or summary. Check that you are satisfied with what you have written as the writer's argument/purpose. Change it if you are not.

     2. Decide on the main ideas

A writer generally writes a number of main points or ideas in a piece of writing. These points or ideas support the argument being developed in the material. Again, you do not have to read the whole chapter to find the main points. Look at the headings and then read the first sentence of each paragraph in each section. Then write one sentence stating what you think the section is about. This will allow you to judge what the material is about without taking up too much time. It should be possible to tell at this point whether the material is suitable for your assignment or not.

     3. Read in depth

Choose one section of the material that you feel seems to be appropriate to your assignment. Read it through. Go back and write in your own words the main idea of each paragraph in the section. You should write only one sentence for each main idea. The detail in this section should match the argument you identified in Step 1.

Decide whether the material is relevant to your purpose. If you choose to use this reading as reference material for an assignment, read all of its sections in depth. 


A summary involves condensing a piece of writing to just its main ideas or points. A lecturer may ask for a summary of a section of text, or you may feel a section is so important for your overall understanding of a concept that you wish to summarise it. Summarising is most helpful for shorter texts. A large piece of writing is best approached using the method in making notes. 

Summarising is best used as part of your study routine for understanding or exam revision. Material you have summarised is rarely suitable for inclusion in assignments. In assignments, the focus is on your interpretation of material studied in relation to the set topic or question. Lecturers generally want you to develop an academic argument. This means that the assignment is written largely in your own words with evidence or support brought in from researched material in the form of indirect quotes or paraphrases. A summary on the other hand focuses solely on the main ideas in someone else's work.


Paraphrasing is the expression of someone else's ideas in your own words. A paraphrase is also called an indirect quote. To paraphrase well in your assignment, you need to understand the material well. A paraphrase is the most frequently used type of quotation in an essay. Lecturers generally prefer you to paraphrase than to use a number of direct quotes. When you paraphrase, it indicates an understanding of the concepts involved in the topic, coupled with the skill of being able to incorporate support from research into the argument being developed. More information on this can be found under referencing and plagiarism.