Essay-Writing: The Keys to Effective Note-Taking

Academic writing at the university level is both a discipline and an art-form, and learning how to approach it first requires a solid skill-base in critical and analytical note-taking.

When it comes to writing essays, whatever the subject, preparation in the form of essay notes is key. Below is a structured, easy-to-follow three-point plan to ensure that you are producing these essay notes as effectively as possible.

1) Starting Out: Addressing the Assignment

Firstly, before even beginning to approach your essay notes, make sure that everything contained in the rubric of your assignment is crystal clear from the outset. If anything is unclear, it is important to contact your tutor, supervisor, or professor as soon as possible. The worst thing would be to simply plough on and end up with essay notes (or even a fully-written essay) that fail to address the task at hand, solely because you did not understand all or some of the terminology used in the question.

Once everything is set, here are some ideas for taking essay notes more efficiently:

  • Choose your essay topic as quickly as possible to avoid forgetting all of those ideas you had in the relevant lectures and/or seminars. Underline the most important words or phrases in the essay question, and only take essay notes that apply directly to them.
  • Get inside the texts (e.g. textbook/novel/source material) to be used as much as you possibly can. The more familiar you are with the texts to begin with, the easier it will be when you have to sit down and write the essay.
  • As well as taking down what the professors are highlighting in lectures, make your own essay notes when you notice something that strikes you. Your essay notes need to prove that it is you personally that is engaging in the critical debate, not your tutors.
  • Even if you don’t have time to reread the texts in full, have another look through the passages that first stood out as significant, and which seem most applicable to your chosen approach. This could be a few lines from a poem, a key historical event, or a few scenes from a film. Often things take on a wholly new form when looking at them for a second time.
  • Keep detailed essay notes on-the-go: committing thoughts to paper is much more effective than chancing your powers of recall.
  • Either write your essay notes in the margins of your books (if you own them yourself) or, for more space, on separate sheets of paper, but keep tabs on all the relevant page numbers and bibliographic information for easier back-tracking later on.
  • Be analytical, not descriptive or synoptic. If you are copying out an interesting quotation, respond to it in your essay notes. Do you agree or disagree with what is being said? Can the author’s perspective be picked apart, developed or countered in any way?
  • In your wider reading, use bullet-points and arrows to condense lengthy critical responses into more bite-size chunks, focusing on the core ideas that are being forwarded, and how. If you come across something that contradicts your own ideas, don’t shy away from it. As long as you have sufficient material in your other essay notes to back up your argument, be prepared to confront the critics head-on.
  • Use highlighters and coloured pens to distinguish between different themes or theories.
  • Be as passionate and rigorous as possible; no need to worry about page- or word-limits at this stage. But don’t be too radical in your approach; always pay attention to the question.

2) Don’t leave it too late: Brainstorming and Prewriting

Once you feel armed with a topic about which you have plenty to say, get out a blank piece of paper and start brainstorming the key themes that will form the distinct sections of your essay. Simple lists of ideas can be a good start, but spider diagrams are usually the best way to get your thoughts together in one place:

  • Looking at the page width-wards, draw a box in the centre and fill it with the essay question.
  • Draw various branches out from the centre, leading to new boxes surrounding the central question; fill these boxes with your key thematic points/arguments.
  • Draw another level of branches out from these boxes, one for each specific example/event/quotation that supports or contributes to your point.

This is now effectively your essay plan: your core thesis or argument should be starting to take shape, and it should be easier to trace the movement from general themes to specific examples that makes up any successful essay. This diagram is not meant to replace your more detailed essay notes, but to coordinate them: the more organised your essay plan, the less time you’ll spend trawling through that stack of essay notes in front of you.

To complete your essay plan, number your boxes to give the most logical progression to your overall argument, and draw dotted lines between points that are closely linked or specific examples that can be compared and/or contrasted. This approach will also add a greater sense of structure and reasoning to your essay, both of which are often lacking at the undergraduate level. As a rough guide, a standard 2,000-word undergraduate essay can be completed with three such sections (500 words each), plus introduction and conclusion (250 words each).

3) Voice, Angle, Thesis: From Essay Notes to Essay Proper

Now that your essay notes are in order, your own critical voice should become more apparent when it comes to the writing stage.

Remember that, at the university level, an essay looking closely and evocatively at one distinct part of a text or an issue is far more likely to succeed than a broad overview of everything you know on the subject. Limit your environment and examine it thoroughly using not all but your most significant essay notes. Successful essays (and essay notes) also avoid merely paraphrasing or summarising what has already been said in class—think about the ways in which those discussions might be extended using your own ideas. Ultimately, your essay should never revolve solely around “the text says X” or “then X happened’, but also how and potentially why.