Reading Notes: Suggested Approaches

The following are some suggestions for writing notes on secondary sources (books and articles written by historians in the twentieth century) and on theoretical works in critical studies (including theoretical works in history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, and science studies).


Summary and (brief) criticisms

The notes on each reading should usually be no more than a few paragraphs – one or two longer paragraphs summarizing the central thesis along with the supporting arguments and evidence, and one very brief paragraph outlining criticisms.

First sentence: thesis statement

The first sentence of the summary should state the thesis of the work. While it is difficult, try to distill the central claims of the entire work into a thesis of a single sentence or two.

First paragraph: supporting arguments

The remaining sentences of the first paragraph (following the statement of the thesis) should present the major arguments supporting the thesis.

Subsequent paragraphs

Subsequent paragraphs should further explain key arguments and concepts of the work, covering all of the important arguments and concepts.


Offer at most one paragraph briefly outlining your criticisms. Make sure that you believe that your criticisms are valid and important – do not simply list all the possible objections that come to mind.


First read conclusion and summary

First read the conclusion, together with the summary of the argument in the introduction (if there is one), to get a preliminary idea of the thesis and the supporting arguments which will be presented.

Read the entire work

Read the entire work, highlighting important statements, making notes in the margins on whether the argument is convincing, whether the evidence demonstrates the conclusions, and any questions you have. Always be skeptical of the claims being made.

Take notes

Write up a first draft of reading notes, selecting the most important of the highlighted statements and the notes you made in the margin.

If you quote statements from the work, make sure that you use quotation marks to mark direct quotations, and note the page number. If you paraphrase, make sure that your paraphrase does not use the same words as the original, and again, note the page numbers. Quotations without quotation marks, or paraphrase that is too close to the original, can result in charges of plagiarism; prevent this by taking the above precautions in your reading notes.

When taking notes, think. Be selective, and avoid becoming entangled in every subargument, every clever twist, and every aside, every excursus. When possible, summarize the argument rather than just mechanically copying quotes from the author. And try to see through the author's rhetoric to understand the argument being presented.

Critically evaluate arguments

Understand and critically evaluate the arguments presented. Keep a critical distance from the author's claims. Do not simply state as fact the claims and conclusions of the author. You are responsible for evaluating those claims and conclusions, and making clear in your notes what you think is correct, and what you think is incorrect or unproven. Also, make sure you understand what the author is criticizing.

Reorganize analytically

After taking notes, reorganize them, arranging them as an argument, instead of simply mechanically following the order the author presented them in.

Compare with stated conclusions

Compare the author's stated thesis and conclusions with the arguments and evidence presented in the work -- too often the arguments and evidence may have little connection to the stated conclusions.

Determine the thesis

Determine the central thesis of work, and distill this to one or a few sentences.

Determine the supporting arguments

Determine which arguments and evidence support the thesis.

Edit, re-edit, and re-edit again

Edit your notes to remove irrelevant or unnecessary claims or assertions. Make the notes as succinct as possible.

Final reading notes should be:


The reading notes should cover all of the major arguments and all of the key concepts in the reading. That is, do not just focus on the most well-known argument; do not focus just on the introductory and concluding chapters. Try to analyze how the major arguments fit together, or explain why they don't.


Offer an analytic summary. That is, do not give a plot summary which mechanically repeats the claims in the order they are presented in the work (as if, for example, copying the table of contents). Determine which arguments are most important, and how they fit together.


Clearly and charitably explain the thesis and arguments presented in the work. (Think of it this way: if the author was sitting across from you and read your summary, she would wish she had presented her arguments as clearly, succinctly, and forcefully as you have.)


While being charitable, keep a critical distance, and clearly indicate places where you disagree with the author. Again, while you must summarize what the author has said charitably, you must make sure not to state the author's claims as fact unless you endorse them, you must make clear which arguments were not convincing.


Be as cogent and precise as possible.


Mechanical paraphrase:

Do not simply copy down the statements of the author in the order presented. A good summary requires analysis, evaluation, and reorganization.

Adopting author's claims

Do not repeat the claims of the author as if they are fact, especially when the author makes highly polemic statements. Critically and skeptically assess all claims.