how to take notes from a novel
How to Take Notes on a Book
In many high school and college classes, instructors assign reading material that may be extensive and challenging. You might need help reading a work of fiction for your literature class, or a non-fictional biography for your history course. To read effectively and efficiently, you need an organized strategy that will help you understand, remember, and enjoy the book.
Preparing for Active Reading
Find a quiet and calm place to read.Distractions, such as your cell phone, television, or computer can slow down your reading and limit your ability to focus. Decide if you need complete silence or some background noise, like white noise or environmental sounds, if you’re outside, to help you concentrate.
- Have your books and notes organized nearby so that you don’t waste time looking for them.
- Choose a chair or reading position that is comfortable, but make sure it won’t cause you to feel sleepy while you read.
- Don't assume you can "multitask," such as surf the internet or watch TV while you read. Multitasking is a myth. To get the most out of your reading, you'll need to focus on the book and not anything else.
Review your instructor’s assignment.It’s important to make sure you understand the purposes your teacher assigned the reading so that you can focus your reading on those topics and ideas. Maintaining that focus will also help you understand the book more deeply and take notes more effectively.
- If your instructor provided you with an essay question or topic, make sure that you understand the prompt.
- If you need to answer a series of questions, read them carefully and use the dictionary and your class notes to clarify any words or ideas that you don’t understand.
Preview the book before you begin reading.Using a basic previewing strategy will help you get a sense of the overall subject of the book, as well as an understanding of its overall organization. If you know, in general, the topics the book will cover, you’re more likely to understand it and to take good notes.
- Read the front and back covers of the book and the inside flaps, if any, for an overview of the subject and information about the author.
- Read the table of contents for more detailed information about the subject and the book’s overall organization. Compare it to your course syllabus to determine the order you’ll be reading the chapters or sections.
- Read the introduction and first chapter to get a sense of the author’s style, as well as more information about the important subjects of the book or characters in the novel.
Write a brief reflection about your preview.This reflection will help you to feel more confident about your comprehension, and it will also help you to focus on the topic at hand. It will also improve your recall of the material in the book, since you it will give you a reference for the material you need to learn.
- What did you learn about the subject and author of the book?
- Is the book organized in chronological chapters? Is it a collection of essays?
- How will this book help you to complete your instructor’s assignment?
- How will you take notes?
Ask questions about your prior knowledge of the book or topic.Establishing your background in the subject can support your comprehension of the book and help you read more actively and quickly.
- What is the topic of the book? What do I already know about this topic?
- Why has the instructor included this reading with the other readings this semester?
Determine your own purpose for reading the book.Even if you don’t have a particular assignment, you should always think about why you’re reading the book. Considering your own goals will help you understand the text and will affect your choice of reading strategies. Add your reading purpose to your reflection statement.
- We usually read nonfiction with a purpose of finding specific information or to get an overview of a particular topic or concept.
- We read works of fiction to enjoy good stories and watch for character development. For literature courses, we may also be reading more carefully for themes that grow and change over the course of the book, or for particular style and language choices that the author makes.
- Ask yourself: “What do I want to learn and what questions do I have about the topic?”
Examine your own context.Whenever you being reading a book, your own personal experience impacts your understanding of the story, the words, and the subjects. It’s important to recognize that your reading context may be very different from the context in which the book was written.
- Pay attention to the book’s original copyright date and country of origin and think about the history of that era and location.
- Consider the topic of the book and note your own opinions and feelings about that topic. You may have to set them aside for a bit in order to analyze the book rationally and academically.
- Be aware that the author, or authors, have different perspectives and your job is to understand their point of view as well as to have a personal response to the material.
Read any additional material that your instructor provided on the book, the author, or the topic.Taking this step will help you to read the material as the author intended, rather than only from your own perspective. It will also help you to understand the significance of events or ideas that the author presents in the book.
- Ask yourself: “What is the author’s purpose for writing this material? Who is the audience? What is his or her critical perspective on the topic?”
Prepare to take notes.Engaging actively with the text through note-taking will improve your comprehension, concentration, and recall. Rather than passively hoping that you will understand and remember all of the material, have a clear method for recording your responses and notes as you read.
- Some students prefer to take notes in the margins of the book and to underline passages. If this is your method, then plan to gather these notes together after each reading session in a separate location.
- Create a graphic organizer based on your assignment and/or your reading purpose(s). You might include rows for chapter summaries, for details about topics or characters, for themes that you notice, and for questions and responses that you have. Add notes to the organizer as you read.
Reading for Comprehension and Recall
Read and take breaks to check your comprehension.Use your preview of the book’s organization and your instructor’s assignment to determine the best way to manage your reading time. You can read for a set amount of time, or break up your reading by chapter or purpose.
- If you’re reading a work of fiction, you may be able to read for longer periods of time because of the nature of storytelling.
- Nonfiction reading may require you to focus more on your reading purpose. You don’t need to read a collection of essays in order. Instead, try reading in order of topics or area of focus for your interest or assignment.
Stop every few minutes and try to recall the details from your reading.If you are able to remember nearly everything, you have found a good pace. If not, stop a bit more often and try again.
- As your recall sessions improve, try to increase the reading time or amounts again. As you practice, your recall and comprehension will grow and you’ll actually become a much more skilled reader.
- Before starting a new session, try to recall your previous reading sessions. The more you practice your recall skills, the more powerful your concentration and recall will become.
Adjust your reading speed.Different types of books require different reading speeds for good comprehension. Easier texts, like novels, can be read much more quickly than a collection of academic essays. The research shows, however, that going too slowly can actually hurt your comprehension in difficult material.
- Keep your eyes moving and your attention focused by using an index card, a ruler, or your fingertips to underline the text.
- Stop to check your comprehension often to help you build your confidence as your speed increases.
Take summary notes as you read.Each time that you stop to check your understanding of the details, make a note of the main ideas of the section you just completed. This list of main ideas will serve as an outline of the section that you can use to remember the material and to prepare for tests and essays.
- If you’re writing notes in the margins, take this time to rewrite your notes in another location, such as a notebook, a word processing document, or a note-taking application.
- Make a separate list of topics or subjects and take notes on the details you learn. Your summaries should only include main ideas and arguments, while these details are the facts and ideas that support those ideas. Add these to your graphic organizer.
Use the dictionary for unfamiliar or important words.These words may be useful when writing an essay about the book, or they may be terminology that you need to know for a test. Keep a running list of these words, the sentence from the book, and the dictionary definition as a reference.
Ask, and write down, questions as you read.Teachers ask students questions to check students’ understanding of the texts as well as to engage students in the topics in both academic and personal ways. If you ask questions while you read, you’ll remember and comprehend the information better, and you’ll be able to analyze and discuss it in greater depth.
- If you’re annotating in the book itself, write your questions in the paragraph and then gather them together in your note taking system or graphic organizer.
- When you stop for a comprehension check, take a look at your questions from previous sections and try to answer them based on your new reading.
- If your work of nonfiction has headings and sub-headings within the chapters, change those titles into questions that you can answer as you continue to read.
Write a summary of the chapter or section in your own words.Use the notes you’ve been making, either in the margins or in your graphic organizer, but keep it brief. Focusing on the main ideas will help you to see the “big picture” of the text and to connect the ideas from one chapter to another, as well as to your assignment.
- Carefully copy and cite the page numbers for any direct quotations that seem to answer your questions or fulfill your reading purpose.
- You can also paraphrase and cite ideas that are useful to your assignment or purpose.
Take notes on patterns of ideas that appear.Write down, in a separate section of your notes or graphic organizer, any repeated images, themes, ideas, or even significant terminology that you notice. You can develop these themes into essay topics or discussion comments, and they’ll help you think more critically about the book.
- Mark passages that seem important, that are repeated, or that challenge you in some way, with an “X.” Write a note in the margin, or in your organizer, about your reaction.
- After each reading session, go back through the sections you’ve read and re-read both the marked sections and your notes about them. Ask: “What pattern do I see? What does the author seem to be saying about these themes or ideas?”
- Write your responses next to your original notes. Include any direct quotations, with citations, and then explain why they’re interesting or important.
Talk with a classmate or friend about the book along the way.Sharing your responses and the information you’ve gathered as you go will help you to remember the information better, and a classmate may be able to correct any misinformation or misunderstanding you might have. Together, you can think more actively about the major ideas and themes of the book.
- Check your summaries and detail notes to make sure you haven’t missed anything.
- Discuss the patterns you discovered and add any new conclusions you find.
- Answer each other’s questions about the book and the assignment.
Reflecting on your Reading
Summarize all of your summaries.Reread your summary notes and lists of main ideas, and then create a “master” summary no more than one page in length. This step is vital for your understanding of the book and your recall of the material. Synthesizing the main ideas in your own words leads to a more developed understanding of the book.
- Summaries that contain too many details may be overwhelming and distract you from the central points.
- It may be helpful to use a “beginning-middle-end” structure to your summary of a novel.
Create an outline of your detailed notes.Using the main ideas as the major points on the outline, you can include the details and direct quotations as subpoints and explanations. An outline can reveal the structure of the book and support your understanding of the themes.
- Use complete sentences for the main ideas and short phrases for the details.
- Keep your outline balanced by including the same number of subpoints for each major point.
- Review your graphic organizer for ideas on how to arrange points and subpoints.
Find connections between this book and your other reading.Not only will noticing similarities between this text and others support your comprehension, comparing and contrasting them will help you explore different perspectives on the same topics.
- Ask yourself: “How does this author’s approach or style relate to other books on this topic or in this genre?”
- Ask yourself: “What have I learned that may be different from the information or perspectives in other books?”
Evaluate the author’s argument(s) if you’re reading nonfiction.Your instructor may be interested in your evaluation of the author’s reasoning and validity, so you should be able to critique the writer’s claim and the evidence he or she provides to support it. Review your notes on the main ideas and supporting details to make a critique of his or her thesis.
- Determine if the author seems credible: does he or she use accurate research? Is he or she influenced by particular theories or ideas? Does there seem to be obvious bias? How do you know?
- Examine the graphics, such as pictures, and decide if they’re useful for understanding the author’s argument.
Reflect on your personal responses.Reread your notes and expand your responses to include your thoughts on the author’s style and structure of the text. Examine the author’s style and your response to it.
- “What style does the author use? Is it narrative or analytical? Is it formal or informal?”
- ”How am I influenced by the book’s format and style?”
- Be sure to explain why this style and your response to it are important for understanding the book’s argument, themes, or story.
Try to answer the questions you’ve posed along the way.Curiosity is one of the keys to comprehending and enjoying books, so if you’ve been asking good questions, you’ll have a broader and deeper understanding of the book.
- Good questions can often lead to interesting and complex thesis statements for essays.
- The answers may not be simple facts from the book; the best questions lead to greater insights about the ideas, story, or characters.
- If you can’t answer some questions specifically, then ask your instructor, a fellow student, or a friend.
Compose a list of “teacher questions” based on the reading.Planning ahead for possible exam questions or essay topics, you’ll feel much more confident when your teacher assigns them. Even if your questions aren’t exactly what the teacher may ask, it’s worthwhile to think like a teacher so that you’re prepared for a wider range of assessments.
- Include different types of questions, such as short answer, vocabulary, and essay questions in order to practice your factual knowledge along with your critical thinking.
- Prepare an answer key for yourself, including the essay question, so that you can use both the questions and the answers as a study guide or notes for a longer composition.
- Work with a classmate to create a full-length test as a more intensive study guide.
Review your notes every day.Reading your notes and thinking about your book will further deepen your understanding and lead to more mature responses to exam questions and essay topics. Always prepare for exams well in advance so that you can feel confident when you begin.
- Avoid wasting time rereading your book, unless you’re looking for a particular quote or fact. Rereading doesn’t encourage comprehension, and may lead to frustration or boredom.
- Reading online summaries of books doesn’t offer the level of comprehension or enjoyment you’ll have by reading and annotating on your own.
- Avoid plagiarism and practice comprehension by taking notes in your own words.
- Try to avoid rereading, as you may be rereading because of low confidence in your comprehension.
- Stopping to check your comprehension and take notes may seem to add time to your reading sessions, but it actually reduces your overall time because you won’t need to reread as often.
- Never write, highlight, or underline in a library book. The book is not yours. It is annoying to other library patrons, and you could be charged for the damage. Use sticky notes, tape flags, or index cards to place notes into pages without damaging the book. Photocopy or scan key passages if you need to. Or, write your notes on a separate paper.
Things You'll Need
A notebook or word processing software for taking notes
Your reading material
A quiet place to work
Sources and Citations
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