Image Map Skip to Main Content

Researching and Writing a Paper: Outline Note-Taking

This guide is about how to start, research, write, and format, a paper.

Outline Note-Taking

Focusing on effective study skills is more important to academic success than “intellectual giftedness” and the Outlining approach to note-taking is a very effective study skill.

Outlining is a methodical, self-paced, categorizing of the information you find in the book or article you are reading. Outlining helps you to organize the information in a logical way that helps you with both understanding and writing. Outlining the topics and subtopics (supporting information/context, etc.) helps you make connections between the information in both your mind and your paper. Outlining also helps you to identify your questions and often (once you’ve researched enough) their answers.

The outline method indents information; the main topics or points of the article are written on the left side of your notes document; the subtopics/supporting information/contexts are indented to the right of the main topics; additional supporting ideas or facts are indented to the right of the subtopics. (This leaves room for additional comments, questions, and supporting facts.) This structure means information on the far-left side is quite important for the argument that you are making in the paper. If a note is on the far-right side, it helps explain or provide context for the important information on the left side. You can use bullet points, dashes, numbers, or other symbols to help you further describe how particular information is important. This results in information-rich notes that are easy to review as you write your paper (and easy to use to create an outline for your paper).


STEP 1: Any paper (or Word document, Google Doc, etc.) will do for taking notes, use whatever your prefer (some people use both). Use a separate sheet of paper or digital document for each book, or article, you read. Make sure that you keep your notes in order and clearly labeled. A comfortable and quiet working space, with minimal distractions, is a must for most people. (Note: Several citation tools – including NoodleTools – are also excellent for taking notes and for making annotated bibliographies.)

STEP 2: The first thing you always do is write out the proper citation for the article or book that you are reading (this is where NoodleTools or other citation tools are very useful). Then outline the main topics or points of the article or book (chapter or section headings are often useful here). Write these main topics on the left side of the document without any indentation, leaving plenty of room for the subtopics. You may have a small number of main topics (one main topic often happens). Deciding what is a 'main topic' and what is a 'subtopic' is the first of many information organization decisions you’ll be making – your understanding of your organization is more important than ‘being correct’ about whether something is a ‘topic’ or ‘subtopic’, etc. The Outline Note-Taking Approach is for you to use in your way.
The main topics are relatively broad in context and the article or book often identifies its main topics, subtopics are generally more specific, often consisting of supporting facts. Try to keep the main topics to ‘a minimum’, something which will be different for each article or book. Leave enough room to be able to add subtopics, supporting information, contexts, your comments, questions, and thoughts. (Be very clear which words/ideas are from the text you are reading and which are your own.)

STEP 3: List the subtopics/supporting information/contexts. These should be written below the main topics and indented to the right (and with some room between each subtopic so you can insert supporting arguments, questions, etc. later). Including page numbers in your notes is important! Letters, numbers, bullet points, color-coding, etc., are often used to be clear about the information/comment's placement within the outline organization.

STEP 4: Insert supporting thoughts and facts, as well as quotes and paraphrases – make sure to include the page number of each quote or paraphrase and that each one is clearly labeled as a quote or paraphrase. Continue adding further thoughts, facts, features, and categories into the subtopics – always with an indentation to the right. In an academic setting you do not equate thoughts and facts, but both thoughts and facts are perfectly viable notes (as long as it is clear which is which). Analyzing your thoughts and noting them often helps you understand the ‘dry facts written by someone else’.

STEP 5: Now, add any final supporting details to the notes. Cover all the information you need without writing massive paragraphs (a short note about where to look in the book or article is good).

STEP 6: Review your notes and at least look through the article or book again (ideally read it again). This is where your effort to make the outlines well-structured and easy to follow pays off bigly. Congratulations! You’ve now completed the entire outline note-taking process. The notes you have taken have helped you to understand the article, to be more aware of what you don't know, and helped you think about how you are going to organize your paper - all just by doing one step at a time. Do this with a few more articles and/or books and you will soon be ready to start writing your paper.

*** Questions or confusions about anything on this page, in this LibGuide, or anything else? You can Ask Us Questions! ***