Research Resource Center

Academic writing part 3 – Notes

Note-making is right at the heart of academic study. As a student, you will make notes when you:

  • Attend lectures or seminars
  • Read to support your writing of research manuscripts, essays, reports, dissertations, and theses

Reading notes

Taking risks

You cannot avoid taking risks when you take notes! The risks tend to relate to either overly brief or overly concise note-making. You need to decide where to place yourself along this continuum of risk.

The benefits of being too brief

Avoiding masses of notes that may not be actually used

The risks of being too brief

Failing to record crucial material; thus having to return to the source and read it again.

The benefits of too comprehensive

Detailed notes reduce the risk of missing important information and details

The risks of being too comprehensive

Reading the notes takes far too long; Masses of notes; Inability to decide which notes are the most relevant; and reading the notes may take from the time needed for writing.

Managing the risk by being selective

Being selective is the key to successful note-making. There are two main levels at which you need to be selective:

  • Deciding what to read and what not to read
  • Deciding the material to take notes on

Structuring your work

There are many ways to come up with a structure for your work. If you’re not sure how to approach it, try some of the strategies below.

During and after reading your sources, take notes and start thinking about ways to structure the ideas and facts into groups. For example:

  • Look for similarities, differences, patterns, themes or other ways of grouping and dividing the ideas under headings, such as advantages, disadvantages, causes, effects, problems, solutions or theories.
  • Use colored highlighters or symbols to tag themes or categories of information in your readings or notes.
  • Cut and paste notes in a document.
  • Physically group your readings or notes into piles.

Clear structure

Your writing will be clear and logical to read if it’s easy to see the structure and how it fits together. You can achieve this in several ways.


Most of the types of the academic texts you write need to have an introduction, which purpose is to clearly tell the reader the topic, purpose and structure of the paper.

As a rough guide, an introduction might be between 10 and 20 percent of the length of the whole paper and has three main parts.

  • It begins with the most general information, such as background and/or definitions.
  • The middle part is the core of the introduction, where you show the overall topic, purpose, your point of view, hypotheses and/or research questions (depending on the type of paper.)
  • It ends with the most specific information, describing the scope and structure of your paper.


Most academic writing is structured into paragraphs. It is helpful to think about each paragraph as a mini essay with a three-part structure:

  • Topic sentence (also known as introductory sentence)
  • Body of the paragraph
  • Concluding sentence.

The topic sentence introduces a general overview of the topic and the purpose of the paragraph. Depending on the length of the paragraph, this may be more than one sentence. The topic sentence answers the question ‘What is the paragraph about?’

The body of the paragraph elaborates directly on the topic sentence by giving definitions, classifications, explanations, contrasts, examples, and evidence. The final sentence

In many paragraphs the final sentence is the concluding one. It does not present new information, but often either summarizes or comments on the paragraph content. It can also provide a link, by showing how the paragraph links to the topic sentence of the next paragraph. The concluding sentence often answers the question ‘So what?’, by explaining how this paragraph relates back to the main topic.

You don’t have to write all your paragraphs using this structure. For example, there are paragraphs with no topic sentence, or the topic is mentioned near the end of the paragraph. However, the structure outlined in this article is a clear and common structure that makes it easy for the reader to follow.


The conclusion is closely related to the introduction and is often described as its ‘mirror image’. This means that if the introduction begins with general information and ends with specific information, the conclusion moves in the opposite direction.

The conclusion usually:

  • Begins by briefly summarizing the main scope or structure of the paper
  • Confirms the topic that was given in the introduction. This may take the form of an aims statement, a thesis statement (point of view) or a research question/hypothesis and its answer/outcome.
  • Ends with a more general statement about how this topic relates to its context. This may take the form of an evaluation of the importance of the topic, an implication for future research, or a recommendation about a theory or a practice.



Content created by Zein Karamya, MD

Content reviewed by Mariana Haydar, MD

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