Student Writing

Thesis Selection and Note Taking

Reading and note taking happen in two stages:

  1. After selecting a general topic
  2. After you have narrowed your topic down to a distinct thesis

During both stages it is important to read everything you can get your hands on.

Every writer has his or her own method of taking notes. What works well for one writer may not work well for another. You should try to develop a method that fits your personality and way of thinking. Here are some tips:


Stage One

After you have selected your general topic, it is important to read widely on the subject and become an expert. Read everything even tangentially related to your topic. This initial reading will help inform you of the nuances of your topic, allowing you to understand where and how you can add to the existing literature. During this initial broad reading, your thesis, or at least your perspective, should become evident. Thesis selection is the process by which you narrow your general topic into a single question for further inquiry. Your Note has a thesis when you can present your purpose in a single clear and concise sentence.

Notes taken during this reading needn’t be very detailed, as the purpose is to educate yourself generally about the topic. To facilitate narrowing your topic to a thesis, you should keep a list of questions that are generated by your reading. Over time, you will find the answers to these questions in others’ work, but some questions will remain unanswered. These questions are holes in the literature that your research can fill. Finally, be sure to list the articles you have read and their main points so that you can refer to them easily later.


Stage Two

Once you have a discrete thesis, you should do a second round of reading and note taking. This time, you should review what you have already read, as well as research other articles that may be relevant to your narrow thesis but not necessarily to the topic generally. The goal is to gain expertise in the intricate arguments surrounding your thesis, to develop a loose plan of the points you will address, and to decide where your thesis fits within the existing literature.

As you read, you should continue to add to your source list. Note the ways the existing literature relates to, complements, or contrasts with your thoughts. You needn’t write down everything. The level of detail you need will depend on your methods of organization and your memory.

It is important at this stage to remain flexible. You may need to change your thesis in light of what you read. Going over the material an additional time may spark thoughts that didn’t occur to you the previous times you reviewed it. Writing a thoughtful and inclusive Note requires constant thought and willingness to rework what you have already done.