How to Take Effective Notes from a Novel or Play


You’ve just finished a novel/ play in your English class and now your teacher has assigned an essay on the text, or has announced a test on it next week.

Without guidance, you might fall victim to trying the following less effective study tactics:

  1. Trying to skim through the entire novel/play again in a few hours, hoping to remember everything that happens in the story.
  2. Looking up the novel/play online and hope to find a “study-guide” website that has a detailed summary of it, a few paragraphs analyzing the plot or characters, or even a list of important themes and symbols. This can quickly become overwhelming (too much information!) or frustrating (there is NOTHING out there on the book!).
  3. Spending the next four days re-reading the novel/play from the beginning because you’re worried you don’t remember it well enough to write about it.

If you take careful and organized notes the first time you read the novel/play, you can simply review your notes before the test/starting your essay, and you won’t have to do any of the above (save time AND stress!). The notes you take from the novel are yours, and not for anyone else, so make sure you organize them in a way that works best for you, whether you’re colour-coding sections or simply numbering them, typing your notes or writing them out. Note-taking is much more than just occasionally jotting down a few words in pencil in the margins of your book. The most important thing to remember is to have separate sections outlined (with titles!) for different kinds of notes. The second most important thing to remember is that you don’t need to write in complete sentences!

Here’s an example of what these sections could look like:

  • Character Tree: Start creating a kind of “family tree” that includes every character you come across in the novel/play. Write the first character’s name, and when you get to the second character, show how he/she is connected to the first (father/neighbour/enemy/best friend). If you are technologically savvy, try this on Prezi (a free online program), but if not, this might be more easily done with pencil and paper.
  • Main Character Profiles: Include age, appearance, interaction with friends/family, role within the story (and how this affects the plot), and any changes the characters undergoes.
  • Chapter / Act Summary: Keep track of events by writing 3 -5 lines after every chapter/act you read.
  • Important Quotes: These will jump out at you – you don’t have to look for them. You also don’t have to write them out completely; underline or highlight them in the text, take note of the page number, and write 1-2 key words to remind you of the quote’s importance (for example, p.134: Amy apologizes).
  • Themes: Don’t worry about this section until you’ve read at least two or three chapters of the novel/at least the first act of the play. Only then will you start to notice patterns and recurring themes. Once you have established some key themes, start taking note of each example from the novel that fits with each theme. You might find that some examples fit with more than one theme, some themes overlap, and/or some themes you can’t find any examples for (maybe it’s not an important theme after all?).  Don’t worry about trying to find enough examples for each of the themes – just take note of them as you come across them.

shutterstock_15868834Use these suggestions as they are relevant to you, but most importantly, use them while reading the first time! You will save yourself time, effort, and worry in the end. 

For more information on note-taking from a longer text (novel or play), for essay writing, or for exam preparation, please contact Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space at 416.925.1225 or visit



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