Northcentral University Writing Center
Compiling Critical Reading Notes

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Writing Center

Narrowing the Topic: Compiling Critical Reading Notes


When a writer is ready to narrow a topic, good note taking is never more clearly recognized as an important advantage and time-saver for the writer. With good notes, the writer will be able to mine the wealth of knowledge that has already been collected and evaluated during course readings and preliminary research. Most importantly, honest and thoughtful notes will reveal the writer’s own words and ideas about the most interesting aspects of the topic. To be sure, nothing is more important than the writer’s genuine interest and curiosity in the narrowed topic to be researched.


Assuming some reading about the topic has already been completed, the writer should follow these steps to narrow the topic:


1. Review and Analyze Reading Notes and Annotations

The writer should first settle down with any and all notes taken during the reading of course materials and any other relevant sources discovered during initial research. This reading includes any journal writing, traditional course notes, annotations from course texts, and the writer’s annotated bibliography and synthesis, if those steps have already been completed. With this collection of notes, the writer should carefully consider what has been written in one’s own words about the topic, surveying these thoughts and ideas with the following questions in mind:


  • What personal conclusions were made about certain aspects of the topic?
  • What ideas and evidence were most intriguing?
  • What particular author was most intriguing? What were the best summaries, examples or ideas presented by one or more authors?
  • What problems were observed?  What questions or claims seemed most puzzling or unsubstantiated? What questions or claims seem to puzzle the authors? Is there another author or source that seems to answer the problem addressed by another author/source?
  • What arguments were observed? How do these arguments compare and contrast? Is there another author or source that seems to support or refute the claim addressed by another author/source?
  • What evidence or examples or illustrations were most helpful or most interesting? Are there one or more examples or pieces of evidence that seem to best illustrate the credibility of an argument? What evidence or examples would really help an audience understand the argument or issue and want to read a paper about it?


2. Turn Arguments into Questions

Let’s say the writer’s topic is the treatment of depression. The writer may discover the most interest in how certain drugs are used to treat depression. A topic such as drugs and depression could be too broad; the writer would waste too much time doing unfocused reading and research. Instead, the writer’s notes reveal several arguments among sources concerning the drug Zoloft and how that drug is used to treat depression. Having annotated this curious and interesting argument in several places, the writer may now narrow the topic to a viable research question: Is Zoloft the most effective drug available to treat depression? Now the writer has a narrowed topic that is specific and can be managed. For more information about crafting an arguable thesis and a research question, please see Crafting an Arguable Thesis Statement and Crafting a Research Question.


3. Create a Preliminary Outline

With this narrowed topic and preliminary research question, the writer is ready to sketch a preliminary outline. This outline will serve as a test of the ideas, arguments, and evidence observed in the sources and how these ideas may be used to support the narrowed topic (see Outlining). Most importantly, however, the writer’s own ideas should lead this outline, not the sources. The writer needs to record the ideas that have been inspired or evoked by the sources. Once the writer’s own main ideas have formed an outline, then the writer should return to the outline and determine where the sources’ arguments, questions, examples and evidence can be used to support the main ideas and topic sentences. Aside from ensuring that quotes and evidence are used in correct context with the writer’s own main ideas and supporting points, the writer should also verify that all citation information is gathered and ready for proper APA citation in the paper.


For more information on this topic, please visit the Writing Centers at Colorado, Purdue, and Chapel Hill.