Appendix D: Understanding and Documenting Information

Understanding and Documenting Information

Remember, our own ethos relies, in part, on the quality of the secondary research sources we use. That is, the sources we use can either add or detract from our overall credibility.  Therefore, reviewing, processing, and documenting information is an integral part of the research process.  Below, we discuss a variety of strategies for effectively understanding and documenting sources.


Skimming is the process of reading key parts of a text in order to get an overview of an author’s argument and main ideas. There are many different methods for skimming, so you will have to determine which works best for you and your particular source.

Well-written texts such as essays, articles, and book chapters are generally formatted in similar ways:

Introduction: provides the main idea/thesis as well as overview of the text’s structure
Body: provides claims, arguments, evidence, support and so on to support thesis
Conclusion: provides connections to larger contexts, suggests implications, ask questions, and revisit the main ideas

Ideally, the main ideas will be presented in the introduction, elaborated on in detail in the body, and reviewed in the conclusion.  Further, many sources will contain headings or subheadings to organize points and examples, and well-written paragraphs generally have clear topic sentences, or sentences that provide the main idea(s) discussed in the paragraph. All of these aspects will help you skim while developing a sense of the argument and main ideas.

When you skim a source, consider the following process:

  1. Read the introduction (this could be a few paragraphs long).
  2. Scan the document for headings. In a shorter article, there may not be any headings or there may be only a couple.
  3. Whenever you see a new heading, be sure to read at least the first few sentences under the heading and the final few sentences of the section.
  4. Read the conclusion.

Example:  Skimming a Book

When we encounter a text for a first time, it’s a good idea to skim through to see if we need to take a further look at it in our research.  One method for doing this is referred to as the First Sentence Technique, which entails reading the introduction, the first sentence of each paragraph, and the conclusion. This approach can be useful for taking notes and creating summaries of sources.

A slightly more in-depth approach can deepen your understanding of the text and help you identify particular sections or even other resources that might be helpful:

  • Scan the preface, acknowledgements, and table of contents. (This identifies the methods and framework for the book.)
  • Scan the notes at the end of chapters to better understand the author’s research.
  • Scan the index to see if the book covers the information you need.
  • Read the introductory paragraphs for each chapter. (This can help you better understand the structure and arguments of the book.)

Taking Notes

Taking notes is a central component of the research process. While you skim the articles, record important information, beginning with publication information. Publication information provides a sense of the rhetorical situation for the source, such as intended audience and context. As you encounter texts in your research, consider their role in your project and take note of the publication information as noted.  Recording the publication information as you go will help avoid problems or mistakes when citing and building the reference list.

[Add HP5 CONTENT from this PAGE]
You may think, “what should I record from the sources other than the publication information?” The goal of research notes is to help you remember information and quickly access important details. You should write down the following details:

  • Thesis statement
  • Keywords
  • Major points or claims
  • Evidence, support and/or examples
  • Headings (depending on the source)

You may want to write down the thesis, points, and claims exactly as they appear in the source. However, whenever you copy the language exactly, be sure to use quotation marks to indicate that the information is coming directly from a source/author.

Restating the Information in Your Own Words

After taking the time to skim and take notes, you should also put the author’s thesis and ideas into your own words. Doing so ensures that you truly understand the source and the author’s points. There are two major ways to approach this process: summary and paraphrase. We will touch on both of these more when we talk about producing the report, but in this instance, please know that you are using both methods for your own knowledge, not necessarily for content in your report. 


Summaries are condensed versions of the original source, in your own words. Summaries focus on the main ideas, but do not copy any of the original language. A 500 page book or a 2 hour movie could be summarized in a sentence. Summaries do not contain the same level of detail as the original source.

Example:  Summary

The following text demonstrates a summary of an original passage:

Original Text

“Lead can enter drinking water when service pipes that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures. The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures with lead solder, from which significant amounts of lead can enter into the water, especially hot water.”


Water becomes contaminated by lead when lead pipes, solder, or certain types of fixtures degrade, and hot water can increase the amount lead released.

Environmental Protection Agency. (2016). Basic information about lead in drinking water. Retrieved from


Similarly, paraphrases are restatements of source material, in your own words, but the difference is that paraphrases tend to be closer in length to the original source. Paraphrases have the same level of detail as the original. Remember, though, if you copy from the original even two or three words in a row you must provide quotation marks around those words.

Example: Paraphrase


“Lead can enter drinking water when service pipes that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures. The most common problem is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures with lead solder, from which significant amounts of lead can enter into the water, especially hot water.”


Water becomes contaminated by lead when lead pipes or lead solder degrades. Certain types of fixtures, such as those plated with chrome and brass, as well as hot water, acidic water, and water with lower amounts of minerals can make lead contamination significantly worse.

Regardless of whether you choose to directly quote, summarize, or paraphrase a source, you must document the source material.  Failure to do so is plagiarism and can lead to allegations of academic or workplace dishonesty.


This chapter is adapted from A Guide to Technical Communications: Strategies & Applications by Lynn Hall & Leah Wahlin (on It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach Copyright © 2021 by Rebekah Bennetch; Corey Owen; and Zachary Keesey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book