Note-Taking for More Organized Writing

Have you ever remembered an idea you wanted to incorporate an idea into your paper only to realize that you have no clue where you came across the idea in the first place? You are certain that in one of the two-dozen books you’ve leafed through during your research, you came across a passage that perfectly complements one of your arguments. Not wanting to interrupt the flow of your writing to search through piles of slapdash notes for the exact quotation, you highlight the sentence in red to indicate that it needs more work and push forward to the following paragraph.

“I know I read this somewhere,” you reassure yourself. “I’ll find the exact wording later.”

Have you ever finished a paper only to flip back through and, to your horror, realize that almost every page is coated with red blotches?

I have. It’s not pleasant.

In preparing for my Senior Essay, I checked out an extraordinary number of books from the library, so many in fact that my bookshelf could not hold them all. I quickly found that when working with such a wide breadth of material, it becomes easy to lose track of what information comes from what source. Certain I would have time to find the exact quotation later, I made far too many unsupported claims and wound up the spending last few days before the essay was due tediously sifting through my notes, increasingly concerned that I would have to rewrite whole sections because I could not find the excerpts I was hoping to cite.

The experience taught me a few things about working with numerous sources, things that would of course have been helpful to know before finishing the most extensive research project of my Wesleyan career. But while this knowledge came too late for me, it is possible that I can still save some of you from my fate.  Helpful tips for note-taking after the jump.

  1. Construct your argument around your citations, not the other way around. Not only is it a pain to have to conduct a marathon search for specific passages when you are done writing, but also you run the risk of having to rely upon awkward, unconvincing quotations.
  2. Don’t assume that your statement is accurate if you don’t have the evidence to support it. You might wind up with whole arguments that you cannot substantiate and have to rewrite at the last minute.
  3. Type up your notes, either in separate word documents or through a program like Zotero or EndNote. These programs enable you to search through your notes for keywords, an invaluable tool when hunting for a specific quotation.
  4. When taking notes, always take the extra time to jot down page numbers. It will save you the hassle of having to flip back through your books to find them later.
  5. Jot down a short, bulleted summary of every work you read. You can then refer back to these summaries when you are trying to figure out what source might contain the information you want to cite. Additionally, doing this will greatly simplify the process of writing an annotated bibliography.
  6. Mark up your books! Highlight and take notes in the margins so that when you are skimming through later the key information jumps out at you more easily. Of course if you are working with library books, avoid writing in them and make liberal use of sticky notes and tabs instead.

Finally, if you do decide that stopping to look up the exact citation will interrupt your writing groove – and hey, sometimes it really helps to just sit down and pound out as much as you can in one sitting – just remember to leave extra time for editing!

1 comment for “Note-Taking for More Organized Writing

  1. Dr. Doctor
    April 11, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Phresh blog-content!

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