How to Take Notes While Researching

Now you can get your hands on the sources (online and library) you identified and take notes on the information. And because you’re prepared for this, you can expect the process to go smoothly. Your first step is to locate your sources and get yourself settled—either at a table in the library, or at home if you’re using sources that you can take home. Be sure to have your source cards and research questions with you. Other supplies you’ll need depend on the note-taking method you choose.

How to Use Sources Effectively

Most articles in periodicals and some of the book sources you use, especially those from the children’s room at the library, are probably short enough that you can read them from beginning to end in a reasonable amount of time. Others, however, may be too long for you to do that, and some are likely to cover much more than just your topic. Use the table of contents and the index in a longer book to find the parts of the book that contain information on your topic. When you turn to those parts, skim them to make sure they contain information you can use. Feel free to skip parts that don’t relate to your questions, so you can get the information you need as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Methods for Note Taking

Don’t—start reading a book and writing down information on a sheet of notebook paper. If you make this mistake, you’ll end up with a lot of disorganized scribbling that may be practically useless when you’re ready to outline your research paper and write a first draft. Some students who tried this had to cut up their notes into tiny strips, spread them out on the floor, and then tape the strips back together in order to put their information in an order that made sense. Other students couldn’t even do that—without going to a photocopier first—because they had written on both sides of the paper. To avoid that kind of trouble, use the tried-and-true method students have been using for years—take notes on index cards.

Taking Notes on Index Cards

As you begin reading your sources, use either 3″  5″ or 4″  6″ index cards to write down information you might use in your paper. The first thing to remember is: Write only one idea on each card. Even if you write only a few words on one card, don’t write anything about a new idea on that card. Begin a new card instead. Also, keep all your notes for one card only on that card. It’s fine to write on both the front and back of a card, but don’t carry the same note over to a second card. If you have that much to write, you probably have more than one idea.

After you complete a note card, write the source number of the book you used in the upper left corner of the card. Below the source number, write the exact number or numbers of the pages on which you found the information. In the upper right corner, write one or two words that describe the specific subject of the card. These words are
like a headline that describes the main information on the card. Be as clear as possible because you will need these headlines later.

After you finish taking notes from a source, write a check mark on your source card as a reminder that you’ve gone through that source thoroughly and written down all the important information you found there. That way, you won’t wonder later whether you should go back and read that source again.

Taking Notes on Your Computer

Another way to take notes is on your computer. In order to use this method, you have to rely completely on sources that you can take home, unless you have a laptop computer that you can take with you to the library.

If you do choose to take notes on your computer, think of each entry on your screen as one in a pack of electronic note cards. Write your notes exactly as if you were using index cards. Be sure to leave space between each note so that they don’t run together and look confusing when you’re ready to use them. You might want to insert a page break between each “note card.”

When deciding whether to use note cards or a computer, remember one thing—high-tech is not always better. Many students find low-tech index cards easier to organize and use than computer notes that have to be moved around by cutting and pasting. In the end, you’re the one who knows best how you work, so the choice is up to you.

How to Take Effective Notes

Knowing the best format for notes is important, but knowing what to write on your cards or on your computer is essential. Strong notes are the backbone of a good research paper.

Not Too Much or Too Little

When researching, you’re likely to find a lot of interesting information that you never knew before. That’s great! You can never learn too much. But for now your goal is to find information you can use in your research paper. Giving in to the temptation to take notes on every detail you find in your research can lead to a huge volume of notes—many of which you won’t use at all. This can become difficult to manage at later stages, so limit yourself to information that really belongs in your paper. If you think a piece of information might be useful but you aren’t sure, ask yourself whether it helps answer one of your research questions.

Writing too much is one pitfall; writing too little is another. Consider this scenario: You’ve been working in the library for a couple of hours, and your hand grows tired from writing. You come to a fairly complicated passage about how to tell if a dog is angry, so you say to yourself, “I don’t have to write all this down. I’ll remember.” But you won’t remember—especially after all the reading and note taking you have been doing. If you find information you know you want to use later on, get it down. If you’re too tired, take a break or take off the rest of the day and return tomorrow when you’re fresh.

To Note or Not to Note: That is the Question

What if you come across an idea or piece of information that you’ve already found in another source? Should you write it down again? You don’t want to end up with a whole stack of cards with the same information on each one. On the other hand, knowing that more than one source agrees on a particular point is helpful. Here’s the solution: Simply add the number of the new source to the note card that already has the same piece of information written on it. Take notes on both sources. In your paper, you may want to come right out and say that sources disagree on this point. You may even want to support one opinion or the other—if you think you have a strong enough argument based on facts from your research.

Paraphrasing—Not Copying

Have you ever heard the word plagiarism? It means copying someone else’s words and claiming them as your own. It’s really a kind of stealing, and there are strict rules against it.

The trouble is many students plagiarize without meaning to do so. The problem starts at the note-taking stage. As a student takes notes, he or she may simply copy the exact words from a source. The student doesn’t put quotation marks around the words to show that they are someone else’s. When it comes time to draft the paper, the student doesn’t even remember that those words were copied from a source, and the words find their way into the draft and then into the final paper. Without intending to do so, that student has plagiarized, or stolen, another person’s words.

The way to avoid plagiarism is to paraphrase, or write down ideas in your own words rather than copy them exactly. Look again at the model note cards in this chapter, and notice that the words in the notes are not the same as the words from the sources. Some of the notes are not even written in complete sentences. Writing in incomplete sentences is one way to make sure you don’t copy—and it saves you time, energy, and space. When you write a draft of your research paper, of course, you will use complete sentences.

How to Organize Your Notes

Once you’ve used all your sources and taken all your notes, what do you have? You have a stack of cards (or if you’ve taken notes on a computer, screen after screen of entries) about a lot of stuff in no particular order. Now you need to organize your notes in order to turn them into the powerful tool that helps you outline and draft your research paper. Following are some ideas on how to do this, so get your thinking skills in gear to start doing the job for your own paper.

Organizing Note Cards

The beauty of using index cards to take notes is that you can move them around until they are in the order you want. You don’t have to go through complicated cutting-and-pasting procedures, as you would on your computer, and you can lay your cards out where you can see them all at once. One word of caution—work on a surface where your cards won’t fall on the floor while you’re organizing them.

Start by sorting all your cards with the same headlines into the same piles, since all of these note cards are about the same basic idea. You don’t have to worry about keeping notes from the same sources together because each card is marked with a number identifying its source.

Next, arrange the piles of cards so that the order the ideas appear in makes sense. Experts have named six basic types of order. One—or a combination of these—may work for you:

  1. Chronological, or Time, Order covers events in the order in which they happened. This kind of order works best for papers that discuss historical events or tell about a person’s life.
  2. Spatial Order organizes your information by its place or position. This kind of order can work for papers about geography or about how to design something—a garden, for example.
  3. Cause and Effect discusses how one event or action leads to another. This kind of organization works well if your paper explains a scientific process or events in history.
  4. Problem/Solution explains a problem and one or more ways in which it can be solved. You might use this type of organization for a paper about an environmental issue, such as global warming.
  5. Compare and Contrast discusses similarities and differences between people, things, events, or ideas.
  6. Order of Importance explains an idea, starting with its most important aspects first and ending with the least important aspects—or the other way around.

After you determine your basic organization, arrange your piles accordingly. You’ll end up with three main piles—one for sounds, one for facial expressions, and one for body language. Go through each pile and put the individual cards in an order that makes sense. Don’t forget that you can move your cards around, trying out different organizations, until you are satisfied that one idea flows logically into another. Use a paper clip or rubber band to hold the piles together, and then stack them in the order you choose. Put a big rubber band around the whole stack so the cards stay in order.

Organizing Notes on Your Computer

If you’ve taken notes on a computer, organize them in much the same way you would organize index cards. The difference is that you use the cut-and-paste functions on your computer rather than moving cards around. The advantage is that you end up with something that’s already typed—something you can eventually turn into an outline without having to copy anything over. The disadvantage is that you may have more trouble moving computer notes around than note cards: You can’t lay your notes out and look at them all at once, and you may get confused when trying to find where information has moved within a long file on your computer screen.

However, be sure to back up your note cards on an external storage system of your choice. In addition, print hard copies as you work. This way, you won’t lose your material if your hard drive crashes or the file develops a glitch.

Developing a Working Bibliography

When you start your research, your instructor may ask you to prepare a working bibliography listing the sources you plan to use. Your working bibliography differs from your Works Cited page in its scope: your working bibliography is much larger. Your Works Cited page will include only those sources you have actually cited in your research paper.

To prepare a working bibliography, arrange your note cards in the order required by your documentation system (such as MLA and APA) and keyboard the entries following the correct form. If you have created your bibliography cards on the computer, you just have to sort them, usually into alphabetical order.

Developing an Annotated Bibliography

Some instructors may ask you to create an annotated bibliography as a middle step between your working bibliography and your Works Cited page. An annotated bibliography is the same as a working bibliography except that it includes comments about the sources. These notes enable your instructor to assess your progress. They also help you evaluate your information more easily. For example, you might note that some sources are difficult to find, hard to read, or especially useful.

Now you can master the art of effective note taking and turn your notes into the powerful tool that helps you outline and draft your research paper.

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