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Research for General Nonfiction Writers: Organizing Notes

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Once you’ve got a large pile of information together, organizing notes is the next step.  At this point, you’ve done your exploratory research, made lists of keywords and questions to guide your search, collected your sources, and started taking notes.  Organizing notes is the last step before writing the rough draft.


Organizing notes

 Taking care to organize your notes thoughtfully and correctly will save you lots of time when actually start your rough draft. Read on to find out how.

Determine your central question or thesis

You must be clear about your central question or thesis before beginning to organize. In step two, you made lists of possible keywords to use and questions to answer while you searched for information. Go back over those lists now and answer the following questions:

  1. Are there any keywords or questions I can confidently mark off the list? These would include keywords and questions that seemed relevant in the beginning, but the consequent research has proved inapplicable. Go ahead and mark through them.
  2. Are there keywords and questions that have proven prominent? Mark these.
  3. Looking over the keywords and questions, see if you can formulate either a central question or a thesis (a central argument).

Divide notes into categories or keywords

Make a separate sheet of paper for each keyword you used for your notetaking. All notes should have one keyword label. I like to circle the keywords so they stand out. You could also highlight them in specific colors. You will need to devise a similar system for any notetaking app you may be used on a device.

If you are using sheets of paper for your notes, it was recommended that you divide the sheets into horizontal thirds as shown at right. At this point, you should cut the sheets of paper into thirds. Do not cut off the vertical section at the left. That section should contain your keyword, your source-identifying mark, and the page number, if applicable. Now sort your note cards into piles by placing all notes with the same keywords together.



Do the same if you are using index cards. Make a pile for each keyword and sort the cards. When If you’re unsure how to proceed with digital apps, YouTube has plenty of demo videos. Just type in the app you’re using AND “organizing notes. “

Create a rough table of contents

Next, using a combination of the keywords used and the questions you have identified, make a rough table of contents.


Make up possible names for chapter titles and move them around to determine the most logical order. This can be changed later if it makes sense to do so.


How you arrange your information is determined by the kind of information you have and what you hope to do with it. If you’re telling a story, it would make sense to use chronological order. If you’re making an argument, you might want to arrange by causes and effects or problems and solutions. Other options are topical organizations or questions and answers.  Just have some sort of overarching method of getting your ideas across logically.

Identify holes in your logic or information

You may realize as you go through this exercise that you need more information. That’s fine. If you need to go all the way back to step 2, finding keywords, do so. Then follow the steps I’ve outlined in the subsequent posts until you are satisfied you have the information you need.

Decide which keywords need to go in which chapter

Go through the notecards under each keyword. Sort them into piles that go together.  This may require reshuffling. You may decide a particular card needs relabeling. If that’s the case, change it.

You may decide a particular notecard will need to be mentioned in two separate chapters. In that case, create a duplicate card (marked duplicate) and place one card in each pile.

Place the note cards in order

Now that you have your cards sorted by topic, arrange them in the order you will want to write them. If you come up with ideas to link the cards together, make new cards and write those ideas down and place them in the proper spot in your card queue. Be sure you mark the idea as your own idea if appropriate. If it’s not your idea, you will need to track down where it came from and credit the source.

For more information

I have recently discovered  How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking-for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens. I am not affiliated with Amazon and will receive nothing if you decide to purchase this item. I share it because it’s an astounding notetaking method for anyone who plans to write nonfiction for a living. That book will set you on the path of notetaking every day which will make your writing both painless and original. 

My method can get you started, but I highly recommend this book. 

Next time

Once you have your cards in order by chapter and idea, you will begin writing your work. We will get into more information on how to use these notes to write your manuscript in the next post.

Until then, happy sorting!

If you have ideas or thoughts to share, please contact me through the form below.

If you need help with editing your manuscript or your website, contact me. I’ll be happy to help.

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