/* ]]> */

Research for General Nonfiction Writers: Organizing Notes

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest

This post will help you with organizing notes you’ve taken. If you’ve been following this series of posts, you are already well on your way to writing your manuscript’s rough draft. 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

Once you have completed taking your notes, it’s time to organize them. Taking care to do this step correctly will save lots of time when actually start your rough draft. Read on to find out how.

Determine your central question or thesis

In step two, you made lists of possible keywords to use and questions to answer in the course of your search for information. Go back over those lists now and answer the following questions:

  • 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.
  • Are there keywords and questions that have proven prominent? Mark these.
  • Looking over the keywords and questions, see if you can formulate either a central question for your manuscript to answer or if you can form a thesis or central argument that you hope to make with your manuscript.

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 I start experimenting with using digital apps for this process, I will create a blog post to describe possible methods.


Create a rough table of contents

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


Make up possible names for chapter titles and rearrange them to determine a logical order for the information. This can be changed later, but it’s a good idea at this point to try to impose some sort of order.


Possible arrangements include chronological order for a narrative work, causes and effects, problems and solutions, topical organizations, questions and answers and others. 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 previous 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. Decide which chapter each keyworded pile of notes would belong in. This may require some reshuffling. You may decide a particular card needs a different keyword heading. If so, change it.

You may decide a particular note card 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

With the note cards you have, place them in the order you will write about 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

öFor a completely different method that I am just discovering, you could read 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 I own it and am finding it a fascinating read. 

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.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
send message

Contact Library Lin

Have a comment or question about my services?