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Research for General Nonfiction Writers: Taking Notes

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If you’ve been following my research method for general nonfiction writers, you have already completed the exploratory phase, found your keywords and formulated some questions, and collected your sources.

Now it’s time to get to the heart of the research effort: taking notes from the sources you’ve found.

Methods

Many methods of note-taking exist. One of the most effective for professional writers is the Zettlekasten method. I have a link to a book on that topic below. 

The methods I present here are simpler and will serve you well for one book-length work. 

The first thing you need to decide is which of the following methods you are going to use to take your notes. They each have advantages and disadvantages. The important thing is to pick the one you feel comfortable with and stick to it!

My three methods are:

  • Paper
  • Index Cards
  • Digital apps

All three follow the same set of steps, the only difference is the physical format used to organize the notes.

Sheets of paper

You can either use 8.5″ X 11” notebook paper or you can use a 9″ X 12″ legal pad. Either is fine. I recommend you take the time to divide whatever sheets you use into 3 sections and rule them off with two horizontal marks on each page as shown at right. You will only use the front of each page. It is extremely important not to write on the back. It’s too easy to overlook information this way.

sheet-of-paper

For this method, you will need:

  • Paper (notebook paper or legal pads)
  • Pens or pencils
  • Ruler for marking off the sections
  • Scissors to cut them apart when you’re done.

Index cards

Index cards are my favorite method. I find it’s both neater and easier to keep things organized. The disadvantage is that you will need to have LOTS of index cards and you will need to have them handy whenever you are taking notes. You will also need to have a way to store them so they do not get misplaced. A shoebox works fine.

For this method, you will need:

  • 4″ X 6” index cards ( one pack of 100)
  • 3″ X 5” index cars (several packs, I’d get at least 500)
  • Pens or pencils
  • Rubber bands
  • Storage box

Digitial note-taking app

Several of these are available for free. Some reference citation management apps are Zotero, Endnote, and Mendeley.  Note-taking apps include Roam, Evernote, and Obsidian. I confess I have never used these, but people who do use them swear by them. I plan to try Mendeley soon and will write a post about my experiences. Youtube has videos that explain how to use all of them. 

Apps work extremely well for people who will be getting a lot of their information from databases or open-source journals. They will help you keep all your sources handy (except for print book sources, of course). 

Since most are cloud-based, you can use them across devices making it easy to work on the go. There is no need to have paper and pens handy when you find time to take notes.

To work with these, you will need:

  • Time to research which app to use and how to use it, if you don’t already have one.
  • Devices to use them on.

Five steps for note-taking

Once you have your note-taking method picked out, you will need to go through the following steps in order:

Step One: Make a rough outline or list of categories

Either write a very rough outline of the topics you want to cover (this can be changed later) or simply write down categories of information that you think you will need. The questions and keywords you collected earlier can help with this task. 

For method one, place each keyword or category on a separate section of the paper. For method 2, place each on a separate index card, and for method 3, list them all on a digital document using the word processing software of your choice. Although I recommend Word. It’s standard to use Word for most publishers.

Step Two: Record Sources

For method 1, list your collected sources either on a sheet of paper or on index cards. One source for each card. For collecting your source citations, index cards are easier to work with. There is no need to be particular about the order at this point. With method two, place each source citation on a separate index card. With method 3, you need to be sure you are saving citations and not just articles.

No matter which method you choose, be sure to save the citation and not just the article. Make sure you record every piece of citation information your style manual requires. 

Step Three: Identifying mark for sources

For methods 1 and 2, give each source you have an identifying mark. You can number them if you like. I like to use letters so I don’t confuse them with page numbers when I’m tired. If I have more than 26 sources, I can start over with “AA, AB, AC” and so on. Once again, you can skip this step with online note-taking apps.

identifying-mark

Step Four: Prepping the note itself

organizing-notes

If you are using method one (paper), you need to mark your papers into thirds with a pen.  Also, draw a vertical line to the left of center down the entire length of the paper. This will be where you place your source-identifying marks and the page number from which it came.

If you are using method 2, index cards, you don’t need to do anything at this point except make sure you have plenty of 3X5” note cards handy. 

You will need to devise a system for tagging or keywording your notes with method 3. This shouldn’t be too difficult. Most of these apps have ways to identify the notes. But if you are creating your own digital notecards, be sure you have a way of tracking which source your information comes from, the page numbers, and the category or keyword the note belongs to.

citation-app

Step Five: Taking the notes

When taking notes, you must be meticulous.

Plagiarism is a serious issue. Slipups can ruin your reputation.

It’s possible to honestly forget to put quotation marks around anything copied from a source. Don’t do that. Be scrupulous. Paraphrase information when you can. But if you copy any material (more than 3 words together) put quotation marks around them in your notes. This way, you won’t inadvertently copy someone’s words. 

But copying words is not the only plagiarism concern. Not only are you liable for using someone else’s words without giving them credit,  you are also liable for using their ideas without giving them credit. If an idea or fact you are using is common knowledge, there’s no need to credit anyone. But if an idea comes from someone else’s original research, you must give them credit. For more information check out Perdue OWL: Avoiding Plagiarism.

Time-saving tip

For long sources like books, you may not need to read the whole thing. You may only need to read a chapter or two. Before taking time to read an entire book, skim the table of contents to see which chapters will be most helpful and read those first. Also check the indexes for your keywords or categories and read whatever you find there.

Finishing the notes

How will you know when you have enough notes? According to Robert I. Berkman in Find It Fast, when you keep running into the same information over and over, it’s a pretty good indicator you have done all the research you need to do.

If it seems that you will never get to the end of gathering new information, you may want to take a hard look at your topic. Perhaps you’re trying to cover too much. In that case, you may want to narrow your focus.

To narrow a topic, revisit your questions. At this point, you should have a pretty good idea of what the central question is for your work. You may need to tweak it a bit. If you were trying to find out about every edible mushroom in the northeastern United States, it may be time to focus on one or two. Or maybe you should narrow the focus to the medicinal uses of these fungi and forget about cooking with them.

When you’ve taken a fair number of notes, your questions will develop a sharper focus. Try to stay flexible and add or subtract information as needed.

Enjoy taking notes

Take your time and enjoy compiling your notes. In the next post, we’ll discuss how to organize your notes so that you can begin writing a logical and coherent manuscript.

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to contact me through the form below.

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