After you have done some prewriting to generate ideas, the next step in the process is gathering information on the topic you’ve chosen to write about. Every argument you make in support of your thesis in your research papers needs to have a substantial fact or lump of outside evidence to help prove your point. This step in the prewriting process is the point when you gather those bits of information. Think of the notes you take at this stage as little time capsules for your future self. Always have your thesis in mind while taking notes. When you sit down to write your paper, it will be lighter if most of your notes relate directly to your thesis.

The process of research, if done decently, typically takes more time than it will take to write the actual paper. You may find yourself spending an entire weekend at the library to generate research for a paper that you can draft in one evening. Researching is a painstaking process, and many writers make mistakes early on that hinder their progress. Some of these errors include the following:

1) You lose information. While researching, you may find a flawless passage to quote in a book, but a week later when you embark writing your paper, this passage is unlikely to find. Similarly, you may find a superb source on a database, but when it’s time to collect that source in the library, your limited notes prevent your getting your forearms on the actual book or journal. Even the most plain fact, quotation, or bit of information is effortless to leave behind when you’re under a deadline and attempting to write a good paper quickly. Trust us on that.

Two) You lose citation information. Often, in a rush to get out of the library or speed up the research process, students cut corners when taking notes on the bibliographic and citation information for sources. This loss is often disastrous. You may find yourself using materials from a book to prove some major arguments in your paper, only to realize at the end that you have to take ideas out of the paper since you can’t decently attribute their sources on your works cited page.

Trio) You don’t have regular access to a source. Some of the best sources in a library are found in the reference section (they typically have the code “REF” before the call numbers). These sources cannot be checked out of the library; they are meant to be accessible to any student at any time. Since you can’t take these books home with you, good note taking is essential. Also, the typical academic library only lets you borrow a source for a very limited number of days. You’ll need the information longer than that, so you need to master the abilities of taking notes thorough enough for you to accomplish your paper without having the actual book in arm.

These research perils, however, are very effortless to overcome if you develop a good system of note taking. The system detailed below is just one way to organize your notes. Attempt it out, and then experiment with variations and differences as your college career resumes. Modify your note taking system to suit your needs and your own learning style. The key to any note taking system you develop, however, is consistency. Don’t use one system for taking notes and saving bibliographic information for one source and another system for another source. That type of variation will cause you to miss key information and lead to more work (and headaches) for you later.

In research writing, the most common and convenient way to take notes on your sources is to use note cards. In fact, many professors require you to use note cards and submit them with your final paper to see how you gathered your data; others may have you submit them via the term to make sure that you are making progress in your research. Note cards are very handy because you can lightly store them for use later in the class, they’re puny and effortless to transport, and they’re more durable than paper, so they don’t get puckered and ripped while you’re transporting them from library to home and back again.

A typical set of cards contains two different types: bibliography cards and note cards.

The bibliography (work cited) card should be the very first card you pack out whenever you find a source you plan to use. It needs to be thorough and accurate—don’t cut corners to save a few minutes. The bibliography card below is an example.

Note the following key elements to this card.

A is the utter bibliographic entry for the source in either decent MLA or APA format (See Section Trio of this book for details). This entry is EXACTLY how it will be reprinted in the works cited page of your paper. It is a bit time consuming to do it this way, but it will save you a lot of time during your paper draft, and it will virtually eliminate any mistakes you’d make while compiling the works cited list at a later date.

B is a summary of the source. On larger papers, you’ll read so many sources (even however you won’t use all of them…), that it will be hard to tell the difference inbetween them later on. This summary should help you recall later on which source you’re dealing with. It could include a brief description of the major arguments you’re drawing on and what made the source good enough for you to use, or even just a physical description like “the blue book with all the good graphs in the back!”

C is a source number. Every source you pick up should have its own number assigned to it. The very first book you pick up is number 1. Finish the bibliography card and commence taking notes from this source. The next source is number Two. Finish that bibliography card and take all the notes out of that source next. This seems very plain at this stage, but the source numbers become a life saver when we get to the note cards below.

Note cards are the actual notes themselves. Every bit of information and individual reflection you have from a source needs to be documented in a note card. As a general rule, you should only make one note per card, and you should attempt whenever possible to keep the entire note on the front side of the card. There are several sizes of note cards to choose from. The Three x 5-inch note cards are small—it can be hard to squeeze a lot of information on one card, so you may choose to use a larger card for your notes. The 4×6-inch note cards are fairly standard. If you’re a visual learner, you may even want different colored note cards to help you make an association inbetween colors and content. Take a look at the following sample note card:

Note the following elements on this note card.

A is the topic heading for the note card. The topic heading lets know at a glance exactly what type of information is on this card. Here, it says “Television Advertising/Direct Quote” to let you know the type of information on the card and whether the card contains a quotation, paraphrase, or summary. The topic heading should ultimately correspond to specific points on your outline. Your card could even have a topic heading such as “II.B.Two Television History/Direct Quote.” The “II.B.2” tells you that this will ultimately be used in that specific point of the outline (see the outlining section of this chapter for more details).

B is the source number. This number corresponds to the source number of the bib card for the source the note comes from. By using this ordinary system of source numbers, you’ll never have to write any bibliographic information on your note cards. If you see the number 7 in that corner, just spin to the bib card with a number 7 on it for the corresponding bibliographic information. This system will save you hours of copying the same bib notes repeatedly.

C is the note itself. This is the most significant part of the note taking process, obviously. You will need to take different types of notes: direct quotes, paraphrases, statistics, dates/historical facts, and individual thoughts. (For more on types of notes, see page 000.)

D is the citation information, in decent MLA or APA format. Note that you’ve included the author’s last name (or an abbreviation of the title if no name is give), just as you would in the bod of your paper. Following decent documentation format at this stage will make citing sources lighter when you write your paper. The most significant detail on this part of the note card is the page number. Get in the habit of always including page numbers in your note cards. Note cards will most likely become your primary method of taking notes while researching, so if the page number isn’t part of your note, you will not be able to provide an accurate in-text citation.

Electronic Note Taking:

Many students have access to computers or even laptops they can take right into the library while researching, and this makes word processor software another avenue of note taking. E-notes can be very handy because you can simply cut and paste the information directly into your paper, saving a lot of time fishing through your sources while you write your draft. The key to electronic note taking, as with note cards, is to remain as organized as possible. If you have dozens of saved word files sprawled around your desktop or on several different thumb drives, these notes will be of no real value to you when it comes time to draft your paper.

Consider the following tips while taking notes on a computer:

1) Organize. You must determine how you want to organize your e-notes before you begin taking them. Here are two options: A) You can have one large file that contains all of your notes, so you always know where they are. If you chose to do this, you must have a way to separate your ideas visually on your screen; this can be done through using outline features, using bold or underlined headings and subheadings, or simply inserting page violates inbetween each note. B) You can save separate files for each note you take. This will lead to dozens of individual saved files, but if they are clearly named, it can be an effortless way to find the exact quote you’re looking for later on in the writing process. C) You can save separate files for each source you’re taking notes out of. If you take ten notes out of one book you’re using, save all of that as one file. Later on, you simply open that book’s note file, and you’ll find all the information you thought to copy down.

Two) Track the Original Location. The author and page number of every note you take must be tracked during your note taking. You could simply use MLA or APA style parenthetical citations to track the author and page number, or you could use a system more akin to the note cards mentioned above.

Trio) Bibliographic Information. Just as note cards embark with detailed bib cards, your electronic notes must begin with electronic bibliographic information. Every bit of information you may need for a works cited page should be copied down during note taking. The way you take down this information depends on how you took your e-notes: A) If you determined to take all your notes on one large file, you could use the bibliographic information as a way to organize your notes visually. Each time you embark a fresh source in this large file, you being that section with a total works cited-type entry for that source. B) If every note is its own save file, you could organize them all in one “folder” along with a separate save file which contains nothing but the bibliographic information. This way, each folder contains all the notes and works cited information you’ll need. C) If you opt to make each source its own file, the top of that document should contain the bibliographic information.

Four) Back ups! Make sure that you make back up copies of all of your notes. Data loss and computer crashes are very commonplace events, and one could be catastrophic if it lost all of your notes. Email the notes to yourself, so they’re sitting on a server somewhere, put them on separate thumb drives, even store them on a friend’s computer until the paper is finished.

Copies and Print Outs:

Another way to keep track of your sources is to simply have total copies of the sources with you at all times. Virtually every library will give you access to a photocopier, so you can make copies of the sources you’re using. This is especially significant for print versions of journal articles and reference books which can’t be checked out. You’ll still want to keep good notes using one of the methods above, but having the source on palm can be very significant during the writing process. Many databases now permit you email yourself entire articles and files, so you can save on print costs (and trees) by keeping electronic version of the sources you’re using.

Direct Quotations. When you find a quotation that you think you may use in your paper, it should do two things for you. Very first, it should contain information that is critical to the argument you are making. If the content of the quotation does not help you support your own thesis in some way, you shouldn’t use it. 2nd, a direct quotation should express an idea in an especially upbeat, arresting, or otherwise provocative way. The content is significant, of course, but you could always paraphrase the information, so the quality of the prose is a key to determining whether to use a direct quotation. Look for passages that are similar in tone to your own paper, and attempt to quote passages that sound better than anything you could have phrased yourself.

When you copy a quotation on to a note card, you’ll need to be careful to copy it verbatim, word for word. Students often copy passages too quickly or sloppily and later inadvertently misquote their sources without even realizing it. It’s possible to use too many quotations in your paper. In fact, as a general rule of thumb, direct quotations should make up ten percent or less of your final draft. However, it is not possible to have too many quotations in your note cards when you commence your paper. You will be better off determining which quotes to cut out while you’re drafting than attempting to find more quotes at the last minute. Make your notes accurate, and you’ll be saving yourself time when it comes time to write your very first draft.

Summary and Paraphrases

Most often, when you find good information that you want to use in your paper, it’s better just to say it in your own words instead of using a direct quotation. When you do this, you are either summarizing or paraphrasing. Summary is when you put a longer passage into your own words but cut down on the original length. Paraphrasing is when you restate the original in your own words, but you keep it harshly the same length. (For a more accomplish discussion of summarizing and paraphrasing, see Chapter 9) Why not just use direct quotes instead? Perhaps the original source material is very formal and wordy, total of vocabulary that is more formal—or informal—than the language you’re using in your paper. In the sciences or law classes, for example, your source could be very technical and total of jargon. You may want to keep the content but make it more “reader friendly.”

Reminisce, these notes are for your own use as your write the paper. If you have a hard time understanding something, take the notes in a way that will be lighter for you to digest later on as you write. When you put a summary or paraphrase on a note card, keep in mind that you’ll still need to include a page number for the source material. You should be just as careful with these types of notes as with direct quotation notes.

Statistic/Date/Historical Fact. Many times you will find a elementary fact, date, or statistic in a source that you will want to use. The language is not beautiful or provocative enough for a direct quotation, and the information is too brief to bother attempting to paraphrase. Nevertheless, such facts and details will help bolster your arguments (and prove to your professor that you did your research). If you were writing a paper on the singer Kurt Cobain for a history of rock and roll course, for example, you may need to cite a statistic (one album sold three million copies in less than three months), a specific date (he committed suicide on April 8, 1994), or a historical fact about him (he was born in Hoquiam, Washington).

For note taking purposes, quickly summarizing these types of facts is just fine for your note card. It might be wise to use the actual quotation on your note card, just in case you should determine to use it. As always, include the page number(s) where you originally found any of these facts.

Private Thoughts. Ultimately, some of the sources you’re reading may jar certain memories from past classes or give you a fresh insight. Always make time to take these notes as well. If a source led you to some conclusion, be sure that you write it down right away. It’s a good idea to jot down your idea in note card format because consistency is significant. You’ll get so acquainted to looking for information on note cards that you might misplace this insight you wrote down unless you preserve it on a note card. Also, you may wish to mention the original source material that led you to this conclusion, so citing that source along side your own thoughts might not be a bad idea.

Once your note cards are all taken and all information is gathered, you’ll need to organize them in some style. The most logical way to do this is to create an outline (see below). Once your outline is finish, go through your cards. Set aside cards that you don’t think you’ll need and put all the rest in the order you’ll very likely end up using them in the paper. Recall, this type of logical organization is a left-brain activity, while writing the draft of your paper is a right-brain activity. If all the organizing is done in advance, you’ll be free to write without distraction, pulling information from cards in the exact order you need them.

NOTE: This material is copyrighted by David Moton, Gloria Dumler, and McGraw Hill Publishers. It is from their textbook upcoming Navigating America: Information Competency for the 21st Century .

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