Taking Notes: Knowing Where Each Idea and Word Comes From
Imagine this scenario: You’ve chosen a topic, identified a research question, found sources, and read the sources. Now your mind is swarming with information, ideas, and questions. You still feel excited about your topic, but it seems to involve so many details and so many sub-topics that you’re not sure how to bundle them all into a paper. The task of writing seems more daunting with every new source you read, so you put it off. Finally, it’s the night before the paper is due, and you find yourself staring at a stack of Xeroxed articles and a computer screen, which is ominously blank except for a blinking cursor.
Unfortunately, most of us have found ourselves in this situation. At best, it’s no fun. At worst, it may make writers more likely to plagiarize, either deliberately (by turning in papers that aren’t theirs) or inadvertently (by carelessly "pasting" information from their sources into their papers).
It’s easy to assume that the research process and the writing process are separate—"first I research, then I write." But in fact, researching and writing should be intimately intertwined. As you read and research, new ideas occur to you. Your research question begins to change shape, sometimes to change direction. The development of your own thought in turn leads to a different reading of your sources. Taking notes and writing drafts while you research is crucial. If you wait to begin note-taking and drafting until you’ve "finished" your research, the rich mixture of ideas and thoughts you created while researching will never be captured on paper.
You may be surprised to learn that research involves so much writing before you begin writing your "real" paper. But note-taking is not an optional or extra step. All responsible researchers write notes before (and while) drafting their projects. In fact, you can think of your notes as a first draft, or pre-draft, of your paper. They are crucial building blocks of an effective research write-up. With a detailed note-taking system, writing your final paper will be much easier.
There’s another advantage to taking careful notes while you are researching. It makes it easier to figure out which ideas are your own. Any plagiarism policy that you read will say that plagiarism is the act of representing someone else’s words or ideas as your own. Summarizing or paraphrasing requires that you take another person’s idea and put it into your own words.
Clearly, then, it’s better to write as you go rather than save the writing for the end of a research project. But how do you go about doing it? This next section gives you concrete strategies to put note-taking into practice.
General Strategies for Note-Taking
- Write an instant draft. Before you begin researching, or as early in the research process as possible, write a draft that describes what argument you want to make or what question you want to explore. Professors Charles Moran and Anne Herrington call this an "instant draft." An instant draft will be a tentative, somewhat disorganized piece of writing, since you haven’t yet done your research. Its purpose is to capture what you know about a subject before you begin consulting other people’s ideas. In your instant draft, address the following questions: What do I already know about this topic? Where have I gotten my information so far? Do I have a strong feeling, or stance, on this topic? What questions do I have about the topic? What is (are) the main thing(s) I want to find out through my research? Where will I begin looking for this information? What do I need help with? Who can I ask for that help? An instant draft is a research memo to yourself. It’s enormously helpful in providing a recorded baseline for your knowledge. As you learn more and more through your research, you’ll always know where you started out—and hence, which ideas you’ve acquired through researching.
- Annotate each source. Before you begin taking more detailed notes, annotate each source you’ve just read. That is, write a brief summary of the source’s main point and key ideas. It’s helpful to include annotations in your working bibliography (which turns it into an annotated bibliography). Some instructors will ask you to turn in an annotated bibliography with your final draft.
- Practice taking notes to avoid patchwriting. "Patchwriting" is a term coined by Rebecca Moore Howard. It means taking notes which are not exact quotations, but which are too close to the original source’s wording. Howard suggests the following system for avoiding patchwriting: First, read a source quickly, just enough to get its main point. Then read it through again, more slowly, taking notes in the margin (perhaps quick questions or key terms) as you go. Wait a bit before moving on to the next step; Howard suggests that half an hour is sufficient. Then, without looking at the source again, write a summary of it. Finally, check your summary against the original source. Have you duplicated any of the other author’s phrases? If so, quote the author directly or adjust the phrasing of your summary. The more often you do this exercise, the more adept you will become at summarizing sources.
Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Quoting
There are three major ways to record someone else’s words or ideas in your notes: summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting. Two of these (summarizing and paraphrasing) involve putting a source’s words into your own. One (quoting) involves recording a source’s exact words. After you practice these independently, it’s a good idea to show your notes to your instructor and to ask for his/her comments on the effectiveness of your note-taking. Is it complete? Is it accurate? When summarizing and paraphrasing are involved, does it put other authors’ ideas into your own words effectively?
- Summarizing. To summarize is to rephrase a relatively large amount of information into a short statement in your own words. While some information will inevitably be lost, your job is to record what you see as the main idea of the passage. Summarizing is useful when you want to give a reader the gist of a relatively lengthy passage without going into every detail. Here’s an example of one source and an effective summary of it:
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic degenerative disease of the central nervous system, in which the myelin that sheathes the nerves is somehow eaten away and scar tissue forms in its place, interrupting the nerves’ signals. During its course, which is unpredictable and uncontrollable, one may lose vision, hearing, speech, the ability to walk, control of bladder and/or bowels, strength in any or all extremities, sensitivity to touch, vibration, and/or pain, potency, co-ordination of movements—the list of possibilities is lengthy and, yes, horrifying. One may also lose one’s sense of humor. That’s the easiest to lose and the hardest to survive without (385).
—from Nancy Mairs’s "On Being a Cripple"
Nancy Mairs describes the experience of having multiple sclerosis in her essay "On Being a Cripple." She lists various physical symptoms, including the loss of hearing or sight. Mairs also notes, somewhat dryly, that the loss of one’s sense of humor may be another symptom (385).
- Paraphrasing. To paraphrase is to restate something with your own words and sentence structure. Unlike a summary, a paraphrase is generally about as long as the original passage. Since you are changing the language, you will also inevitably change the meaning of the passage slightly, but your job is to keep the meaning as intact as possible. Paraphrasing is useful when you want to communicate another author’s exact idea to a reader, but not their exact words—perhaps because the language is highly technical, or perhaps because a quote would be distracting. Here’s an example of an effective paraphrase:
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic degenerative disease of the central nervous system, in which the myelin that sheathes the nerves is somehow eaten away and scar tissue forms in its place, interrupting the nerves’ signals (385).
—From Nancy Mairs’s "On Being a Cripple"
According to Nancy Mairs, multiple sclerosis is primarily related to nerves. The protective coating that ordinarily covers the nerves (called "myelin") breaks down, and the scar tissue that develops as a result interferes more and more with the body’s usual nervous-system functioning (385).
Note that this paraphrase is more or less the same length as Mairs’s original passage. Also note that the paraphrase is considerably more detailed than a summary. It communicates the information that appears in Mairs’s sentence, and repeats some words which are not easily replaceable (such as nerves), but does not replicate her wording or sentence structure.
- Quoting. To quote is to state a source’s exact words, signaled by the use of quotation marks. If you change a quotation in any way, you must indicate this by including an ellipsis (when you omit part of a quotation) or square brackets (when you make a slight change or addition for clarification). Here’s an example of what your notes on the Mairs paragraph might look like if they included both summary and quotation:
Nancy Mairs describes the experience of having multiple sclerosis in her essay "On Being a Cripple." She lists various physical symptoms that involve what we often think of as basic life functions, such as seeing, hearing, being able to speak, have sex, and go to the bathroom predictably. Mairs also notes, somewhat dryly, that the loss of one’s sense of humor may be another symptom. Exact quotation: "One may also lose one’s sense of humor. That’s the easiest to lose and the hardest to survive without." Page 385.
In a final draft, quotations are often less useful than summaries or paraphrases because they break up the flow of your writing and often require fairly extensive explanation. However, quotations are useful when you want to capture a source’s exact wording. Here’s an example of how that quotation might appear in the final draft of a research paper, effectively presented:
In her essay "On Being a Cripple," Nancy Mairs details the effects of multiple sclerosis on the human body. She lists various physical symptoms that involve what we often think of as basic life functions, such as seeing, hearing, being able to speak, have sex, and go to the bathroom predictably. However, her focus in this passage seems to be less on the physical than on the psychological effects of the disease. She writes, "One may also lose one’s sense of humor. That’s the easiest to lose and the hardest to survive without" (385). In this wry afterthought, Mairs indicates that having multiple sclerosis is not only a physical but an emotional challenge.
Note that this passage gives careful transitions into and out of the quotation so that it isn’t simply pasted in. These transitions are sometimes called "contextualization." Their job is to provide some context for the quotation, to help guide the reader through not only the meaning of the quotation but also its purpose.
In addition to notes that record information through summaries, paraphrases, and quotations, it’s important to take notes that record your responses to your research sources. These notes, which you might think of as "discussion notes," help you keep track of your own ideas as they develop. Rereading these notes later will help you see the way other people’s ideas have served as the building blocks for your own. In addition, taking discussion notes helps you clarify what you want to say in your paper. To keep discussion notes, write about your responses to the source information, consider its relevance to your own developing project, and note questions that you have. It’s a good idea to keep ongoing discussion notes, which you add to as you continue reading and researching. Discussion notes can begin with prompts such as "This source makes me think . . ., " "I’d like to say to this author . . ., " or "I wonder why . . . "