Note-taking

Your goal here is to match up the information you’ve found in your sources to your research questions. What I’d like you to avoid is this situation: as you sit down at your computer ready to type, you’re looking for that one bit of information you think you read by either 1. flipping frantically between screens from one website to another or 2. flipping frantically between pages of printed-out articles. This is a very stressful way to work, and it results in poorly written, badly organized, incorrectly cited (I could keep going!) research papers.

There are many ways to collect up and organize info from your sources, using a combination of “old-fashioned” paper and “new-fangled” screen strategies. To a large degree this balance between paper and screen involves your comfort level with each, but there are trade-offs and issues to consider. While copying-and-pasting is convenient, it may lead to inadvertent plagiarism. Though taking notes by hand requires more time, it may also lead to greater understanding and engagement with the material. I myself am somewhere in the middle, and the exact strategy I use depends on the complexity of the material, my time constraints, the length of the piece I am working on, the availability of laptop and Internet connection, and probably other facts as well.

Here are some of the options:

First, as you’re reading your sources, mark the info that relates to your research question(s). You can develop your own system for doing this, but it’s a good idea to indicate somehow to which question that info connects: number the questions; label them with a letter; if you’re a highlighter fan, you can pick a color for each question and highlight info that relates to that question in that color (for example, I might use green to highlight info that relates to my question about Kindle and the environment).

Notecards are the traditional option here to extract the info. You could use cards for summaries and paraphrases. As you do this, be careful to use your own words. (You don’t need to copy quotations, but you could jot a note “quote about xyz from p. 5). You will want to keep info separated by question (don’t put info from several questions on one card), and make sure to label the cards with the source (you can just use author’s last name). If you have different colored index cards, you can again assign a color to each question, which will help when you’re organizing info. Once you’ve finished with note-taking, you can separate cards by question, so that you have in a small space all the source info for a given paragraph, which will make organizing and writing your paragraph much easier. (The pay-version of NoodleTools has a neat way to do this note-taking electronically–maybe not worth it for this little English 101 paper, but something to check out for longer papers you may be writing in the future.)

A more stream-lined version of this, still on paper, would be to take a sheet of paper for each question or subtopic and to jot down on each sheet the related research info, making sure to label the source where each bit of info is found. You wouldn’t have to write down all the info, maybe just a phrase or two to remind you what info could be found where (though I do think it’s easier if you have everything you need on that sheet, so you don’t have to go flipping back and forth between sources).

You could also do the equivalent procedure electronically, opening up a file for each question or subtopic into which you deposit relevant research info (again, labeling the source, by author’s last name or by letter or by color or by zodiac symbol). If you’re using electronic sources here, you do have the option to copy-and-paste. If you choose to do that, though, be absolutely clear on what’s “your words” vs. what you’ve copied. Use two distinct fonts or font sizes, or use a separate color to distinguish the copied material. This may shorten the note-taking phase, but you will need to spend more time further on in the process first, as you decide what to quote and what to summarize or paraphrase and second, as you reword the material you choose not to quote.

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