Taking Notes: Knowing Where Each Idea and Word Comes From

Imagine this scenario: Youíve 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 youíre 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, itís 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, itís no fun. At worst, it may make writers more likely to plagiarize, either deliberately (by turning in papers that arenít theirs) or inadvertently (by carelessly "pasting" information from their sources into their papers).

Itís 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 youíve "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.

Thereís 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 elseís words or ideas as your own. Summarizing or paraphrasing requires that you take another personís idea and put it into your own words.

Clearly, then, itís 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

Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Quoting

There are three major ways to record someone elseís words or ideas in your notes: summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting. Two of these (summarizing and paraphrasing) involve putting a sourceís words into your own. One (quoting) involves recording a sourceís exact words. After you practice these independently, itís 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 authorsí ideas into your own words effectively?

Original Passage:

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 nervesí 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 oneís sense of humor. Thatís the easiest to lose and the hardest to survive without (385).

—from Nancy Mairsís "On Being a Cripple"

Summary:

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 oneís sense of humor may be another symptom (385).

Original Passage:

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 nervesí signals (385).

—From Nancy Mairsís "On Being a Cripple"

Paraphrase:

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 bodyís usual nervous-system functioning (385).

Note that this paraphrase is more or less the same length as Mairsís original passage. Also note that the paraphrase is considerably more detailed than a summary. It communicates the information that appears in Mairsís sentence, and repeats some words which are not easily replaceable (such as nerves), but does not replicate her wording or sentence structure.

Summary:

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 oneís sense of humor may be another symptom. Exact quotation: "One may also lose oneís sense of humor. Thatís 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 sourceís exact wording. Hereís 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 oneís sense of humor. Thatís 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 isnít 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.

Discussion Notes

In addition to notes that record information through summaries, paraphrases, and quotations, itís 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 peopleís 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. Itís 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 . . ., " "Iíd like to say to this author . . ., " or "I wonder why . . . "

Download exercises on note-taking.