Sunday, June 6, 2010

Research, the Fourth of Many Parts, Note-Taking

In previous weeks, I have written that writing helps us discover what we know. When I begin to write, my point may be unclear to me, but as I add details and incidents, the shape of my journal, essay, or story begins to show itself to me. I become clear about what to include and what to exclude. Note-taking has the same power. By taking notes, you will uncover a thesis and realize what you need and do not need. (The blog for May 16, 2010 introduced the same idea; you may want to review it before continuing.)

Writing also helps us remember. If I underline portions of a text, highlight passages, and place sticky notes on the edges of pages, I am using some of the best reading strategies because they insure that readers think about what is important in the text and note what strikes them as well-said or significant. Still, these strategies are insufficient if the end-product is an essay.

Unless you happen to be like one of my former colleagues, underlining, highlighting, or posting on the page will not help you catalog and recall information. But let me detour a bit to tell you about my colleague.

Once at the Thanksgiving table, when his children were old enough to enjoy challenging their parents, my colleague had to defend his honor. He had asserted that a particular author, in a particular work, wrote certain words that sounded out of character to the children. They said so. My colleague claimed to be able to go to the book and find the passage in less than five minutes even though he had not read the book or looked up the citation in years. The children smugly invited him to do so, and he did.

You’re wondering—if your critical thinking has been turned on—if this Thanksgiving tale is true. You’re wondering if my colleague set up his children by researching the passage just before they came home for the holiday. Perhaps he did, but I don’t think so because this same colleague can recall the places and dates and foods he enjoyed for most days of his life. He has remarkable command of plots, settings, characters, and language in an endless array of books, non-fiction and fiction. He has a commanding memory.

My own memory is much less impressive. I often struggle to recall what I ate for breakfast. Sometimes I remember foods and places and perhaps the decade in which I enjoyed those foods and that place, but only if the memory links to some rite of passage or special occasion such as my thirtieth birthday, an anniversary celebration, or a vacation.

I think my memory is more typical than my colleague’s. I need to write in order to remember well. So take my advice; avoid shortcuts. Write what you learn as you conduct research. You will save yourself hours of heartache and effort.

Using a 3 x 5 lined or unlined note card, a 4 x 6 card, a spiral notebook, paper and a three-ring binder with index pages, or virtual paper in a word-processing program, begin to create a file by organizing what you read and learn. Invent topics or category headings as you go. For example, if your task is to research the United States deficit, you can count on The History of the Deficit as a category. You may not realize, however, until you have read extensively, that the deficit links to wars waged. Thus, better category headings would be: debt as a result of the Revolutionary War, methods used to retire the Revolutionary War debt, timeline for retiring the Revolutionary War debt, debt as a result of the Civil War, methods used to retire the Civil War debt, timeline for retiring the Civil War debt.

Having discovered this pattern and organized the information accordingly, when you are ready to write the essay, you simply pull all “debt” cards together, all “methods” cards together, and all “timeline” cards together. You refer to them as you write so that your facts are absolutely accurate and the citations complete. Your paper has actually organized itself because you imposed an order upon pieces of information as you found them. Thus, later, you were able to synthesize that information into a new essay that clarifies and provides insight into a complex subject, the deficit.

Underlining, highlighting and marking pages will not provide the same ease at the writing stage. What often happens mirrors Reese’s study habits in an episode of Malcolm in the Middle. Inspired to pass a class and aware that highlighting is an effective study technique, Reese remarks that he cannot see the value in highlighting. The camera focuses upon what Reese is actually doing, and the viewer sees that he has left no word untouched. Every word, every line, on every page is now bright, fluorescent yellow.

Many researchers fall victim to the Reese-syndrome if they fail to discriminate between pieces of information by imposing order upon what they read. Unless you label and categorize what you learn, you simply prolong your confusion. You must sort, in other words,analyze in order to synthesize.

At this point in the note-taking lesson, I must remind you of a lesson from the first blog about Research: when you experience frustration, persevere (May 16, 2010. Research, the First of Many Parts). Do not imagine that you alone lack a crystal ball, that you alone cannot create functional categories. You are not alone.

I cannot recall a serious research project for which I did not have a few files with little in them. At the beginning, I thought something would be important, but it proved to be unimportant. Often, I used a category heading that turned out to be inaccurate and was replaced by something better as I continued to learn. This will happen. Expect it, adjust, and continue. Push past frustration.

Finally, be sure that each note is complete. First, if you copy the words from the original exactly as they appear in the original, wrap them in quotation marks, insert the ellipsis if you leave something out, and pay attention to the punctuation in the original. Second, be sure to link your note to the source.

Some people start a list of sources, numbering each one and attaching the number to every note card or page of notes. Others begin their Works Cited page immediately, adding to it as they progress. These writers simply use the first word that appears in an accurate, complete citation, usually the author’s last name, to link their notes to the source. Of course, if you encounter two sources written by people with the same last name, you must add a first name to distinguish between them throughout your notes. If you do not know the author, then the first words of the title will suffice. Most important, however, is the page number of the original document on which the facts, ideas, or words appear. Without that page number, you cannot produce an accurate in-text citation.

Next week’s blog will explain in-text citations and Works Cited entries. I will also review plagiarism.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

The Modern Language Association (MLA) provides a lesson for the ellipsis which is three periods, separated by a space (ideally, not a full space).

First, to type the ellipsis with the proper spacing, use the shortcut for your word processing program. Select the option key plus a semi-colon (;) for a Mac or alt plus 0133 in Microsoft. The ellipsis will appear in a line of text as … , and it signifies that something from the original phrasing has been omitted.

Second, if a portion of the original contains an ellipsis (…) of its own, you must distinguish between your ellipsis and the original author’s ellipsis. You do this simply by wrapping the original author’s ellipsis in brackets as shown next: […]. Any ellipsis that you introduce remains unwrapped by brackets.

Reading Challenge:

Explore the online formatting and citation resources available to you.

1. By selecting an online citation generator such as, you can fill in the boxes with information required and receive mini-lessons as well. When I used this online resource to create a citation for this blog entry, I learned that the most recent edition of the MLA Handbook, the 7th edition, no longer requires a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) unless the reader cannot locate the resource without it. Since this blog is online, the URL is essential in locating this particular resource so the URL has been included; the mini-lesson helped me make the correct choice in preparing the citation.

2. MLA is not the only formatting and citing style in use. The American Psychological Association (APA) has its own style and its own style web site at http://www.apa From the Home page, you can select links to learn more, but like MLA, the online help depends upon the printed manuals that each organization creates.

However, can also assist you with APA style, but only after you register and pay a low-cost subscription. Fortunately, a university resource that librarians everywhere recommend is This site provides explanations and illustrations for both MLA and APA, and it is free.

Writing Challenge:

Read and take notes. Be sure to use the online citation resources to create an accurate and complete citation for each resource from which you take notes.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.