Doing the PhD

a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

2. note-taking

2.3 How to take notes effectively

A dissertation must be an expression of one's thinking, not a patchwork of borrowed ideas. Therefore, invest your research time in understanding your sources and integrating them into your own thinking. Your note cards or note sheets should record only ideas that are relevant to your topic; and they should mostly summarize rather than quote. Have a look here on some ideas about how to avoid writing too much.

  • Copy out exact words only when the ideas are memorably phrased; surprisingly expressed; when you want to use them as quotations.
  • Otherwise, compress ideas in your own words. Paraphrasing word by word is a waste of time. Chose the most important ideas and write them down as labels or headings. Then fill in with a few sub points that explain; exemplify; support the argument.
  • Do not depend on underlining and highlighting. Find your own words for notes in the margin.
  • Be prepared for the fact that you might take many more notes than you will ever use. This is perfectly normal. At the note-taking stage you might not be entirely sure of what evidence you will need.
  • Select only those few words of the source material, which will be of use. Avoid being descriptive. Think more, and write less. Be rigorously selective. Information retrieval is the general skill you will end up developing or the one you should activate if you already have it in place.
  • Keep the topic clearly in mind. Take notes only on those issues which are directly relevant to the issue in question.
  • Try to put notes on separate cards or sheets. This will let you label the topic of each note. Not
    only will that keep your note taking focused, but it will also
    allow for grouping and synthesizing of ideas at a later stage.
  • Leave some space in your notes for later comments, questions,
    reactions, second thoughts, cross-references during the re-reading
    stage. The conjunction of the first set of notes along with the second
    round comments can become a virtual first draft of your paper/chapter.