Doing the PhD

a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

2. note-taking

2.4 From note-taking to writing

After reviewing your notes you need to take them a step further: you need to see if they are actually fit to be included in your thesis. This involves processes of reflection before you sit down and begin drafting your dissertation. Your written thesis is obviously not meant to be a compilation of rephrased notes taken from other authors' sources. But you will be required to compose a scientific text that is led by your own original argument. It is within the overall textual structure defined by your own investigation that you will embed quotations, ideas, comments and arguments noted down from primary as well as secondary sources. However, as an intermediary step, it can be useful to group your notes together according to specific themes and questions. Note-taking is often an intuitive process and when you review, compile and organize your written comments before the writing-up stage, you might be surprized that the sum of them already has widened your horizon and perhaps even altered the ideas with which you set out.

Here are three ways that can help you to take your notes to the crucial next stage:

  • Consolidating the material
    Compiling your notes is essentially geared towards enabling you to summarize, understand, and recall your notes better than before. When the distinct aspects of your research topic cease to be separate items of information and begin to coalesce into a unified whole, where there are themes that are supported by main ideas, main ideas supported by evidence, and connections between the information forming a larger argument, then you can be sure that you are consolidating the information.
  • Writing a summary paragraph 
    Another very helpful consolidating strategy that you can engage in is to write a summary paragraph based on your notes. Ideally, you would write a summary paragraph from memory using the key words and phrases you chose from your notes. You should do this in a way that brings the ideas together and links them to the rest of your research questions.
  • Editing notes into a draft
    Once you are clear on your thesis outline and have consolidated your notes (by maybe writing some summary paragraphs) you are ready to embark on the writing up. Of course you need to have defined your topic carefully. Provided that you have employed some of the aforementioned strategies, linking related ideas together will not be difficult since thinking of one idea will make the others come logically to mind. However whilst drawing from different thematic pools of notes, remain alert to what your own stance towards a particular question is. It is your line of thought expressed in an argument that ought to necessitate the deployment of noted down materials and not the other way round: a jigsaw of compiled notes conveniently rephrased into prose.