Taking Useful Notes on Your Sources
Taking organized notes on your sources as you do research will be helpful when you begin writing.
Describe useful note-taking strategies
- Notes should not only include bibliographic information, but also relevant arguments, quotes, and page numbers.
- Systematizing your note-taking while doing research will reduce the need to aimlessly search through all your sources when you transition into writing. Taking notes now, even though it may feel frustrating, is in your best interest in the long run.
- Use the full citation as your heading for each segment of notes you take. That way, you can be sure to have the citation ready when you start writing your paper.
- citation: A paraphrase of a passage from a book, or from another person, for the purposes of a scholarly paper.
Why Take Notes While Researching?
While most of your research will take place before you begin writing, you will still refer to your resources throughout the writing process. This will be much easier if you take thorough notes while reading through your sources during the initial research phase.
The goal of note-taking is to keep a record of whatever information you might want to use later. Your notes should be as thorough as they need to be, but not too long that they are no longer useful to you. If you summarize information, make sure you include whatever you might want to incorporate in your paper. If you think a quote will be useful, write it down in full. Avoid copying whole paragraphs or pages, though; instead, decide exactly what is useful to you on that page and write only that down. You want to be able to look through your notes later on and easily see what information you found useful.
Organizing Your Notes
Organizing your notes is just as important as taking quality notes. You will need to track exactly which source each note came from so that you can properly cite your sources throughout your writing. Thus, the first thing you should do when taking notes is to write down the full citation for the source on which you are taking notes. This will help you find the source later on if you need to, and will ensure that you still have the complete citation even if you lose the source or have to return it to the library. Organizing notes by source also ensures that you will never lose track of how you need to cite them in your paper, so beginning with citation information provides a useful heading.
In addition to labeling each source, always be sure to write down the page numbers where you found whatever information you’ve written down. You will need to know the page number when you cite that information in your paper.
There are several methods for organizing your notes while researching, such as the following:
- Index cards: You may want to create an index card or set of cards for each source you use. You can then store the cards in order and can easily sort through them to find the notes you need.
- Online sources such as Microsoft OneNote: OneNote is a digital notebook that allows you to create new pages, tabs, and notebooks for your notes. You can quickly navigate between pages, and you will have the advantage of already having important quotations and citation information in typed form. This makes it easy to incorporate notes into your paper during the writing process.
- Organize by subtopic: Some sources may provide information on several subtopics that relate to your argument. You can choose to organize your notes for each source by subtopic so that when you get to that topic in your essay, you can easily find the notes on it. You can do this by creating headings or subheadings within your notes.
Maintaining an Annotated Bibliography
An annotated bibliography is a list of all your sources, including full citation information and notes on how you will use the sources.
List the elements of an annotated bibliography
- If you keep an annotated bibliography while you research, it will function as a useful guide. It will be easier for you to revisit sources later because you will already have notes explaining how you want to use them.
- If you find an annotated bibliography attached to one of the sources you are using, you can look at it to find other possible resources.
- It is important that you use the proper format when citing sources. Consult the style manual for whichever format your professor asks that you use.
- When you make notes on your sources, include a summary of the source, an evaluation of its reliability and potential bias, and a reflection on how the source could be used in the essay.
- annotation: A note that is made while reading any form of text that may be as simple as underlining or highlighting passages.
- bibliography: A list of books or documents relevant to a particular subject or author.
- citation: A paraphrase of a passage from a book, or from another person, for the purposes of a scholarly paper.
The Purpose of the Annotated Bibliography
An annotated bibliography is a list of all the sources you have researched, including both their full bibliographic citations and some notes on how you might want to use each resource in your work.
Annotated bibliographies are useful for several reasons. If you keep one while you research, the annotated bibliography will function as a useful guide. It will be easier for you to revisit sources later because you will already have notes explaining how you want to use each source. If you find an annotated bibliography attached to one of the sources you are using, you can look at it to find other possible resources.
Constructing Your Citations
The first part of each entry in an annotated bibliography is the source’s full citation. A description of common citation practices can be found in the section entitled “Citing Sources Fully, Accurately, and Appropriately,” and detailed instructions can be found in the style manual for whatever format your professor wants you to use.
What to Include in Each Annotation
A good annotation has three parts, in addition to the complete bibliographic information for the source:
- a brief summary of the source
- a critique and evaluation of credibility, and
- an explanation of how you will use the source in your essay
Start by stating the main idea of the source. If you have space, note the specific information that you want to use from the source, such as quotations, chapters, or page numbers. Then explain if the source is credible, and note any potential bias you observe. Finally, explain how that information is useful to your own work.
You may also consider including:should also include some or all of the following:
- An explanation about the authority and/or qualifications of the author
- The scope or main purpose of the work
- Any detectable bias or interpretive stance
- The intended audience and level of reading
Source: Farley, John. “The Spontaneous-Generation Controversy (1700–1860): The Origin of Parasitic Worms.” Journal of the History of Biology, 5 (Spring 1972), 95–125.
- Notes: This essay discusses the conversation about spontaneous generation that was taking place around the time that Frankenstein was written. In addition, it introduces a distinction between abiogenesis and heterogenesis. The author argues that the accounts of spontaneous generation from this time period were often based on incorrect assumptions: that the discussion was focused primarily on micro-organisms, and that spontaneous-generation theories were disproved by experiments. The author takes a scientific approach to evaluating theories of spontaneous generation, and the presentation of his argument is supported with sources. It is a reliable and credible source. The essay will be helpful in forming a picture of the early 19th-century conversation about how life is formed, as well as explaining the critical perception of spontaneous-generation theories during the 19th century.
Writing While You Research
Once you have enough notes, you should start writing, even if you intend to keep researching.
Explain the use of beginning to write your paper during the research process
- As you research, let yourself do some preliminary writing. Provide yourself with a space to think through ideas and consider how your ideas are related to each other. This can be a very helpful practice as you move into the writing phase.
- Writing as you read is a way to avoid getting bogged down in researching, which can feel endless as you try to determine what is and is not a relevant source. By causing you to think through your research materials, preliminary writing is a good way to build the specifics of your argument.
- Take notes as you read your sources, since relying on memory will lead to losing information. Similarly, start coming up with the organizational structure and argument of your paper as you gather research.
- drafting: The preliminary stage of a writing project in which the author begins to develop a more cohesive product.
- note: A mark, or sign, made to call attention to something.
- idea: The conception of someone or something as representing a perfect example; an ideal.
We often think of the writing process as a series of discrete steps. We first research, then take notes, then outline, then write. However, in practice, the different phases of writing a paper often overlap. As you research, you begin taking notes. As you take notes, you begin to see how you want to put your argument together and may even start developing an in-depth analysis of some of your sources. Even if you are not officially at the drafting stage of your paper, that’s okay. The research you do will often provide you with insights that you’ll want to include in your argument.
If you have an idea for your essay while taking notes, don’t wait to write it down—start developing it! While the idea is still fresh and clear, take a break from research and start working on your paper’s structure or argument. Writing about issues you discover in your research that you find interesting will take the tedium out of researching and outlining and will help you better understand the format your essay will take.
Once you have enough notes, you should start writing, even if you intend to keep researching. It can be tempting to get bogged down in the research process and avoid moving on to actually writing a first draft. Avoid this impulse by starting to write while still researching. At this early stage, it will still be easy to include new research as you find it.
You may only be able to write one section at a time, or you may start writing a section and realize that you need more support from your sources. Beginning to construct your paper during the research process helps you identify holes in your argument, weaknesses in your evidence or support, and may reveal a need to change the structure or format of your essay. It is often easier to address these issues in an ongoing manner than it is to wait until the end of either the research or writing process.
Incorporating Your Sources Into Your Paper
There are several ways to properly incorporate and give credit to the sources you cite within your paper.
Name the ways of incorporating outside sources into your paper
- There are three methods for referencing a source in the text of your paper: quoting, summarizing, and paraphrasing.
- Direct quotations are words and phrases that are taken directly from another source, and then used word-for-word in your paper.
- A summary is typically a short description that outlines the most important points and general position of the source.
- A paraphrase is when you put another source or part of a source (such as a chapter, paragraph, or page) into your own words.
- You should follow quotes with a description, in your own terms, of what the quote says and why it is relevant to the purpose of your paper.
- Follow the style guide you are using to properly format and cite your quotations and borrowed information.
- quotation: A fragment of a human expression that is being referred to by somebody else.
- paraphrase: A rewording of something written or spoken by someone else.
- summary: A short description that outlines the most important points and general position of the source.
How to Use Your Sources in Your Paper
Within the pages of your paper, it is important to properly reference and cite your sources to avoid plagiarism and to give credit for original ideas. Depending on which style guide you are using (e.g., APA, MLA), you will follow different methods to format your text to refer to others’ work.
There are three methods for referencing a source in the text of your paper: quoting, summarizing, and paraphrasing.
Direct quotations are words and phrases that are taken directly from another source, and then used word-for-word in your paper. If you incorporate a direct quotation from another author ‘s text, you must put that quotation or phrase in quotation marks to indicate that it is not your language.
When writing direct quotations, you can use the source author’s name in the same sentence as the quotation to introduce the quoted text and to indicate the source in which you found the text. You should then include the page number or other relevant information in parentheses at the end of the phrase (the exact format will depend on the formatting style of your essay).
Summarizing involves distilling the main idea of a source into a much shorter overview. A summary outlines a source’s most important points and general position. When summarizing a source, it is still necessary to use a citation to give credit to the original author. You must reference the author or source in the appropriate parenthetical citation at the end of the summary.
When paraphrasing, you may put any part of a source (such as a phrase, sentence, paragraph, or chapter) into your own words.
You may find that the original source uses language that is more clear, concise, or specific than your own language, in which case you should use a direct quotation, putting quotation marks around those unique words or phrases you don’t change. It is common to use a mixture of paraphrased text and quoted words or phrases, as long as the direct quotations are inside of quotation marks.
Providing Context for Your Sources
Whether you use a direct quotation, a summary, or a paraphrase, it is important to distinguish the original source from your ideas, and to explain how the cited source fits into your argument. While the use of quotation marks or parenthetical citations tells your reader that these are not your own words or ideas, you should follow the quote with a description, in your own terms, of what the quote says and why it is relevant to the purpose of your paper. You should not let quoted or paraphrased text stand alone in your paper, but rather, should integrate the sources into your argument by providing context and explanations about how each source supports your argument.