During my PhD, the first section I wrote in my dissertation was the literature review. I read paper after paper. Any with even a tenuous link to my research project, I printed, underlined, and annotated paragraph by paragraph, based on a technique I’d learned in high school. Once that was done, I opened up a Word document and pasted in the paper’s citation along with a paragraph summarizing the paper — not in the author’s words via the abstract — but in my own words. I focused especially on how each study related to my own work. Were the flow conditions similar? Was the surface roughness the same scale? What kinds of flow instabilities did they find (or not find)?
I called that document my “Annotated Bibliography,” and it was absolutely critical to my dissertation. Any time I found a new relevant paper, it got printed, annotated, and filed into my binder, and it got an electronic summary. If I needed to figure out which paper from Professor Y’s lab was the right one, my annotated bibliography was my first stop. Then I could flip to the right paper in my binder and look at my annotations.
As a system for a single (albeit large) project, this method worked, but it wasn’t terribly elegant and it wasn’t sustainable long-term. What I wish I’d had instead is a note-making system like the one described in How to Make Notes and Write.
How to Make Notes and Write
But wait, Nicole, isn’t that a book for humanities undergraduates? Why, yes, it was formerly named A Short Handbook for Writing Essays in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Don’t let that fool you. The note-making techniques the Allossos teach in the book are every bit as valuable for those of us in the sciences, and since the guide is freely available to download, your investment cost is paid only in time.
How to Make Notes and Write doesn’t contain anything earth-shatteringly new — the note-making technique used is based on the well-established Zettelkasten method and it has many of the same writing technique recommendations you’ll find in many writing guides. But the guide shines by bringing everything together in one place, framed around academic work, and aimed specifically toward students.
The book offers both practical advice — how many notes should I be writing for this source? — and philosophical reasoning — why should I rewrite a source’s idea in my own words? As students, we’re often not given a clear picture of why we are writing whatever essay, report, or review we’ve been assigned. Our writing is treated as a means to an end: a grade for this class, a required section for our journal article, etc.
Instead, How to Make Notes and Write emphasizes the purpose behind all of this reading, thinking, and writing:
“For us and for most of the other writers we know, the best way to discover and refine what we think is to write about it.”
In other words, writing about an idea is part of building and testing your own understanding. It’s the critical first step in taking ownership of an idea, describing your own reactions to it, and communicating that idea to others.
It’s also a darn useful way to avoid having to read the same paper over again in a month or two because you’ve forgotten a key point.
Don’t let the framing of English and history research dissuade you from checking out How to Make Notes and Write. If you feel like you’re awash in a sea of journal articles that you can’t keep up with, this guide is an excellent and practical starting point for tackling that problem efficiently and effectively.
As the latest version points out, it’s easy to turn our quest for the perfect note-making technique into our latest way to procrastinate. But it’s better to get started with a handful of index cards, as described in the guide, than it is to waste time chasing perfection. The goal, after all, is to write.
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(Image credit: A. Burden)