General Research: Organizing Notes

May 13, 2021

Once you’ve got a large pile of information together, organizing notes is the next step.  At this point, you’ve done your exploratory research, made lists of keywords and questions to guide your search, collected your sources, and started taking notes.  Organizing your notes is the last step in the research process whether you are using them to write a blog, book, or create a podcast or video.

Organizing notes

 Taking care to organize your notes thoughtfully and correctly will save you lots of time when actually start your project. Read on to find out how.

Determine your central question or thesis

You must be clear about your central question or thesis before beginning to organize. Go back and look at your lists of keywords and questions to answer the following questions:

  1. Are there any keywords or questions I can confidently mark off the list?
  2. What are the prominent keywords and questions? Mark these.
  3. Looking over the keywords and questions, see if you can formulate either a central question or a thesis.

Divide notes into categories or keywords

Make a separate sheet of paper for each keyword you used in your notetaking. All notes should have one keyword label. I like to circle the keywords so they stand out. You could also highlight them in specific colors. You will need to devise a similar system for any notetaking app are using.

If you’re using sheets of paper for your notes, your paper divided into horizontal thirds. At this point, you should cut those thirds apart. Do not cut off the vertical section at the left, since that section contains your keyword, your source-identifying mark, and the page number, if applicable. Now sort your note cards into piles by placing all notes with the same keywords together.

If using index cards, make a pile for each keyword and sort the cards. If you’re unsure how to proceed with digital apps, YouTube has plenty of demo videos. Just type in the app you’re using AND “organizing notes. “

Create a rough outline

Next, using a combination of the keywords you used and the questions you have identified, make a rough outline. Play around with the order until it makes the most sense to you.  

Identify holes in your logic or information

You may realize as you go through this exercise that you need more information. That’s fine. If you need to go all the way back to step 2, finding keywords, do so. Then follow the steps until you are satisfied you have the information you need.

Place the notes in order

Now that you have your cards sorted by topic, arrange them in the order you want to refer to them in any project you are working on. If an idea belongs to you, be sure you indicate that in some way. Some people put their own ideas in brackets.  If it’s not your idea, mark where it came from and credit the source.

For more information

If you decide you may be collecting a lot of notes, I recommend  How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking-for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers by Sönke Ahrens. It’s an astounding notetaking method for anyone. That book will make ideas and planning both painless and original.

Have any notetaking methods that work really well for you? Leave a comment.


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