General Research: Taking Notes

May 12, 2021

If you’ve been following my research method for general nonfiction writers, you have already completed the exploratory phase, found your keywords and formulated some questions, and collected your sources.

Now it’s time to get to the heart of research: taking notes from the sources you’ve found.


Many methods of note-taking exist. One of the most effective for professional writers is the Zettlekasten method. I have a link to a book on that topic below.

The first thing you need to decide is which method you are going to use to take your notes. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The important thing is to pick the one you feel comfortable with and stick to it! The three simplest methods are:

  • Paper
  • Index cards
  • Digital apps

All three follow the same set of steps, the only difference is the physical format used to organize the notes.


You can either use 8.5″ X 11” notebook paper or you can use a 9″ X 12″ legal pad. Either is fine. I recommend you take the time to divide whatever sheets you use into 3 sections and rule them off with two horizontal marks on each page, dividing it into three rows. Then make one vertical line down the entire page left of the center allowing yourself two-three inches to the left of the mark. You will only use the front of each page. It is extremely important not to write on the back. It’s too easy to overlook information this way.

For this method, you will need:

  • Paper (notebook paper or legal pads)
  • Pens or pencils
  • Ruler for marking off the sections
  • Scissors to cut them apart when you’re done.

Index cards

Personally, I’d rather use index cards than paper.  I find it’s both neater and easier to keep things organized. The disadvantage is that you will need to have LOTS of index cards and you will need to have them handy whenever you are taking notes. You will also need to have a way to store them so they do not get misplaced. A shoebox works fine.

For this method, you will need:

  • 4″ X 6” index cards ( one pack of 100)
  • 3″ X 5” index cars (several packs, I’d get at least 500)
  • Pens or pencils
  • Rubber bands
  • Storage box

Digital note-taking app

Several of these are available for free including  Roam, Evernote, and Obsidian.

Apps work extremely well for people who will be getting a lot of their information from databases or open-source journals. They will help you keep all your sources handy (except for print book sources, of course).

Since most are cloud-based, you can use them across devices making it easy to work on the go. There is no need to have paper and pens handy when you find time to take notes.

To work with these, you will need:

  • Time to research which app to use and how to use it, if you don’t already have one.
  • Devices to use them on.

Four steps for note-taking

Once you have your note-taking method picked out, you will need to go through the following steps in order:

Step One: Make a rough outline or list of categories

Either write a very rough outline of the topics you want to cover (this can be changed later) or simply write down categories of information that you think you will need. The questions and keywords you collected earlier can help with this task.

Step Two: Record Sources

For paper or index cards, list your collected sources either on a sheet of paper or on index cards. One source for each card. If you’re using digital apps, you may want to add a citation app like Mendeley or Zotero. Or you could just set up a separate section or have tags for citation sources in a notetaking app.

The purpose of the citation is so any looking at your information could find the source for themselves if they want to. Details matter.

Step Three: Identifying mark for sources

The section on the left-hand side of the paper that you marked off earlier is where you will identify the page numbers and source of the note.

If you are using index cards, you don’t need to do anything at this point except make sure you have plenty of 3″ X 5” note cards handy. The identifying mark is on the card at the right.  While I marked this with a letter, you could also use a number, a color, or symbols.

You will need to devise a system for tagging or keywording your notes on apps. Most of these already have ways to link the notes to the citation source. Just be sure you have a way of tracking which source your information comes from, the page numbers, and the category or keyword the note belongs to.

Step Four: Taking the notes

When taking notes, you should be meticulous.

If you decide to publish anything using these notes, it’s crucial you give credit where it’s due and that quotations are copied exactly and marked with quotation marks.

For more information check out Perdue OWL: Avoiding Plagiarism.

As you take notes, your questions will develop a sharper focus. Try to stay flexible and add or subtract information as needed.

Enjoy taking notes. In the next post, we’ll discuss how to organize them so that you can begin writing a logical and coherent manuscript.

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to contact me through the form below.






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