Research Paper Writing – Taking Notes

Now that you’ve gathered all your sources (or the vast majority of them), it’s time to take notes on the relevant material. “Relevant” is the keyword here. How can you tell what you’ll need for your paper and what will end up in the scrap heap?

In most cases you won’t be able to tell what’s going to make the cut and what won’t. As a result, you’ll probably end up taking far more notes than you need. Don’t worry, nearly all researchers end up with extra notes. The deeper you dig into your subject, however, the more perceptive you’ll become about what you need to prove your point most convincingly. Here are some guidelines to help you get started:
”¢Â Â   Before you start reading, arrange your sources according to difficulty. Read the general, introductory sources first. Use these to lay the foundation for the more specialized and technical material you’ll need.
”¢Â Â   Look for facts, expert opinions, explanations, and examples that illustrate ideas.
”¢Â Â   Note any controversies swirling around your topic. Pay close attention to both sides of the issue: it’s a great way to test the validity of your thesis.
”¢Â Â   Read in chunks. Finish an entire paragraph, page, or chapter before you stop to take notes. This will help you get the entire picture so you can pounce on the juicy bits of information.

Taking Notes

No one can remember all the material they read, or keep Expert A’s opinion straight from Expert B’s opinion. That’s why you need to take notes.

For very brief research papers, you can usually gather Information without taking notes. In these cases, photocopy the sources, highlight key points, jot ideas in the margins, and start drafting. But with longer, more complex research papers, you’ll have to make note cards to handle the flow of information efficiently. Figure on making note cards with any research paper more than a page or two long.

Many writers take notes on 4 x 6 index cards. This size is ideal. You don’t want cards so small that you can’t fit anything on them or cards so large that you’ll end up wasting most of the space.
Increasingly, however, writers have been adapting this same method to computer technology. It’s very easy to do and can save you a great deal of time when it comes to drafting. Adjust your margins to make a template for a “Notes” file by creating 4 x 6-sized boxes. You can print and cut the cards as you go along. As always, when you are working on a computer, back up all your files on an external storage system. You will also want to print out hard copies as a backup.

Regardless of how you choose to take notes, the overall techniques remain the same.
”¢Â Â   Label each card with a subtopic, in the top right- or left-hand corner.
”¢Â Â   Include a reference citation showing the source of the information. Place this in the bottom right- or left-hand corner.
”¢Â Â   Be sure to include a page number, if the source is print.
”¢Â Â   Write one piece of information per card.
”¢Â Â   Keep the note short. If you write too much, you’ll be right back where you started””trying to separate the essential information from the nonessential information.
”¢Â Â   Be sure to mark direct quotes with quotation marks. This can help you avoid plagiarism later.
”¢Â Â   Add any personal comments you think are necessary. This will help you remember how you intend to use the note in your research paper.

Check and double-check your notes. Be sure you’ve spelled all names right and copied dates correctly. Check that you’ve spelled the easy words correctly, too; many errors creep in because writers overlook the obvious words.

Note-Taking Methods

There are three main ways to take notes: direct quotations, summarizing, and paraphrasing. Each is explained below in detail.

A direct quotation is word for word; you copy the material exactly as it appears in the source. If there is an error in the source, you even copy that, writing (sic) next to the mistake.
”¢Â Â   Show that a note is a direct quotation by surrounding it by quotation marks (“”).
”¢Â Â   In general, quote briefly when you take notes. Remember that long quotations are difficult to integrate into your paper. Besides, readers often find long quotations hard to follow and boring to read.
”¢Â Â   What should you quote?
”¢Â Â   Quote key points. These are passages that sum up the main idea in a pithy way.
”¢Â Â   Quote subtle ideas. Look for passages whose meaning would be watered down or lost if you summarized or paraphrased them.
”¢Â Â   Quote expert opinions. They carry weight in your paper and make it persuasive.
”¢Â Â   Quote powerful writing. If the passage is memorable or famous, it will give your research paper authority.


Subtopic: Nez Perce surrender
“It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are-perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
Comments: Very moving, emotional speech. Shows tragic consequences of displacement of Native Americans.
Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, p. 108

A summary is a smaller version of the original, reducing the passage to its essential meaning. Be sure to summarize carefully so you don’t distort the meaning of the original passage. What should you summarize?
”¢Â Â   Commentaries
”¢Â Â   Explanations
”¢Â Â   Evaluations
”¢Â Â   Background information
”¢Â Â   A writer’s line of thinking or argument
“Now, why am I opposed to capital punishment? It is too horrible a thing for the state to undertake. We are told by my friend, ‘Oh, the killer does it; why shouldn’t the state?’ I would hate to live in a state that I didn’t think was better than a murderer.
But I told you the real reason. The people of a state kill a man because he killed someone else””that is all””without the slightest logic, without the slightest application to life, simply from anger, nothing else!
the hearts of men have softened they have gradually gotten rid of brutal punishment, because I believe it will only by [be] a few years until it will be banished forever from every civilized country””even New York”” because I believe that it has no effect whatever to stop murder”


Subtopic: Clarence Darrow against capital punishment
Rage and a desire for retribution are not sufficient justification for capital punishment. It is a cruel, inhuman, and uncivilized form of punishment. Further, capital punishment does nothing to deter crime. For these reasons, he believes capital punishment will soon be eliminated, even in New York.
Comments: Original speech has an ironic, sarcastic tone.
Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, p. 108
A paraphrase is a restatement of the writer’s original words. It often includes examples and explanations from the original quotation. A paraphrase may be longer than the original, shorter than the original, or the same length.
Paraphrasing is the most difficult form of note taking. As a result, it is where beginning writers are most likely to commit plagiarism””using someone else’s words as their own. You can avoid this by quoting words you copy directly and being very sure that you do indeed restate the material in your own words.
You should paraphrase…
”¢Â Â   material that readers might otherwise misunderstand.
”¢Â Â   information that is important but too long to include in the original form.
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from that responsibility””I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it””and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you””ask what you can do for your country”

Topic:  Social responsibility  (JFK Inauguration speech)
Now, America faces great peril. As a result, America is now faced with the challenge of standing up for liberty. Not many countries have ever been in this position. Kennedy welcomes this challenge because he believes his actions (and America’s valiant response) can stand as a beacon for the rest of the world to follow.
“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you””ask what you can do for your country.”
Comments: A very famous and stirring speech.
Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, p. 108

Don’t rely too heavily on any one source””no matter how good it looks. It’s fairly common to find one source that seems to say it all, and just the way you like. But if you take too much from one source, you’ll end up doing a book report, not a research paper. And worst-case scenario: what happens if the source turns out to be invalid or dated? Your paper will be a disaster.

Now it’s time to organize your research into a logical whole. Outlines are the most logical and easy way to accomplish this.

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