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Researching the Post: Tips for Note-Taking

Socrates from Plato's Phaedrus
Socrates from Plato's Phaedrus

Socrates might have been right... I'm an obsessive note-taker - mostly because I have a terrible memory. I'm also an obsessive organizer of my notes - again, because I have a terrible memory. I constantly lose track of page numbers, author names, links, and my own good ideas if I don't plug all of those important details into a file system, app, or online folder. I don't think I'm alone in this, so I thought I'd share a few practices that work well for me when it comes to taking research notes. Feel free to "steal" any of them - and do share your own best practices in the comments below.

Tip 1: For digital notes, use a platform with a tagging system.

I especially like Google Keep for this, but lots of platforms (including Evernote and Pages for Mac) offer the option of adding tags to your notes. This is helpful for finding related information, sectioning your research, and keeping track of multiple projects at the same time.


Tip 2: Make use of color coding, font formats, and eye catching symbols.

Color coding and font formats (bold, italicize, underline) are an easy way to distinguish your own ideas from an author's and important ideas from less important ones. This tactic can help you ensure that you're using your own words when it comes to writing posts, papers, or other pieces of academic work.

Here's what that looks like in a recent set of notes I took on Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt's, Hacking the Academy (2013):

I "code" the document so I can differentiate my work from the authors':

  • The authors' words are in black and usually surrounded by quotes. (I pull them verbatim so I don't have to worry later about whether or not they're my words - I know they aren't.)
  • Chapter titles are in bold.
  • So are some of what I thought were the most important quotes.
  • A few things I want to follow up on are in purple (the color I usually use for important follow-ups).
  • My own ideas are in aqua (and yes, I always use that color for my own words).

When I revisit notes for a project, I first look for my own comments and the starred/bold statements - that gives me a starting point for re-finding important information.


Tip 3: Write in the margins.

I don't take notes by hand very often any more, but when I do, it looks something like this. I use the margins for  random ideas, authors to revisit, notes I definitely want to notice... It's another easy way to divide between types on information.


Tip 4: Include the info you'll need for citation in your notes.

In the document above and in the Google Keep note at the top, I've included the author's last name, the title of the article/book/website. That means I can at least Google the author and title to find the rest of the copyright information if I need it. Whenever possible, I also link to the e-book, journal article, or website in my notes document.


Tip 5: Give each source it's own file or note (and store all of those files or notes in a single place).

This is what Evernote looks like for my dissertation notes:

Every article or book I read gets it's own note that I can then sort by date or title. If I search for a keyword or phrase, I can immediately see where I found the idea or quote. And, since I already have the author's name and the title of the book/article/website in my heading, I have easy access to the information I need to credit the idea or quote.

You could do the same thing with separate Word or Pages documents, Google Keep Notes, One Note, Google Docs... Whatever you're most comfortable using.

What are your best tips for note-taking? Tweet them out to #hwc111 or @helloworldciv or leave tips for the rest of us in the comments below. Happy researching!

Heather Bennett

Professor, feminist, sci-fi geek. Historian interested in pedagogy, technology, gender/sexuality, archives, pop culture, medicine, intellectual history, world history.