When I ask my students how they take notes, some of them have a method encouraged by their high school teachers, but most have merely an idea that they should be writing down the "big ideas." This is not what I do. The big ideas I'll remember; it's the little phrases I'll want to cite later and the fleeting ideas I have in response to the text that I need to preserve for later use. I don't really know if other people take notes the same way, or if there is some "right" way to take notes, but over the years of reading for research, I have developed a streamlined system for taking pages of reading* notes.
Apparently I have my finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist** with this topic, too, since today's New York Times has an article about a recent conference on historical methods of note taking. Excitingly, the article links to "an online exhibition of 73 note-related artifacts from Harvard’s collections." Swoon!
So here's my technique:
- At the top of a page, I create an MLA-style works cited entry for the text on which I will be taking notes.
- As I read, I write down quotations or paraphrases of material I'd like to preserve using MLA-style in-text citation methods. I skip a line between them so each one is its own chunk.
- Any of my own thoughts - reactions to the text, ideas sparked by the text, other texts that this one mentions that I'd like to track down - go into brackets. I skip a line between them so each one is its own chunk.
- I leave the left margin entirely clear for future use and I use only one side of the paper.
Later, when I go back and read all my notes and quotes for multiple sources associated with a project, it is easy to organize the chunks into an outline for a paper I'm writing or course I'm designing, and the citations are already all there. Generally, after I outline the project, I'll use the left margin of the notes and quotes pages to write down where each chunk should go. I might write INTRO next to a quotation and CONC next to the bracketed idea immediately following.
This method works when handwriting or typing. And if the pages are photocopied first, they can be literally chopped up for categorizing and organizing later if I am feeling particularly hands-on.
That's it. Citation info, quotations and paraphrases, separating my own ideas from those in the text, leaving room to organize later: that's all I need from a note-taking system. Do other people note other things?
*I actually use the same basic system for conference notes, too, with the speaker's name and the talk title (and panel title if applicable) and the venue and date at top.
** Yes, the zeitgeist has a pulse. It's very robust.