Take Better Notes by Paraphrasing

notesI’ve recently started doing the research for dissertation, which means I have a minor obsession with note taking. (As do many ProfHackers.) I’m not a good note taker. I must have taken notes well enough to muddle along this far, but there is a fundamental shift in the kind of research I’m doing. The notes I’m taking now need to be usable for a book-length project spanning years, rather than a semester. Indeed, I hope some of the notes I’m taking now will prove the foundation for work beyond the dissertation.

Some of the best advice I’ve read about how to take notes is from the dusty volumes on library research that were recommended to me as an undergrad. Of course some of that advice is basic: identify your source, take one note per card, etc.

The best advice about note taking that I’ve learned I got from Jacques Barzun and Henry Graff’s The Modern Researcher: paraphrase your sources while you take notes, not later. My gut feeling—or rather, my irresistable inclination—has always been to copy the relevant sources verbatim. What if I need to quote the source? What if I misunderstand something?

But Barzun and Graff have proven themselves right: when taking notes, paraphrasing is often better than copying. First, it’s faster, which is especially crucial if you’re in the archives. Second, it forces you to assimilate ideas. Copying verbatim is really a way of being lazy by pushing off the hard work of thinking, but paraphrasing while taking notes lets you mix your ideas with the sources you’re working from. You end up with a record not just of the source but of why it is important to your research. And third, by paraphrasing while taking notes, you’ve already done some of the work towards producing a draft. Then too, your earlier drafts are more likely to be your own words than to be long quotations stitched together from your sources.

What tips or rules do you follow when taking notes?

Image courtesy of Flick user LexnGer / Creative Commons licensed

Return to Top