HOW DO I READ AND TAKE NOTES FROM MY SOURCES?

7.1 Overview: What Basic Task am I Trying to Accomplish With My Sources?
7.2 How Do I Locate Relevant Material Within a Source?
7.3 What Must I Do Before Taking Notes?
7.4 On a Mechanical Level, What System Should I Use to Take Notes?
7.5 What are the Basics of Note Taking Technique?
7.6 What are the Different Parts of a Typical Note Card?
7.7 What are the Different Types of Note Cards I Can Take on a Source? How do I Know What Kind of Note Card to Take?

7.1 Overview: What Basic Task am I Trying to Accomplish With My Sources?

Now that you have actually obtained sources that are relevant and reliable, your job is to locate, understand, and record the material in these sources that will be useful in writing your paper. In addition, you will want to record your own ideas that reading the sources stimulates. Again, instruction, experience, and intuition will help you develop techniques that allow you to do this with maximum efficiency. The goal is to make your sources work for you—not the other way around.

7.2 How Do I Locate Relevant Material Within a Source?

Your sources will vary in type, length, and relevance. Some sources will have so much material that is directly relevant to your question that you will read very closely a number of times; with other sources you will need to use sophisticated reading and skimming techniques to extract the relevant material. Scan the table of contents and use the index. Read first and last paragraphs of chapters (or sections) and first and last sentences of paragraphs. When you feel you are getting warm, dig into the reading more deeply. When you come across material you definitely can use—and again, here it is wise to cast your net relatively widely—it's time to take notes.

7.3 What Must I Do Before Taking Notes?

First, the borders of your question must be clearly defined; if they are still fuzzy, you will have a difficult time determining what you should take notes on.

Second, before you take any notes from any source, you must make sure you have the complete bibliographical information on that source recorded somewhere (in your computer or on a bibliographical index card). If you do not have the information yet, record it right now—either on a card (if you can't take the source home and you don't have a laptop) or on your computer (see section 6.4).

7.4 On a Mechanical Level, What System Should I Use to Take Notes?

Perhaps until now you have taken notes for essays in a notebook, or on loose pieces of paper; or perhaps you have relied on highlighting, or having the sources directly in front of you as you write, or just your memory. Each of these methods has their drawbacks; some of them are completely inadequate.

As part of the Historia project you will learn the note card system of note taking. Although this system may take a bit of getting used to, it is an excellent way to take notes for two major reasons. First, by writing just one idea on a card, you transform your intellectual material into physical objects that can be easily manipulated. They can be shuffled and reshuffled according to the plan of your outline, and thus you are assured of having at your fingertips all of your relevant notes in a well-organized form arranged according to your outline when you are drafting your essay. Second, it provides an easy and accurate method for identifying where you got your information (the source and the page). This is the crucial attribute of a documented research paper. Both of these features fulfill the major functional requirements of any note taking system (the system does what it is supposed to do).

7.5 What are the Basics of Note Taking Technique?

a. What size cards should I use?

Since the basic idea of the note card system is one idea on a card, 3 x 5 cards are best. Larger cards tempt you to put material on one card that will end up in different parts of your paper, thus defeating the purpose of the system. Don't worry about the number of cards—they are relatively inexpensive.

b. Should I write with pen or pencil?

You may be tempted to use pencil since it can be erased, but ink is preferable because it requires less pressure to write (cutting down on fatigue) and does not smear over time.

c. Should I read my source once and then go back and take notes or should I take notes as I'm reading it for the first time?

Although some books recommend taking notes as you read the source for the first time, it is probably best that you at least skim it before taking notes. This allows you to get an overview of the scope of the source and how the individual ideas relate to each other. It allows you to get the big picture and put the parts in relation to the whole. If possible, mark the source to indicate the main points that you may want to take notes on. Highlighting can be an excellent preparation for note taking, but it can never substitute for real note taking because you are not forced to run the material through the filter of your own mind and truly make it your own. Reading the source, and then taking notes allows your mind to absorb and organize the content; it helps you do the essential intellectual work of note taking, which saves it from being a mindless, mechanical process that won't serve your ultimate purposes.

d. How Should I Sort My Cards As I Go Along?

There is no need to number your cards in the order you take them (or take them from a particular source); there is no need to code them (by color or any other method) according to type of source (book, article, etc.). The only sorting that counts is that which you will do according to the topic and subtopics of your outline. You may want to do some broad categorization (Roman numeral level) as you go along, but be careful because your outline may change.

e. Should I Ever Write on the Backs of Note Cards?

This will likely lead to confusion. Although every effort should be made to limit notes to one card, if need be, simply continue the note on another card and label it as the second note card.

7.6 What are the Different Parts of a Typical Note Card?

SLUG                     SOURCE CODE and PAGE NUMBER

BODY

a. Source Code and Page Number:

This part of the card is code that identifies the source from which the material on the card came from, and the page number (refer to section 6.4 for complete bibliographical reference). You will need this information to successfully document your paper (give credit to your sources).

As you work with your sources, assign each a code letter (A to Z) that uniquely identifies it. (If you run out of letters, just begin the alphabet again, AA, BB, etc.). The lettering has nothing to do with the type or length of the source; it is simply a shorthand method of identifying each source uniquely. The easiest method is simply to assign letters in the order in which you work with your sources. Source A may be a one-page article; Source B may be a five hundred page book. All that matters is that somewhere—either on your developing source list or on a bibliography card—you have a key that shows which sources the letters stand for. If you handwrite the source codes in the margin of your computer references list, you will have to recopy them as you develop and print out different versions of this list (and/or save all previous copies). If you type in the codes (to be deleted later, when the References list is put into final form) you will avoid this problem. But remember, without the key, the code is useless; and if you are unable to identify the sources from which you derived your material you will be unable to fulfill major requirement of the Historia paper—proper documentation.

Although you need to be careful with this system to avoid confusion, the advantages are numerous. First, if you identify your sources with author's names there are problems: you have to keep writing the name; the same author may have produced different sources that you are using, or there may be two different authors that you are using who have the same last name. Some sources will not have an "author." If you try to identify your sources by title, they tend to be long and impossible to abbreviate without ambiguity and confusion. Letters are a better source code than numbers, which risk confusion with the page numbers.

The precise page number is crucial for proper documentation. If you forget to include this information, you will be faced with the tedious and time-consuming task of backtracking through your research and adding them. If the material spans two pages write "101-102" and be sure to show within the note card where this transition takes place (or else you will not be able to document the material to the proper page). If your note card contains a summary of a very general idea that is expressed throughout an entire set of pages (or chapter) and cannot be pinned down to any particular page, use the designation "passim"—which means that the idea was expressed throughout the cited pages or chapter. This should be used very sparingly. Even if the article has only a single page, write the page number so your reader knows that you didn't forget it and that the article has only a single page.

If you are using an on-line or CD-ROM full-text version of a source that originally appeared in a hard copy medium (such as a magazine), the pagination (page numbers) will be different from the original. Unless you consult the original version with the original pagination, you should use the page numbers of the electronic version (if they are supplied; e.g., SIRS). The section on the "References" list will explain how to make this clear to the reader. Remember: the whole point of documentation is that the reader should be able, as quickly and easily as possible, to locate the source and exact location of your material.

If you are using an on-line source (such as a Web site) that has no pagination whatsoever, try to specify at least a chapter and/or subsection that would help the reader locate the source of your information.

b. Brief Topic Description (Topical Slug)

What is the brief topic description? It's a on-line description of what the notes on the card are basically about.

What purpose does it serve? First, writing such a "headline" helps you focus your card and make sure that it has one basic idea. Second, when you sort your note cards you will not want to have to read the entire card to see what it is about; the topical description will you let you see what the card is about at a glance. Third, it helps you continually monitor the relationship between your notes and your outline.

What should be the relationship be between my topical descriptions and the headings and subheadings on my outline? Your outline and notes should evolve in a reciprocal relationship to each other. Your outline defines and controls, to a certain extent, what you take notes on; what you take notes on may result in additions, deletions, or modifications of your outline. Depending on how secure your outline is, your topical descriptions should reflect and mirror the headings of your outline. If your outline is very secure, they can relate quite closely. You should always be thinking about how a card or set of cards would or would not fit into the structure of your outline. Your topical descriptions may echo headings and sub-headings of your outline; but beware of locking them in too closely because your outline may change.

How do I write really good topical descriptions?

What's the best form of phrasing to use? Like many aspects of the note card system, it takes a little time to get the knack of writing good topical descriptions. You may, at first, find it a bit difficult to crystalize and express succinctly exactly what a card is about. Sometimes it helps to write the topical description after you write the card. If, however, you continue to have real trouble writing topical descriptions it may mean that you have not yet mastered the ability to define the focus of a note card. If you continue to have trouble relating your note cards to your outline, you may have to revise your question and outline for greater clarity.

As stated above, the topical descriptions should reflect the headings and subheadings of your outline. one way to make this relationship clear (and to keep your descriptions as crisp as possible), is to write them in a format that shows the different logical levels of your topic. Hence, the heading for a paper on the causes of World War I might read: "July diplomacy: Germany's role: the blank check." Each phrase takes the topic down another logical level from the general to the more specific.

c. Main Body of the Note Card

What is meant by the phrase, "one idea on a card"?

All the material on one card should essentially relate to one key point or subtopic. This does not mean that each card should have a single sentence on it. The real test is: could you possibly imagine the material on the card being used in different sections of your paper? If so, then the material should appear on two separate cards; or else, when your are writing your paper you will want to rip the card in two. But avoiding that was the whole point of the note card system to begin with.

What are some of the techniques I should use when writing the main bodies of my note cards?
  1. Use phrases and abbreviations: These can save a lot of time and effort; but don't be too cryptic. Your goal is to verbally compress points and ideas to their hard core-without losing clarity.
  2. Show page breaks: Have a notation (such as a slash) to designate when the notes come from the next page of a source when the material on a card is drawn from more than one page of a source.
  3. Use quotation marks for direct quotes: All direct borrowings of language must be enclosed in quotation marks. A failure to distinguish between the language of the source and your own paraphrases, summaries, or original reactions will result in planting the seeds of unintentional plagiarism.
  4. Record your own critical reactions: As you read and take notes on your sources, your own ideas will begin to develop. Ideas on the source, ideas relating material to other sources, or ideas of your own that the source has triggered will often pop into your head. You should note these as well. If they are extensive, they should be noted on a separate card; if they are brief, you might want to jot them right on the same card that stimulated them. However, it is absolutely imperative that you have a clear and failsafe technique for distinguishing the ideas and words of others from those of your own. Without such a technique, the seeds of plagiarism (the unacknowledged use of the material of others) may be sown.
  5. Use a word processor? If you can reconfigure your page parameters to those of a 3x5 card, you may be able to take note cards on your computer. Continuous form 3x5 cards are available for printing.

7.7 What are the Different Types of Note Cards I Can Take on a Source? How do I Know What Kind of Note Card to Take?

There are three basic types of note cards you can take on a source, depending on the relationship between the source material and your research objectives. They are: a verbatim quotation, a paraphrase, and a summary. You may also write note cards to record your own ideas.

Original Source Passage

In the New World d a carefully developed and regulated system of government was established in which it was seen that the care taken to limit the independent power of feudal aristocrats in the Old World should also be applied to the New. There was a firm insistence upon government officials being royal servants. However, the government of the New World became much more regulated from the centre than that of the old. There was low respect for aristocratic privilege. Less power was unreservedly placed in the hands of the nobility. In the New World, in fact, the weaknesses of government, at first, did not lie in the powers and privileges of the nobility but rather in the cumbersome nature of the government machinery. Nevertheless, in spite of these precautions, the New World, by the early seventeenth century, had become a land of great feudal magnates enjoying, in practice, untrammeled power.

a. Verbatim Quotation

Example Based on Original Source Passage

Gov't in New World: end result              A 145

"...in spite of these precautions, the New World, by the early seventeenth century, had become a land of great feudal magnates enjoying ... untrammeled power."

What is it? In this type of note card, you quote the exact words of the source. It is important to enclose an exact quotation within quotation marks—and it is important that they are exact. If you believe there is a technical error in the source (a misspelled word or ungrammatical construction), copy the source verbatim (exactly) nonetheless, and insert [sic] (in brackets). This is a Latin word meaning "thus"—it will show that the error was in the source (not the transcription) and that you were aware of it.

When do I use it? A common pitfall of beginning note takers is to rely too much on verbatim quotations. This stems from a lack of confidence in your ability to match the verbal expressiveness of the original, while also wanted to avoid any plagiarism. It is wise to avoid plagiarism, but verbatim quotation note cards can become a crutch that tries to postpone or avoid the real intellectual labor of note taking, which is mastering the material by running it through your own mind and putting it in your own words. If you tell yourself that you will do this later, when you write your rough draft, you are simply postponing a process that is best accomplished during the note taking phase.

So when is verbatim quotation appropriate? When a primary source gives some type of first-hand account; when a secondary source makes a key point in particularly memorable language that is fairly brief; when the language itself is an issue or carries the weight of a point you will be trying to make.

In any case, take care with your technique: when writing your paper, you never want to be put in the position of wondering whether the words on a note card belong to you or to one of your sources.

 

b. The Paraphrase Note Card

Example Based on original Source Passage

Gov't in New World: end result              A 145

the New World saw the self-conscious evolution of a political system in which the power of the feudal nobility of the Old World would be checked; government functionaries were servants to the crown; but in the New World, the government became much more centralized and the aristocracy received less respect

What is it? The paraphrase note card puts the material into your own language, but follows along the same general thought sequence as the original material. You should always be trying to compress your material and make it more concise, but the paraphrased note, since it parallels the original source, may not be much shorter than the original. Remember: a paraphrase is not enclosed in quotation marks, so the language must be your own—or else you have committed plagiarism.

When do I use it? The paraphrased note is appropriate when it's important to record the material in detail, but the language of the original is not essential to reproduce.

What do I need to know to do it well? First, you must be very careful that you recast the passage into your own words so as to avoid plagiarism (see the Greeley Writing Manual section on plagiarism). Try not to be too entranced by the language of the original. You must develop the skill of retaining the meaning while using your own verbal resources to express the ideas in your own words. A good paraphrase is more than just a mechanical substitution of synonyms; it shows that the note taker has intellectually reached out and really made the material his/her own.

 

c. The Summary Note Card

Example Based on Original Source Material

Gov't in New World: end result              A 145

despite efforts to limit the power of the feudal nobility in the New World that paralleled those in the Old, by the early 16001s, politics was dominated by a relatively few, very powerful people

What is it? The summary note card stands at one more remove from the original source material. Like the paraphrased note, the language is your own (and thus doesn't need to be enclosed in quotation marks); but unlike the paraphrased note, the summary note does not follow directly along the original thought sequence of the original source material. Compression—of varying degrees—is the hallmark of the summary note card. You may take a single note card on a page of source material; or, you may take just one note card on an entire book—the degree of compression depends on the relationship between the source material and your research question.

When do I use it? The summary note is appropriate when the material contains a general idea that is relevant to your question, but great detail is not necessary. When relevant and valuable source material is elaborated in excessive detail in the source or mixed with material that is extraneous to your topic, then the summary note is useful.

What do I need to know/do to do it well? You need to have the reading skills to grasp the big picture in the source. You need to pick out and bring to the foreground the main thread of the source's argument while putting the details that are not relevant to your purposes in the background.

 

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