Research Tips: How I Take Notes

Ed note: We know November means that we’re approaching the end of the semester and many of you will be working on research projects. In light of this time of the semester, and that November has become known as both National Novel Writing Month and Academic Writing Month, we’re bringing you a couple of posts this month with our favorite research tips to help you get to writing that research paper faster. We’d love to hear your favorite research and writing tips. Please share them with us on Twitter (@AldenLibrary) or Facebook. Be sure to also check out our Writing Tips Pinboard.


Before putting pen to paper, or more likely fingers to keyboard, for a research paper, journal article, or conference paper, you will properly have to conduct the multi-step, circular process of researching. Though each step is critical in its own way, notetaking, in my opinion, is often skipped. I consider notetaking to be very important as I read the articles and papers I have unearthed because I can

  • write the author’s findings in my own words and reduce the chance of copying the author’s words in my paper,
  • make connections between the findings of one author and another or find points of contradiction,
  • find gaps in my research (and then I can hunt for more information–yay!),
  • make comments and include my own thoughts or questions, and
  • organize the information in a rough outline for my paper.

So how do I take notes? Multiple screens are a must. My Andriod tablet with its Adobe Reader app and my laptop with Evernote are indispensable during this step. You will find many applications for your mobile device or laptop/desktop that will let you read and annotate PDFs. I selected the Adobe Reader app because I was already familiar with Adobe Reader and it has the features I want – the ability to highlight text and occasionally add a comment. I like being able to quickly scan an article for the points I found relevant and insightful.

Example of my notes in Evernote.
Example of my notes in Evernote

For my first research paper way back in the day, I was taught an old school way to take notes. The method called for two sized note cards. The smaller note cards were for the citation information and each card had a unique number. On the larger cards, I would take notes, including a number for information source (which I obtained from a small card) as well as the page number from where I found the information. In Evernote, I have a very similar system. I create a numbered bibliography and massive bullet list. At the end of each bullet point are two numbers–the source and the page (so I always know where my information came from). Once I have taken my notes, I organize the bullet list into an outline for my paper.

Evernote allows you to organize “notes” (this is a like a document) in several ways. First, you can create a “notebook” (this is like a folder) and then if you want you can organize folders into “stacks” (this is like a directory). Personally, my notes for any article or presentation are saved in my reading folder, which is in my work stack. You could organize by topic/subject, publication, or whatever system will work for you. Also, you can tag notes so the notes in my reading folder are tagged by topic/subject and if applicable the research project name, journal, or conference. If you are working in a group, Evernote notes can be shared with other Evernote users. You can share an entire notebook or just a single note. When I reach the writing stage, Evernote’s mobile app allows me to display my notes on my tablet while I type on my laptop.

I think taking notes helps me synthesize and expand my knowledge as well as makes writing my article or research paper just a bit easier. What method do you use to take notes? Are there any particular tools you find helpful?

Photo credit: Flickr user Brendon Cremer. Used by Creative Commons license.