Managing Information: Note-taking Tips for Writers

January 29, 2021

Note-Taking tips for writersWelcome to Teach Write! This column draws on my 20 years’ experience teaching writing to kids, university students, and adult learners. It includes ideas and exercises that teachers and students can use in the classroom, and creative writers can use to level up their process.

So far, our discussions of research have focused on how to find interesting, relevant information for our writing projects. Now we’re going to look at a skill that’s equally important, but less-commonly discussed: how to manage and organize all of that information so that you can find it when you need it.

Over the last couple decades, I’ve honed my own data management process for maximum ease and efficiency. With the methods I’ll be sharing with you over the next few columns, I researched and wrote the 15,000-word Forensic Science: In Pursuit of Justice in just six weeks… and I’m keeping track of over 300 sources for my current work-in-progress (coming 2023!).

So let’s get started with today’s topic: note-taking. The goals of note-taking are simple:

  • to capture important information
  • to capture the source of the information

Do both, or you’re asking for trouble.

Capturing Information

I took notes for my very first books the way I’d done it as a student: by hand, in a paper notebook. By the end of that project, I knew I needed to find a better way. Handwriting was slow, messy, and caused a brutal flare-up of wrist pain. These days, I type all of my notes directly into a Scrivener file (more on that in a future column). The advantages of typing notes are:

  • Typing is faster than writing
  • It spreads the labour more evenly between your hands, so less repetitive-strain injury
  • It’s taking notes and transcribing notes all in one
  • When it’s time to draft, you can copy and paste typed notes to create a quick and dirty outline

Last year, I splurged on a second monitor for my desktop computer. If that option is available to you, I highly recommend it. I open a website or PDF on the left screen and type my notes into a document on the right screen. The ability to see bigger windows, with larger print and fewer neck motions, is both faster and less painful than squinting down at tiny printed type. I’m also printing fewer pages. That’s not only good for the environment, it’s fewer teetering piles of physical documents I need to track and organize.

What information should go into your notes? Totally depends on the project. But as a general rule, I’d be sure to record:

  • Key concepts and definitions
  • Specific numbers, data, and dates
  • Names of experts
  • Pithy quotes you might want to reproduce
Capturing Source Information

Raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself adding citations to a paper the night before it’s due, frantically flipping through pages of a deep stack of reference books because you’re SURE you read something SOMEWHERE, but have no idea WHERE.

Yeah, me too. It sucks.

Whether student writers or professionals, we need to know where every piece of info in our notes comes from, and we need to track source info as we go along. This is for our benefit, because it allows us to double check things or go back into our sources for more detail, as well as saving us HUGE amounts of time at the bibliography stage. It also gives us confidence in our research, so that if teachers or editors or fact checkers or cranky Amazon reviewers question our work, we can show our sources.

We’ll talk about software tools for tracking sources in future columns. For now, here are my top low-tech tips:

  1. Start a separate file for every single source. Keeping notes from each source segregated in this way cuts down on confusion later.
  2. Tag EVERY SINGLE sentence or paragraph in your notes file with the author and year of your source, like so: {Smith, 2019} Isn’t that overkill, you say? I’ve already got the notes in their own file. Sure, you do NOW. But when it’s time to draft, you will probably be copying and pasting into a single file. Unless the individual facts are tagged, chaos will ensue.
  3. For print material and PDFs, add the page number to the tag, like so: {Smith, 2019@3} When you’re double checking or fact checking, this eliminates the need to flip pages or comb the index.
  4. For websites that don’t have pages, I usually note the paragraph number, for quick and easy scanning.

It’s also really, really important to be clear about what’s a direct quote from your source, what’s a paraphrase, and what is you adding your own interpretations, commentary, or reminders to yourself to look into things or compare to other sources. I use plain text for paraphrases and “quotation marks” when I’m transcribing the exact words used in my source. I indicate commentary with brackets and my initials, like this: (not so sure this is accurate, double check – LEC). Your mileage may vary here, and it really doesn’t matter how you do it, so long as you know what’s what.

After all, you don’t want to accidentally plagiarize because you’ve forgotten that a sentence of notes was not a paraphrase, but a direct quote. And you definitely don’t want to attribute your own genius insights to another author!

Bonus Tip: File Management

In the digital age, you’ll be balancing a lot of PDF source files, in addition to your notes files. Descriptive file names will prevent you from having to repeatedly open things to see what they are – save time by renaming stuff right away. I like to use author’s name and year: Smith 2019.pdf   or Smith 2019 notes.docx

To make it quicker to find material on a particular subtopic, I sort my files into folders. For my current project, I’ve got folders for birds, mammals, and fish, with subfiles for information on particular species: Mammals – Lynx

Keeping your digital filing cabinet organized as you go will save a lot of headaches later.

Next time, go pro with reference managers! Until then, share your own note-taking tips and experiences in the comments.

Hey, did you know I teach writing workshops? It’s true – I work with adult writers, teachers, and students of all ages. Contact me to learn more.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *