When you research, how do you take notes (notate text) for more efficient future use?
November 4, 2007 11:43 AM   Subscribe

When you research, how do you notate the book/text for future use? In other words, how do you take notes within the book?

When I read books or printouts for research, I find it's very helpful to notate the text as I read to mark key ideas and to help organize the text visually. This lets me come back later and quickly grasp what sections of the text are trying to say or what I find relevant to my research.

I also find that the better I get at notating text, the more efficient it is for me to quickly scan and find what I'm looking for.

What are your personal habits for notating text? Do you take notes in the margins? Do you use a system of underlining, circling, and other highlighting?

(See below for my methods.)
posted by kingtaj to Education (16 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I am a type of person that doesn't like to write in books. And even when I did, I was too lazy to go through it again and look at my notes. However, I don't think I could have survived college without Post It Tabs. I wrote on them in pencil because sometimes pen ink didn't dry fast enough and I ended up with inky hands and smudgy notes.
posted by spec80 at 11:47 AM on November 4, 2007

Response by poster: Generally, I use the following methods in combination:
* Underline important points.
* Add a star in the margin next to underlined points that are especially good summaries
* Add two stars for points that may be the "theme" for the chapter/section.
* Add three stars for points that may be central ideas or theses for the entire book.
* If the author didn't make use of good headings/subheadings, I add them next to the beginning of the a new section.
* I underline single words and place a "v" in the margin for words that I would like to incorporate into my vocabulary.
posted by kingtaj at 11:48 AM on November 4, 2007

Post it notes hanging out the side of the book noting the value of that part of the book; pencil underlining important stuff on the page.
posted by fake at 12:02 PM on November 4, 2007

I'm an underline-and-margins person - I underline key sentences and, if the book is long enough that I might forget or if the larger importance of the underlined bit isn't readily apparent from the context, I jot notes in the margins. Sometimes my margins are really dense with rephrasings of those key points, other times I just insert my own subject headings like "Class system" or "The Forms" (can you tell I just read The Republic?). The biggest thing for me is really those headings, so I can flip through the pages and just keep an eye out for whatever subject matter I'm particularly looking for.
posted by Rallon at 12:19 PM on November 4, 2007

I take notes for immediate use, but don't make any attempt to take notes for long-term use. That is, I am reading the text with a purpose (eg "understand use of theoretical framework") and an immediate output (eg "include in article's lit review"). I take notes that will serve that purpose -- I might be reading six other books before writing that section of the lit review, and will need to capture what I need from this text before I forget it -- but I don't worry about trying to take notes that will be useful if I were to return to the text in a month or a year. And a year later, I will likely be reading that text for a different purpose, so those earlier notes won't be of much help.

I never write in books, because I find scribbled-in books so irritating to read. Post-it notes are ok, as is just writing notes on a piece of paper. I don't use a computer, because typing takes two hands, so I have to put down the book and lose the rhythm of my reading. The notes I take are very focused on what I am reading for -- the notes might read something like: "p. 14: nice summary of theory; pp. 45-8: factual errors! how to reconcile with earlier section?" I'm not trying to summarize every point the author makes, or to be comprehensive -- just very focused notes that I can glance at to see when writing, and then throw away when I am done.
posted by Forktine at 1:11 PM on November 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I got a tablet PC and I scan everything that isn't already electronic. I make notes on the tablet in the margins of the document, and also keep a Microsoft OneNote document open where I write notes that say interesting things about the document and "refer to the doc pg. X" for more notes. I also frequently copy segments from the text and paste it into OneNote directly. OneNote has handwriting-recognition so my notes are searchable. I also flag things with the equivalent of post-it notes - you could flag using your system.
posted by Eringatang at 1:17 PM on November 4, 2007

I just have a highlighter and a pen that I use haphazardly (don't read books though, only papers), so your system is way more organised than anything I do. But I know a couple of people who use Papers (Mac software), which you might want to check out if you're interested in getting your notes into an electronic format.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:04 PM on November 4, 2007

My approach is very similar to Rallon's. I underline key ideas, often jotting a word or two in the margin to identify the topic (e.g. "religion," "government,") or, if it's argumentative, shifts in position (e.g. "contra point 1").

I like to also use the inside back cover. Here, I jot down broad topics and pages where I can find them discussed particularly well (e.g. "anarchism 24, 200-4, 315").

If I really want to outline the thing so I never really need to read it again (i.e. textbook stuff), I'll underline the topic sentence of the paragraph (often the first or last sentence) and a one-sentence summary of the paragraph in the margin.

I love the "v" for "vocab" trick kingtaj. I'm doing that from now on.
posted by wheat at 4:49 PM on November 4, 2007

When I was really working on a text (i studies literature) I actually photocopied onto legal-sized paper so I could take notes with abandon.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 5:26 PM on November 4, 2007

I underline key sentences, and/or write a note in the margin to tell myself what is being discussed there (e.g., "gap in time bet. fieldwork + writing up").

Where a concept/term is being defined in the text, I underline it and, in the margin, write (for example) "def.: interpretive anthropology."

Sometimes I draw a square around a word or phrase in order to make it stand out better (especially when the text around it has been underlined).

I also tend to use numbers next to sections in order to make the structure of the chapter/paper readily apparent. Sometimes I label them (when section headings are absent or don't stand out), for example writing "5 frames for ethnographic display" next to the beginning of that section, and then writing 1, 2, etc. next to the part where each of the 5 ideas is discussed.

Next to passages that are particularly important, I draw a star. However, I would do better to think up an actual system for this.

I use pencil, always. I tend not to write in books, but that's only because it feels sacrilegious. When I do take notes in books, they stick in my mind far better than when I don't. This also makes it much easier to come back to a book years later. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how to get over the feeling that writing in books is blasphemous.
posted by splendid animal at 6:03 PM on November 4, 2007

I mark and post it note the pertinent page and passage. I keep a separate journal where I fold the page in half and on the left side write the pertinent passage with citation info so that I can find the post it and margin notes. On the right side is my analysis and thoughts on the relevant section.

I am still thinking of how to do my notes better so I will read this thread with interest.
posted by jadepearl at 6:32 PM on November 4, 2007

I note themes or recurring stuff at the bottom of the page ("youth" "cannibalism" "gov't"), draw vertical lines next to things that would make good quotes, note the numbers of pages with related content, bracket lines that summarize the section well or that other people find noteworthy, write chapter summaries or titles at the beginning of each chapter, and, when appropriate, draw pictures (a tree, a hoofprint, a sword). I underline compulsively, but am trying to cut it down to topic sentences. I draw a box around themes or important events. If I'm reading literature, I circle the names of new characters. For foreign language texts, I'm currently drawing an open circle next to lines containing unfamiliar words. For English texts, I write the words at the front of the book. I mark dates with a > by the line in which they appear. I use notes like "eg" (no periods for expediency!) and "?" and "!" and ">:(", and I write responses (questions, insults, things that come to mind) in the margins. I have used splendid animal's numbering system. In books with lots of documents (literature, poetry) that covered a few themes, I have used colored post-it flags.

In science or other textbook-heavy classes, I outline the chapters as I read them, including all the necessary figures, so that I don't have to read the book a second time. When I go back to study, I rewrite the information again (including material from lecture) and condense it further. When I was studying cells and DNA replication, I outlined with watercolors and painted all of the diagrams and processes.

I write in my books in pen. I do not feel shame because the books I read are pretty cheap and, therefore, disposable. If I want a clean copy, I can always go buy one. (I might feel guilty about this if I had ever actually done it.)

(I never knew that my notation system was so involved...)
posted by ramenopres at 8:19 PM on November 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Pencil in the book. Mechanical pencil, because the marks don't smudge as much.

Underline key sentence-parts, star in the margin next to extra-important parts, write notes in the margins of objections I think of, related things the text connects to ("cf. Lewis"), etc. Note where the author is recapping what they've said so far ("recap").

Whenever an author says "There are three main arguments for this point" or the like, I put a symbol or letter etc in the margin next to that signpost, and immediately skip ahead and mark where those three arguments are with a symbol that matches - this makes it easy to build an outline of the paper when I'm going back through it, and keep straight that we are on the third counterargument to argument #2, looking at piece of evidence B for that counterargument.

When there is a short discussion of a topic of special interest to me, I note that in the top margin in all caps. I will also sometimes make an index for myself of pages where I've found good discussions of points I know I will want to revisit - either on the first page of a xeroxed article if there's a blank side, or adding to the existing index of a book.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:19 PM on November 4, 2007

And: vertical line next to text to indicate which part my marginal notes apply to.
Square box around technical terms being defined for the first time, or around words I don't know.
Long swooshing arrows sometimes, for example to mark the referent of a confusing pronoun (eg to show that "its" refers to "the executive branch" rather than "the legislative branch").
I do add subheadings if needed; also I hate long paragraphs so I will sometimes draw little lines indicating where a paragraph can be broken up for my taste.

Also in the top margin (the indexing part of the page) I note if a famous argument or passage is on this page ("Gyges's Ring").
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:29 PM on November 4, 2007

metafilter virgin here...I need useful information on really getting the best from EndNote software and notetaking, getting it all organized for a long paper. I am typing notes into Endnote now.

also, since I'm a newbie, can someone please post a new blog about recommendations for the best kinds of school supplies, ie. notebooks, etc. I am really tired the same old big notebooks and want something new, longer lasting, intellectual looking...and nice pens and such too.

thanks much...really enjoying the note-taking insight.
posted by veggiluvah at 10:00 PM on December 1, 2007

Hi veggieluvah - I am sending you a private message. Look in the top right corner or your screen, next to your username, and you will see a tiny little mailbox symbol. If you have a message, there will be a number next to the mailbox. Click there and you will go to your inbox.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:00 AM on December 2, 2007

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