A new way (to me) of note-taking

I have long struggled to keep on top of research notes. I have bags and boxes full of comprehensive, very detailed and hand-written notes from my PhD still hanging round my flat, which I still can’t face looking at, let alone deal with – sorting, rationalising, organising, etc.

I have tried various methods for note-taking, in attempts to be more efficient – like the famous Cornell approach. But nothing has stuck and I’ve always resorted to writing (sometimes typing, because even I can’t read my hand-writing!) copious pages, usually set out thusly:

Name of paper
Name of author
Date (of note-taking)
Full bibliographic reference (if I’m being organised/feeling kind towards future me who has to make sense of this mess)

page number
Bit of commentary
Another quote
[Some tangential thought I just had that might or might not relate in any way to what I’m reading, in parentheses]

page number
Bit of commentary
Shopping list
Bit of commentary

You get the idea …

So, just recently I’ve been doing some research for a Council-run project, which has involved reviewing published research and policy documents. I’d been given a set of themes – things that need to be highlighted – and set to work. I will not be the person writing-up the eventual report. So, these set of notes needed to work. They needed to present the information clearly, concisely and effectively. It took me a while to think how best to achieve this. The notes had to be digital (we’re using Google Drive to share and collaborate documents)- hand-written notes would not do.

So, rather than spending hours Googling different methods, I devised a grid that worked for me (and my rather chaotic way of doing things) but also did the required job (I hope!). Here’s what I did:

First of all, I thought about what I needed to achieve from reviewing this collection of papers. What were the key themes that needed to be researched in order to find out what I needed to know? In this context, not a difficult task at all, as I had already been provided with a list of ‘things’.

For my own research (or anyone else’s) this might be more difficult and require a bit of forethought (I tend to approach reading a bit ‘scattergun’, so this could be revolutionary for me!).

Let’s take as an example, a project about heritage sites and wellbeing, with a view to organising a similar programme within my own (entirely theoretical organisation). I’ve already been on Google Scholar and JSTOR, and downloaded a clutch of potentially useful looking papers.

What might I want to find out from my reading:

1. What’s already being done in the heritage sector with regards to projects that directly address the wellbeing of visitors and participants?

2. What’s the theoretical underpinning of these types of projects?

3. Effectiveness and success of these projects – how have they been evaluated, what are the outcomes?

4. Lessons learned?

I will then stick these points in a grid (summarised, so they fit nicely. I might also add an ‘Other’ row, in case there’s something else that I want to note as I’m reading, say, authors/research to follow-up or something that hadn’t previously occurred to me.

I’ll then copy and paste this grid several times into a Word document, thusly:


And then I’ll start filling in the names of the papers to the top line of the table … In Google Drive you can handily insert URL links, but it might be worth adding a full bibliographic reference, just in case.

Here’s a quick worked-up example, using RCMG’s latest report.


This example, perhaps, is more reflective of an initial trawl through the literature rather than close reading/note-taking, but you get the idea.

My summaries/comments/thoughts are in black text. Direct quotes are in blue.

The advantage about this method, for me, is that I can keep all my notes together in one file, save them in the Cloud and have them to hand wherever I happen to be working/writing and I can easily check the original source, if needed. All this, with the added bonus that they are (i) legible and (ii) take up no physical space!

So, all in all, hardly a revolutionary approach but one, I hope, that will change the way I research and write for the better, is flexible and adaptable and which might be of use to others.

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