Conducting research for a project, whether it be an essay for school, a thesis paper, or a work-related project, can be an intimidating task. Oftentimes you discover a hodgepodge of information related to your topic, most of which you were not expecting to find. It can seem impossible to sort out all of this information into a way that makes sense for the outline of a research paper or essay. For this reason, organizing your research notes is an extremely important skill that saves you time and confusion during the research process. Here are some of the best procedures to keep you on track and on top of your notes, plans, and ideas throughout a research project.
1. Getting started
When first starting out, it’s always a good idea to get familiar with your general topic and do preliminary reading on background information. This allows you to consider your specific research topic from an informed perspective. Additionally, you can gauge what kind of information is available on your topic, and potentially discover other related subjects that may guide or alter your research question. When you’re writing an essay, keeping your research organized is a challenging task. Unfortunately, there isn’t a “best” way to get yourself organized and there’s not just one single answer. The bottom line is you have to choose a system that works for your learning style and your writing habits.
The most important thing to adhere to throughout the research process is keeping a journal dedicated specifically to the project. Create a dedicated space to keep all of your notes, discoveries, sources, and ideas. It is highly recommended to keep a physical journal with handwritten notes, as this creates a stronger connection between you and your research, forces you to think deeper, and may make some of the information more tangible. However, virtual research and note taking is extremely popular, and many opt for storing their notes on the computer. There are a few ways to get the best of both worlds in terms of information storage:
- Scan your physical notes onto your computer: Use apps like Evernote and Genius scan to upload handwritten notes onto your virtual workspace. The drawback to this method is that it is more difficult to go back and edit your notes later.
- Use a tablet: Most tablets like iPads have a compatible stylus available to allow you to hand write notes directly onto your tablet. This is the most convenient method if you are interested in purchasing a tablet or already own one.
Regardless of your preferred note taking method, the most important part is keeping all of your notes and project related information in one place, whether it be a physical notebook or a folder on your computer. You also need to get in the habit of writing down all of your thoughts on the project as you have them. This prevents you from overthinking or forgetting your ideas throughout the day.
2. Organizing research
As you narrow down your topic and begin doing more detailed and thorough research, keep a working outline of the final paper. Create a guide to remind you of your end goal and the purpose of the project. What is your main argument, what are the supporting ideas, and what sources back up those ideas? This helps you build a cohesive understanding of the paper before you begin writing, as well as recognize the importance of the sources you find. Online software such as Braincat can simplify the process of creating an outline. With this app you can record all of your notes and ideas, categorize them with personalized headings, and view a visual map of your progress. This also makes it easier to edit your outline as you go compared to writing on paper.
With your main ideas in mind, you can focus on what’s important, and filter out the rest. Although you may come across a plethora of interesting information, you may find yourself wasting time by digging through sources that aren’t relevant enough to make it into your final paper. With every source you discover, consult your outline and main focus and determine if that source is worthwhile.
As you find sources and your pile of useful information grows larger, keep a rigid system of organization so you don’t get lost. Many people prefer color coding each subtopic or argument and highlighting their notes or using post-its to label each source. You can also create subfolders on your computer, or tabs in a binder, to separate your notes. Be sure that you can identify related items easily.
3. Analyzing sources
After your research is complete, analyzing and note organization is a key step. Go back and review your research as a whole, refresh yourself on everything that you’ve found, and notice what has changed about your understanding of the topic and the direction of your project. Then, write a summary or annotation for each source on what you learned from it and why it is important to your project. This is also an opportunity to create the proper citations for each source so you can easily cite them while writing your paper. Be sure to write your annotations in your own words. Avoid using quotes and simplify the information as much as possible so you understand it easily.
By following these steps, you will feel in control of your project from start to finish and will avoid getting confused by piles of research notes. Staying organized throughout your research also streamlines the writing process, as you are already aware of your main points, your supporting arguments, and how each source supports your claims. You will find that after using these organization strategies, writing the actual research paper is a breeze.