Sunday, October 05, 2008

Notetakers Anonymous

I spent part of the weekend filling in and cleaning up the footnotes to a project that I've been working on by fits and starts for more than two years. It's gone through some significant changes and revisions, and my footnotes reflect that process: some are extensive, with complete citations, commentary, and elaboration where necessary. Most, however, look like this:
"Smith, pp.??"

"Jones, pp.??; also maybe Brown?"

"Fine and O'Brien disagree, but [EXPLAIN]."

"BIG LIST OF CITATIONS HERE!"
In some cases, filling the gaps is a cinch, but in others it takes significant effort not only to track down the relevant works and page numbers, but also to recollect whatever I intended for that footnote to do.

Part of the problem is that I don't have a standardized notetaking system. Perhaps half of my notes are on my computer, organized into files under general subject headings. I always print out hard copies, though, and it's these hard copies that I usually refer to when I'm working--I like to go back and underline or bracket important things or write additional notes in the margin.

A second group of notes exists only in hardcopy, since I often read in bed, in coffee shops, and other places where it's troublesome to lug my laptop around; I also focus better when I write in longhand. These notes fill legal pad pages organized by author, but with big blocky headings to remind me of the main topic on any given page.

A third group of notes consists of marginal annotations, either in books I own or in the many photocopied articles or chapters I acquire over the life of a project. I like this method the best, though it's probably the least efficient from the standpoint of information retrieval--since I often wind up leafing back through every single page of a given book.

I think there are benefits to my continually rereading my notes and reencountering my sources; for one thing, I don't retain information particularly well, especially when that information isn't immediately useful and only becomes so as a project develops. Still, I have the sense that most people use methods that are less ad hoc and more efficient than mine--methods that also don't threaten eventually to bury their authors alive in paper.

So tell me: how do you take, organize, and refer back to your notes?

16 comments:

Dr. Crazy said...

I think that our systems for taking notes are eerily similar, which could mean that I'm no help, but I think our systems for writing from notes are different.

See, I do what you do, but before I sit down to work on something, I typically gather everything together, and anything that is marginalia in a book or on an article, or specific notes from my longhand archives, I type into a word document that is set up in very basic outline form. That way, even if I put something down for 6 months, I've got a document that has all of what I thought I'd need properly cited. Sure, I sometimes veer from that, but it means that I can draft and leave weird half-notes to myself and have a clear idea months down the road what the heck I was thinking.

The other benefit of this, which is a pretty big one when you're doing multiple projects on the same thing, is that you can be sure that you're not just writing the same article over and over again, even if topics are quite similar.

I am sure there's a more efficient way to do all of this, but like you, I find that rereading and revisiting notes, and writing longhand, really does help to process. I find that when I type stuff directly into the computer that I don't actually think about it - I just type words and think about other things (a skill I learned at my transcription typing gig and that I apparently internalized).

Flavia said...

Hmm. I don't think I quite get what you're describing, here:

I type [those notes] into a word document that is set up in very basic outline form. That way, even if I put something down for 6 months, I've got a document that has all of what I thought I'd need properly cited. . . . it means that I can draft and leave weird half-notes to myself and have a clear idea months down the road what the heck I was thinking.

Do you mean you outline the source from which your notes were derived (or the nature of your notes on/ideas from that source)? Or do you mean that you outline the project that you're about to start writing?

The former seems like something I might be able to do--I hate the idea of transcribing notes immediately from books/longhand into a wordprocessed document, since it seems like doubling the amount of my labor, but as part of the prewriting thinking process I can definitely see how it might be useful. The latter, though, I totally couldn't do. I never have the first fucking clue what I'm doing when I start writing--I just get to the point where I'm fed up with researching and just have to write as much as I possibly can as fast as I can, without thinking about it; then I expand, refine, and push that stuff around for a long, long time until it starts to look like an argument. For whatever reason, outlining in the early stages seems to short-circuit my thinking process rather than help bring my ideas into focus.

Dr. Crazy said...

Actually, I've done both things that you describe. Usually, I actually do the latter, though. Note that when I say "outline" I mean rough topic headings with quotations and paraphrases listed under those. So it might be something like "gender and modernism" or "performativity" - just so I can find what I'm looking for when I'm looking for it. It bears little relationship to the order of how the essay will go at the early stage. Sometimes, about halfway through the writing process, I'll plug what I've got left over into an actual outline, but that's only if I'm stuck and I'm trying to figure organization out.

medieval woman said...

Oooo! I love this game...

Every single note I take is written on white, unlined paper - either in a spiral bound sketchbook or on one of a billion sheets of computer paper. I write in the margins of books/articles and then re-copy the notes onto paper. Then I write 20-page outlines and re-copy short forms of the notes/citations in there. Each page is numbered and has the author and text written at the top. And then they all get a manila file folder. When I write, I don't do much real composition on the computer b/c it's all written down already. Then I print hardcopies of the drafts and work from there...

I just realized that this kind of process might sound like that of a serial killer....

Flavia said...

Medieval Woman, qu'est-ce que c'est? Fa fa fa fa fa fa run away.

Yes. That does sound like the process of a serial killer. And yet efficient, if one had such a brain!

penelope said...

Flavia, I do the same thing you do (insert a footnote in draft with author's name, then go look it up later). For a conference paper, I don't mind having to look stuff up at the end, really, but when I'm working on a longer project, my rule is that I can't begin a new section until I get those notes finished. Though sometimes all that does is stall the beginning of the next section, so it's not the best solution. ;)

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I have always thought that some efficient worker uses my study when I'm not in it and leaves her files behind. My notes are so all over the place, and yet I sometimes find tidy assemblies of papers in labeled folders. I used to think it might be writing elves, but now I understand: Medieval Woman has been here.

All over the place = like Flavia, some on the computer, some on paper, some in margins (though I'm more likely to put sticky notes in the margins and write on those). I assemble bibliographies for specific projects in a computer folder, and then turn the "things to read" list into an annotated bib. It makes retrieval a little easier. But there's always something lurking in the corners of my mind, something I read when I was leafing through the latest issue of [some journal] on the way home and thought "Oh, that would be good for [project], must remember to write that down" and then---of course---I don't.

So, the heck with the writing elves; how do I get Medieval Woman to come and organize my files?

Dr. Virago said...

My process is *exactly* like yours, Flavia, down to the "Smith, pp??" footnote fillers (I have all those variations).

But I'm trying to get better, to at least *index* what I've done in some way. So now I'm starting a Word file - just one - for every project and entering a variety of notes into it, in order of when I read or thought about something. I'm not copying all my marginalia into it, but I'm at least writing a full citation and an abstract of the article, book, or chapter, and then writing my own general responses to what I thought was useful or interesting, and sometimes some page notations for the quotable bits. This way I'll at least have an index of the work I've done so far, and it will all be in one machine-searchable text.

Pamphilia said...

Mine also look just like yours! But lately whenever I start an essay or article, I try to incorporate the full note early on, even if it slows me down. It's gotten a bit easier this way, though I still have all those question marks and fill-in-the-blanks later on. I'm finding endnote very useful for bibliographic info though- I didn't write my diss with it, so had my research assistant compile my entire bibliography into endnote, so now I just add every reference I read to it, and that helps. But not with page numbers or exact points of course.

Flavia said...

This is all making me feel so much better. I'd been under the vague impression that everyone else in the world did something tidy and efficient with notecards or electronic programs or something, and that my bulging manila file folders or the dedicated piles around my office were not just lo-tech, but signs of my total scholarly ineptitude.

(In other words, I wish to continue to declare MW a freak of nature--though a charming one!)

Sisyphus said...

Aha! my Dissertation Buddy, also a medievalist, uses Medieval Woman's system or something very very close to it. I suspect it has something to do with the medievalness of it all.

Now my process sounds a lot like Flavia's:

I never have the first fucking clue what I'm doing when I start writing--I just get to the point where I'm fed up with researching and just have to write as much as I possibly can as fast as I can, without thinking about it; then I expand, refine, and push that stuff around for a long, long time until it starts to look like an argument. For whatever reason, outlining in the early stages seems to short-circuit my thinking process rather than help bring my ideas into focus.

And now I'll have to go write my own little posty about all this. Yay! Procrastinating by writing about writing processes! My favorite!

adjunct whore said...

do you ever notice that you (er, me) tend to drift toward blogs when grading papers?

my process seems much like yours, Flavia. my footnotes are from hell for awhile, my notes are most often in longhand on legal pads, i have so many legal pads with notes, it is terrifying. whole drawers. but this is how i understand material: it is important for me to write it out, i take more careful notes, and i really process what i'm reading and its relationship to whatever i'm working on. i honestly cannot imagine changing this.

whenever i am struggling to unpack my own argument, my partner always says "write an outline" to which i always say "i hate outlines"--i can't write this way. usually at some point, like after one full draft, i'll do a mini outline of what i have to see if it is logically holding up, but not always.

anyway, notes. i'm kind of fond of my process, as messy as it is, i don't see changing it. perhaps when i'm indexing my book i'll change my mind.

medieval woman said...

Hee, hee - I like the freak o' nature status! It's also because I *really really* can't get something into my brain without some kind of "manual scripting" - I can't process information on a screen - which is why my last verbal GRE score went down when it stopped being given in paper/pencil form. Have I mentioned that I also write everything in black pen, but switch to a red pen when writing in the footnotes?

We'll see if this process can continue much longer on the tenure track, though!

priscian said...

To move footnoting into the 20th century: EndNote; or even better, BibTeX.

Ben said...

If you have a Mac, DevonTHINK is pretty useful for note-taking. I take all notes on the computer. I've found that I end up taking too extensive of notes when I read and then immediately type what I *think* is relevant. But, this is solved by first reading the text (or a chunk of it) without taking any notes, and then putting the important points into DevonTHINK.

In my main database, I have a notes folder for books, usually named by author and year. Within this folder are folders for the relevant chapter, named, for instance, "5 Globalization and the Third World." Within those are the individual notes, labelled with an "orderer" followed by a title: "a1 History", "a2 WWI". In these individual notes, is the page number, the info, another page number if necessary, more info, etc.

Upon writing, I print the notes out, and organize them like it is recommended to with note cards. I cut out the individual statements of single fact. To find the source, I can do a quick search in DevonTHINK.

St. Eph said...

I'm still working out my long-form note strategy as I move through the dissertation (I'm on the last chapter!), but recently I've had luck with two electronic whatsits:

1) Setting up a dummy blog where I type out the quotes I think I'll be needing from a source, along with my commentary on them. Each article or chapter gets its own entry, tagged with keywords. I used this for the big chapter on a set of three plays, and it really did help manage critical material that was really specific and yet spread out.

2) For this last chapter, I'm trying Evernote. What's kind of awesome about it is that it will recognize and copy text from PDFs, which is what most of my articles are in these days. This saves me from having to type up so damn much, but is making me less selective in the quotations I'm saving. I'm also finding myself adding less commentary, so I have a mass of quotes with no idea of what I want to do with them. However, it does offer keyword tags, and one can sort notes into separate notebooks.

Neither of these helps with the longhand notes, but I find the duplication of moving notes from longhand to electronic status helps me figure out what's what and why's why. But, then, I really, really like fiddling and sorting--it's the most productive-feeling of my procrastination techniques.