World History


Then Again




Take Note



Except, perhaps, for bibliographies and footnotes, there is probably no more ornery aspect of writing a paper than taking notes. There are two unavoidable truths about taking notes:

  • 1. You will take more notes than you need.
  • 2. You will take fewer notes than you need.

You will take more notes than you need because you will not be able to narrow down your topic until you have actually begun your research. You will take fewer notes than you need because you not know the final shape of your argument until you actually begin writing. The following hints are to help you to minimize these problems.

I. Know what kind of notes you are taking

You read different kind of books to get different kinds of information. You shouldn't read a textbook the same way you read an encyclopedia and you shouldn't read an interpretive essay the same way you read an almanac. So it is with note taking. You have to know what kind of information you need from different kinds of sources. You need to take three different kinds of notes: bibliographic references, primary sources notes and secondary source notes.

      1. Bibliographic Notes

It is important that you keep a careful list of all the sources you use in preparing this paper. This list will form the bibliography of your paper and will also help you in citations in the body of your paper. Many people find it easiest to list each source on a separate index card, rather than making a single list. Be sure that you have all of the necessary bibliographic information for each source. (See the section on bibliographies for complete information.)

      2. Primary Source Notes

The notes which you take from a primary will consist of three types: 1) direct quotations, 2) paraphrases and 3) your own insights into the work. To avoid problems of plagiarism it is important that you know which notes are which. Use paraphrases to summarize general aspects of the work and quotations when you believe you might need an exact word or phrase. Be sure to keep track of your own thoughts as you read or study a primary source. These will lead to the thesis of your paper.

      3. Secondary Source Notes

The notes you take from a secondary source will generally consist of three kinds: 1) specific factual information, 2) background information and 3) interpretation. Specific facts would be when someone was born or what the cost of rice was in Beijing in 1358. Background or contextual information is not the focus of your paper but does place your topic in a wider historical framework. For example, your essay might be centered on the hoola hoop craze of the 1950s. You may want some specific factual information, such as how many hoola hoops were sold, but you might also want to know what other fads were popular at the time or what kind of cultural or political climate would have helped such a fad to develop.

You should also look to secondary sources for interpretations. Since the facts do not speak for themselves, it is necessary for the historian to make give them some shape and to put them in an order people can understand. This is called an interpretation. Many secondary sources provide not only information, but a way of making sense of that information. You should use a secondary source if you wish to understand how an historian makes sense of a particular event, person, or trend. For example, while researching your essay on hoola hoops, you come across a professor who has argued that the Coonskin Hat craze of the Fifties was a product of the McCarthy hearings. You might want to incorporate that thesis into your paper, either to confirm it or refute it.

II. Paraphrase more than quote.

    A. Quotation

It is tempting use quotations: it is much easier to use some one else's words than it is to make them up yourself and many people often feel much more secure citing some else's opinion rather than having to express their own. Avoid the temptation to quote, however. Take down direct quotations only:

  • 1. When you need the exact words in order to make your point.
  • 2. When what you claim is so outrageous that no one would believe you unless you used the exact words.
  • 3. When the authority has said what you wish to say so well that you could not possibly say it better.

    B. Paraphrase

Rather than take down the author's exact words, it is usually sufficient to summarize what the author says. This is especially true when taking note of an author's interpretation. Often the argument of a book is so long or complex that it is easier to paraphrase it than to quote it. Be sure, however, to keep track of page references. Paraphrases must be cited just like direct quotations, even if you are paraphrasing an argument which extends over a number of pages.

III. The mechanics of note taking

    A. Keep your notes organized.

It is extremely important that your notes are organized in way which will allow you to find information easily and quickly. Few things make writing a paper more tedious than having to look all over the place for a stupid lost scrap of paper. One common method is to put each item of information on a separate sheet of paper or note card. This will allow you to easily arrange the cards when it comes time to write the paper. For the more technologically adept, you might use a database such as FoxPro.

Treat each piece of information separately so that, when it comes times to write the paper, you can be flexible in how you use the information. If you are using note cards, put one fact on each card. Be sure to put the proper citation information on the card.

If the information is a series of facts, such as a table of dates, or a biographical sketch, which will all be used at the same place in your paper, you can put this all on a single note card or sheet of paper.

    B. Keep track of your sources.

Be sure each note card has the source of the information on it. One way to do this is to number all of your source cards and then put the source number on the note card. Be sure the page number is on the source card, too. You may also wish to give each card a brief title so that you know what information is on it.

    C. Distinguish quotations from paraphrases.

When taking notes on secondary sources be sure to distinguish between notes which are direct quotations and which are paraphrases. Always put quotation marks around all direct quotations. Make sure you use the sources exact words and copy the quote exactly, even if this means copying the sources spelling mistakes. Failure to do so might make you guilty of plagiarism.

Plagiarism is representing the work of someone else as your own. Most commonly this occurs by copying from a textbook or other source and failing to give proper credit to the author. You may avoid this problem by always using quotation marks whenever you use someone else's exact words and by always giving references whenever you quote from or paraphrase another author.

Quotation: "In proportion as war became chronic, kingship became necessary. Concentration of political authority in the hands of a single man seems to have become the rule in Sumerian cities by 3000 B.C. No doubt this change did something to improve local defense against barbarian raids, especially since it coincided with the construction of massive city walls" [William Mc Neill, The Rise of the West (Chicago; Univ. of Chicago, 1963) p. 43.]

Paraphrase: Kingship arose a warfare became more common. Kingship, which gave political power to a single individual, developed in Sumer around 3000 BC, at about the same time city walls were built. It is therefore likely that both events were designed to defend against barbarian raids. [William Mc Neill, The Rise of the West (Chicago; Univ. of Chicago, 1963) p. 43.]

Plagiarism: Kingship became necessary in proportion as war became more common. Concentrated political authority was common in Sumerian cities by 3000 BC. This change helped to improve local defense against barbarian raids, especially since it happened at the same time that large city walls were built. [Note: This paragraph would be plagiarism even if the author cites the source. This "paraphrase" is not sufficiently different from the original. The author should either develop a better paraphrase or simply quote the original in full.]

You can show that you know that the source has committed an error by placing the word "sic" in square brackets after the error. For example, if you were reading along in Ralph Kramden's book on sixteenth century Spain and came across these words:

    There is no doubt but that Philip of Spane was the most powerful monarch of the sixteenth century.

you might take down the quotation like this:

    Kramden, Ralph, The Honeymooner's Guide to Sixteenth Century Spain (Metropolitan Transit Authority Press; Brooklyn; 1956) p. 12234.

    "There is no doubt but that Philip of Spane [sic] was the most powerful monarch of the sixteenth century."

    D. You don’t need to write down everything.

Don't waste time taking down notes you wont need. If a book has a good index and you will have it with you as you write your paper you don't need to take notes from it. There will also be things, such as the name of the artist and the basic sketch of his or her life which will become so familiar to you over the course of writing the paper that you will be able to write a one or two paragraph biography from memory.

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