one key thing about making notes

There’s a lot of advice out there for doctoral researchers about how to take notes. Templates. Questions to ask. Visual queues. Mnemonics. It’s great to look at all of these and see what works for you. 

But regardless of whether you use any or all of the stuff out there, or invent your own noting system, there’s one key thing about noting you need to consider. And a couple of things that flow from it.

The most important thing about noting is that you are writing for two readers. Both of them are you.

Notes are written for present you. Presentyou. Noting is a way to help you understand what is being said or written. Summarising and synthesising that you’re reading and thinking in writing and image are important. It’s a great way to get to grips with the key message of a paper and its argument. A great way to sort out a line of thinking. Noting is making meaning. And making your reading and thinking meaningful is important in the moment, as you’re doing it. There’s good reason to note for present you.

But you are also writing for future you. Futureyou. Futureyou might be you just next week or the week after, or it might be the you that will have just completed a big bit of field work in a few months time. Or the you in three years.

Doctoral researchers almost always have to go back to notes they made early on about literatures, notes about decisions made during designing the research, notes about ideas they had earlier for analysis. The same is true of more experienced researchers who do lengthy projects. The notes made near the start of your project are often integral to your later work.

So it’s good to think now about what futureyou might need from the notes that current you is making. Futureyou wants to:

  • find things without having to look for ages and ages through mountains and mountains of stuff. 

Having a good searchable system that you use throughout your doctorate/project is important. Consistent ways of naming and dating files. Folders with stuff about the same topic filed together. Key words that allow you to search. Links that allow you to see common clusters of ideas.

  • find the key point, the pith, the nutshell, the core of what current you is writing about.

Futureyou doesn’t want to wade through pages of notes about every paper and book you read. Future you wants presentyou to sum up the key point and make it visible. Futureyou doesn’t want to waste precious time searching and searching. And then trying to reconstruct the key point if it is missing. Starting again. Going back to the original to find what current you was actually thinking. Nooooo.

Thinking about futureyou likely means that presentyou uses some kind of interlocking digital framings that will allow futureyou to easily search and find. But if you are an analogue person who loves a notebook then presentyou needs to find a pen and paper format which is searchable and where you are able to make easily locatable summaries.

Futureyou needs presentyou to be organised. Even if you are the most untidy person in the world, like me, and presentyou finds getting your noting in order a complete pain. Working against the grain to become neat and tidy can be hard. But futureyou will thank you. They will be delighted that you have noted not just for the now, but also for the work to come.

Photo by Nathália Rosa on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in field notes, note-taking, notebook and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to one key thing about making notes

  1. Mohammad Alrefai says:

    Hi, I genuinely love the perspective you describe note-taking. It is absolutely captivating to dive deeply into the purpose of the notes. Thank you for sharing this post, as it stimulates me to consider note-taking seriously and purposefully.


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