Put It in Your Own Words

Note taking is much different from copying the information you find. When you write a research paper, or any type of report, you need to gather the information, read or view it until you understand it, and then take notes from it. There is no sense in writing down what someone else wrote about the topic. When you copy directly from another source, no critical thinking is involved. It is too easy to copy the information without really understanding or thinking about what you are writing. Put the information in your own words to ensure that you fully comprehend it.

When you put notes in your own words, you are always paraphrasing and sometimes summarizing. Paraphrasing is restating information or ideas using your own words and presenting it in your own form. Summarizing is condensing a main idea into a shorter format, also in your own words.

The jury is still out regarding the best way to record and organize your notes. There are three main methods. You can use index cards or full-sized lined paper to write on, or type notes directly into your computer. The system you use depends on your personal preference; there are pros and cons to each. Some people like to use index cards, writing each note or each similar group of notes on a separate card. This can result in a large stack of index cards, but they can be easier to sort out and put in order later on. Other people prefer regular lined paper, using one page for every group of similar notes or skipping a line for a new group of ideas or information. Much more information can fit on a full piece of paper, but it can be more challenging to find a way to use this method for sorting and outlining later. If you decide to use regular sheets of paper, it is best to write on only one side of the page. That way you avoid having to flip back and forth when you use your notes to begin writing. Typing notes on the computer makes it easy to reorganize your material using the word processor's cut and paste feature.

Whatever you use to write your notes on, you may want to include information about the source directly beside the note. Use any shorthand that works for you. Just be sure that you can find the full citation later when you need to prepare the bibliography. Include a volume number or page number if applicable, which you'll need in order to recheck any information later.

As you progress, you may find that most of your notes fall into a few general categories. It may be helpful for your future outlining to make note of the category that would be an obvious fit for that particular note. Then when it comes time to organize your notes, you have these headings to go by.

Change the Wording Right Away

Too often students try to take shortcuts by copying information straight from the source, believing that they will put it in their own words when they write the first draft. This usually leads to writing the first draft straight from that information. It is very difficult to copy notes directly from a source and not use some of the same wording in your draft. When you write the draft from your own notes, there is no wording to influence you but your own.

You should change the wording to your own as you take notes from your research. Doing this ensures that you are not copying anything word for word, and confirms that you understand the content of those notes. Doing this won't take much more time than it does to copy things directly, and it will make the final paper much easier to write. Suppose you read this: “The ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu is thought to have once been a religious retreat. Found there is an intihuatana, a slab of stone where a priest would perform a ceremony as the winter solstice approached. He would try to tie the sun to the stone to keep it from disappearing.” Your notes from this might be put in point form, including one point for each, such as “Machu Picchu was an Incan city”; “may have had religious significance.” You would also add “they had an intihuatana—a big rock to which a priest tried to attach the sun symbolically when winter was coming.”

Use Note Form

At this point you do not write your information into paragraphs. In fact, it's just a waste of your time if you do. Because you are gathering information from an assortment of different sources, some areas of research may be repeated. If you try to put it all in paragraph form at this time, you will end up rewriting those paragraphs once you have all the information together.

As you gather information, write it down in note form. Don't use any sentences; just write the main facts. Descriptive phrases are fine if they are literally part of the meaning, but not if they are part of the original writer's judgment. For instance, you could write that someone had a child, but not that it was “sullen and apathetic.”

Notes make it easier to write your paper using your own words. Without someone else's phrases and sentences, you won't be tempted to write things in the same fashion they did. It also means that you can organize your paper in any order that suits you. Some information that you found together may fit better in separate places in your paper.

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