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4.7 The Research Essay -- Taking Notes

So, you've now got your topic. You've written a draft proposal for your instructor or teaching assistant. You've done the legwork at the library and you've got some ideas drawn up in outline form. Excellent! You're ready to get down to the actual research. Now's the time that you start taking notes. How do you proceed?

Well, the first rule is quite simple: To take good notes is to know in advance what you are looking for. That sounds simple enough, doesn't it? But how many times have you gone into research mode by consuming everything and writing down everything you've seen? Talk about over-kill! It's not necessary. What is necessary is to know why you are looking at a specific source. That might mean a great deal of reading or, in some cases, quite a bit less. It all depends on the topic. More important, however, it all depends on what you are looking for. Keep that question in the front of your mind as you conduct your research: why am I looking at this source? what am I looking for?

Well, you first need a clear understanding and grasp of your topic. If you don't have a clue about how you are going to proceed (or why) then you will find yourself with a pile of notes you will never use. Worse still, you could fail to take notes on things which are essential to the successful completion of your essay. Regardless, you might find yourself in way over your head before you've even really begun your work. This usually occurs when you first set out to research a topic. You have some vague idea about the topic but have not yet refined it. For example, you know you want to write something about William Godwin and his notion of human perfectibility but what about after that? In other words, it's not enough to say you want to write about such and such a topic. You need to ask yourself why. Off you go. You read inconsistently and wildly and take notes on things which may not end up in the finished product. So, it is essential that you carefully define the nature and scope of your research, and stick to it. Again, time management is important for the simple fact that you don't have much time (more about this below).

As you begin reading your primary and secondary sources you will find sections of those sources which you may wish to include in your own essay. What is the general idea the author is trying to convey? Write it down. Is he pressing a specific interpretation? What is it? What sorts of sources does the author utilize? And of course, is the author's book useful to you in any way?

You may find yourself pulling quotations from various texts. That's okay. In fact, you must use quotations in historical writing of any kind. The rule is: copy the quote exactly as it appeared. Don't change the word order or change the text in any way. It is absolutely essential that the meaning of the quotation you use is absolutely clear. Above all, do not use the quotation out of the context established by the author. If you do so, then you will be twisting the arguments of that particular author, and you will be defeating the purpose of using the quotation in the first place.

Using quotations to establish both your understanding of the topic under review and to give evidence to what you are saying is essential. But, using too many quotations is not a good thing. In the hundreds of essays I've read over the years, I have sometimes seen students submit papers in which paragraphs are nothing but a series of quotations strung together. You can't do this. As a rule, quoting an author is not enough. You need to explain to your reader why you have selected this quotation in the first place. In other words, saying this or that is not enough. You have to explain why and this means discussing the importance or significance of the quote. You'll soon find that explaining a quotation from a primary or secondary source will enhance your own writing and your own comprehension of the topic.

Okay, well how to do use quotations intelligently and forcefully? Well, use them when they are needed ("when in doubt, leave it out"). You need to learn to paraphrase the arguments of an author. In this way, an author's interpretation can be blended with your own, or your overall discussion. So read the passage, or section, or chapter and then, first in your mind and then on paper, record your understanding of it. Try to explain things in your own words first, and then retrieve a quotation or series of short quotations to give force to what you just said. Like writing in general, knowing when to use quotations is an art in itself. I have always found that beginning a paragraph with a quotation is an excellent way to prepare your reader for what is to come. Of course, ending a paragraph with a quote is an excellent way of tying together the previous discussion. And yes, inserting quotations in the body of a paragraph will focus the reader's attention. Quotations, used judiciously throughout your research essay, can be of benefit to you by enhancing the finished product.

One more thing. There will be times that an author will quote another author. You can use the quotation from the other author but be sure to locate the original source (it's usually a footnote). If you can't locate it, then you will have to acknowledge that in some way (in a footnote of your own).

Okay, so you've learned a few tips toward more economical note taking. You've learned the necessity of quoting an author's words, when applicable. But where do all these notes go? How do you take notes?

Well, we're back to the index cards again. Only this time, instead of using a 3 x 5 card, buy yourself either 4 x 6 or 5 x 8 index cards. (I prefer the 5 x 8 card.) But why not use the same 3 x 5 card? Simple: you'll need more room on the note cards because they will contain more than just bibliographical information. Fine, you've got the cards, now what?

The general rule is that your cards ought to contain only one idea or discussion of an idea. Your cards ought to contain information from one source only. Going back to the Godwin example above, it's poor practice to put the following on one card.

---Godwin was the son of a Dissenting minister who punished him often for his frivolity on Sundays. (Grylls, p.34)
---Godwin was also a minor radical who wrote a lot in the 1790s.
---Caleb Williams was Godwin's most famous novel.
---Paine and Godwin knew one another. (pp.42-45)
---Godwin called for a "well-conceived" or "simple form of society without government." (Political Justice, II, p.325)

See the problems here? You've got a bunch of different topics as well as sources all located on one card. How then should you proceed? Well, for starters, title a bunch of cards "Biography," and then on those cards put information which only relates to Godwin's biographical details. Another series of cards would be devoted to Godwin's fiction (and perhaps a stack of cards just on Caleb Williams), still other cards to his relationship with Tom Paine and still other cards with his ideas on government. You might even want to keep another set of cards which describe some of Godwin's contemporaries. It's even a good idea to keep some cards which list modern writers who have made Godwin the focus of some of their published work (you know, the Godwin scholars!). Again, only one source on each card. Don't mix ideas, sources, reflections or quotations on one card.

When you've begun to collect a number of note cards, it's a good idea to keep them in separate piles, each tied together with a rubber band. You can even buy a file box (sort of like a card catalog drawer) in which to keep them, separated by markers. You can make one yourself if you are enterprising enough. The bottom line is: keep things organized. The bigger the research project, the more organization your project will require. Let's move on.

If you use direct quotations from any of your sources, make sure that you (1) copy the quote exactly, (2) write the author's name and short title under the quote and (3) make sure the page number is correct. The reason is so that you will have your direct reference correctly cited. And why would you want to do that? Simple? The reason we use footnotes is so that someone reading our work can locate the source of the quotation. That makes sense, doesn't it?

Here's an example of a good note card taken from my own research:

Derek Fraser, in his Evolution of the Welfare State, calls Godwin a "near anarchist" (p.98)

That's it. That's the whole card. Can you tell me why that's a good note card? Or why it might be a good quotation? Here's another one. It's titled "Sincerity":

"How great would be the benefit, if every man were sure of meeting in his neighbor the ingenuous censor, who would tell him in person, and publish to the world, his virtues, his good deeds, his meannesses and his follies?"
(Godwin, Political Justice, vol1, p.329)

---this must be impartial and dispassionate
---cool logic without emotion (did Godwin "feel" anything?)
---Sincerity is a virtue, by its utility

As you can see, the entire content of this note pertains to Godwin's notion of sincerity, which he also called "intellectual candor." I've even asked myself a question: "did Godwin feel anything?" Perhaps this will make way for a discussion in the finished product. After all, one of Godwin's problems, as I see it at least, was that he thought too much and felt too little and this attitude, would be overcome by the English Romantic poets (Blake, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth). There you go, another topic: what was the relationship between the English Romantics and Godwin? Perhaps you'll need a bunch of note cards on that as well. I imagine you're starting to get the picture, one thing building upon and off another.

If the quotation you are citing runs to more than one card, then either continue on the backside or begin a new card but be sure to number the card in some way so that you know where it belongs. I wouldn't staple the two cards together because that'll make it difficult to use when you are actually writing. Paper clips don't work either. Look at it this way. Say your sitting outside the student union and for some reason, you drop your entire stack of cards. If you've marked them correctly, you should be able to place them back into their proper order without much problem. Need I say it again, but organization is everything. The more organized you become, the more organized and your research will surely be.

After a while, depending on how much energy you devote to your research, you ought to begin to collect a stack of note cards. That's good! Keep them handy--that is, on your desk or carry them whenever you head over to the library. You can also use the note cards to record your own thoughts as you progress through the early stages of your research. Record things that pertain to your topic, questions you might have, things which ought to have been researched but haven't. In short, begin to write the research essay (more about this to follow). Why was Godwin a minor radical? I don't think he was such a person and here's why. Why did one author say that Godwin (an apparent liberal) was similar, in many respects, to Edmund Burke (the father of a conservative political theory)? Were all Dissenters politically active? Again, so many questions that need to be answered. Take your time and think!

You will ordinarily record your research with your 5 x 8 cards and a pen. In some libraries, especially archives, you will only be allowed to use a pencil due to the importance of many manuscripts and documents. However, with so many laptops in the hands of students these days, perhaps you might be tempted to do away with the poor little index card and just slap all your information into a database of some sort. Well, I don't have any problem with that unless you can't print up your notes on 5 x 8 index cards. Of course, computer text retrieval software is a great thing to have at your disposal. There are a number of programs which will allow you to input bibliographical information and then, with a few clicks of the mouse, generate a stylistically correct bibliography. But, trying to write a research essay on Godwin with 350 individual notes tucked away on the hard drive of your PC or Mac is going to be tough business. Why? Because you need to spread these note cards out in front of you when you write. So, using your PC or Mac to help store your data is fine as an adjunct, but not as the sole means of support for your research notes. Of course, a great deal of this depends on the nature of your research. If you are quantifying information, then a database is essential. But, if you are writing about the effect of Vico's philosophy of history on the thought of Jules Michelet, well, you're going to need a different approach.

One final thought. And it bears upon something each and every writer has had to face at least once in their career: plagiarism. Plagiarism can be defined as stealing the thoughts of another and using them as your own. Worse than the mere mis-quoting of a source, plagiarism can get you into deep trouble. On the one hand, you could end up with a failed grade on your essay. On the other hand, stealing the thoughts of another means you've been lazy. You've taken the easy way out. Better to struggle with knowledge than take the easy way out. I trust you agree.

The problem with reading history, especially the work of historians, is that they use a language specific to history itself. And as you are reading an argument, you become tempted to duplicate that language to the point that what you record as your ideas are really little more than reworked sentences of someone else's work. It's easy to fall into this trap. And your instructor will know when you have fallen into the trap. After all, he's the one who's spent a great deal of his lifetime researching things you are just beginning to discover. He's read all the books (well, most of them) and is familiar with the arguments. Nine times out of ten, he can spot the familiar relapse into plagiarism because he notices that: "Hmm, this section on Godwin's biography is okay, but this discussion on Godwin's theory of perfectibility looks different." he begins to take note of special words: hegemony, ideology, epigoni, transcendent, anathema, noumenal, well, you get the picture.

How do you avoid plagiarism? Hard work, I'm afraid. You need to read your sources carefully. If something is worth quoting, then do so. Paraphrasing is the technique in which you deduce the meaning of a passage, or section, in your own words. Simple rewording won't do. Explain the passage or section in your own words. I know this is tough to do but you have to do it. Nobody said writing was easy work!

It isn't easy. Nope, it's hard, mental labor. Here's a trick I learned in an eighth grade English composition class. The teacher walked to his desk, removed the center drawer and dumped its contents onto the table. He then looked at us and said, "Describe this!" That's it. You know what? We wrote a lot because we had our subject matter right in front of us. In a way, we "knew" our subject matter. That made it easy to write about it. The point? If you know your subject, writing about it will be that much easier. Again, as I've repeated throughout this guide, trust yourself and be confident.

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