Keeping things honest pt.2: note-taking how-to

Last time I wrote about note taking: what to do, what to avoid, some pitfalls to avoid, and suggested some tools that can help. Today I want to get a little more into the nuts and bolts of note-taking. It is easy for me to advise you to take good, accurate and reliable notes, but how should you actually do that?

Something I mentioned several times was paraphrasing. Simply put, paraphrasing is putting another person’s words into your own words. This is not quite the same thing as summarizing. Paraphrase tends to use a similar number of words to convey the same message as the original text, just with different words. Summarizing, as well as re-wording the statement, also condenses it.

This example should illustrate the difference:

Original text:
“The use of pointed arches in Gothic architecture allowed the builders of cathedrals to conceive of taller structures with thinner walls and a greater number of windows. This allowed more light to stream into the cathedral, the desire for which was a reflection of the neoplatonic emphasis on the divinity of light.”

Paraphrase:
“By using the pointed arch, which allowed for taller and thinner walls with more windows, builders of Gothic cathedrals created structures that catered to the neoplatonic desire for more ‘divine’ light to be allowed into the cathedral.”

Summary:
“Pointed arches led to brighter interior spaces.”
Depending on what you want to take from the original passage, you could also summarize it thus:
“Neoplatonic belief held that light was divine.”

Note that my paraphrase not only rewords the passage, it also changes it from two sentences to one. This is fine.

You may find that summary is used more often in your writing than paraphrase. This is not unusual. After all, keeping your language simple and concise is a key element of successful writing. But there are times when paraphrase is extremely useful. For example if you are using a source written in an old, archaic style, paraphrase can be extremely useful as it allows you to bring it up to date, so to speak.

Let’s say for example that you are using the diary of Samuel Pepys to write about life in 17th century London. I this case you will want to paraphrase in your notes. Why? Partly to make sure that you actually understand what he wrote (to paraphrase one must first understand the thing being paraphrased!) but also partly so that when you go back to use your notes, you won’t have to paraphrase then.

An example from 343 years ago:
“Up betimes, and with my Joyner begun the making of the window in my boy’s chamber bigger, purposing it shall be a roome to eat and for having musique in. To the office, where a meeting upon extraordinary business, at noon to the ‘Change about more, and then home with Creed and dined, and then with him to the Committee of Tangier, where I got two or three things done I had a mind to of convenience to me. Thence by coach to Mrs. Pierce’s, and with her and Knipp and Mrs. Pierce’s boy and girle abroad, thinking to have been merry at Chelsey; but being come almost to the house by coach near the waterside, a house alone, I think the Swan, a gentleman walking by called to us to tell us that the house was shut up of the sicknesse. So we with great affright turned back, being holden to the gentleman; and went away (I for my part in great disorder) for Kensington, and there I spent about 30s. upon the jades with great pleasure, and we sang finely and staid till about eight at night, the night coming on apace and so set them down at Pierce’s, and so away home, where awhile with Sir W. Warren about business, and then to bed.” [9 April 1666. This excerpt and many, many others can be found here. His amazing diaries stretch over many years, but if you are interested in exploring the world of Pepys, you can start off with books like this one.]

It is highly unlikely that any of the above sentences would appear verbatim were I to be taking notes on this source. Even if I wanted to take extensive notes, they would be heavily paraphrased, updating the language and style to be more contemporary and, to me, more immediately meaningful. Naturally, when taking these notes and paraphrasing and summarizing as appropriate, I would also be carefully citing the original source so that I could quickly return to it as needed.

Remember though that you are taking notes for yourself here. You don’t need to use full or formal sentences to paraphrase or summarize in your notes. Shorthand and abbreviations are perfectly fine as long as you know what your notes say. For example, my thesis was on Henry Percy, first Earl of Northumberland. There was no way I was going to write that out in full every time he appeared in my notes. He therefore simply became “HPnum”, whch in time was shortened to just “HP”. His son, another Henry Percy was initially referred to in my notes by his nickname “Hotspur” which eventually was shortened to “HS”. HP’s brother Thomas was simply “Thos”. Westminster became “W.Min” Northumberland became “Numb”, and so on.

Sources were abbreviated as well. For example, the chroniclers Thomas Walsingham and Henry Knighton became “TW” and “HK” respectively, while the Calendar of Patent Rolls became “CPR” and TW’s chronicle Historia Anglicana became “HA”, his Chronicon Angliae, “CA”.  The point is that these were my notes for my use, so as long as the abbreviations made sense to me, they worked. Naturally when it came time to actually write my thesis, these abbreviations stayed in my notes and were replaced by the full text, but for note-taking they served me very well.

In addition to abbreviations, developing your own system of shorthand (or learning an established one) can also be a great help. As with abbreviations, you can use whatever system of shorthand works for you, as long as it really does work for you. For example, going back to the first example above, I could summarize it like this:
“p.arch –> tall, thin walls, + windows; linked to N.Plat div light”

This wouldn’t make much sense to most people, but that doesn’t matter because it makes sense to me. Again, remember that these are YOUR notes for YOUR use, so come up with a system that makes sense to YOU.

So to summarize note taking so far:

  • collect, records and track your sources very carefully
  • include a citation with all notes so you won’t forget what your notes were taken from
  • Don’t confuse your words and the sources words
  • Don’t cut and paste blindly
  • Keep notes and essays separate
  • be open to trying new and different tools and techniques for note taking, but use what works for you
  • summarize and paraphrase carefully
  • feel free to use abbreviations and shorthand as long as it makes sense to you

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