What’s the best way to organize my research?


When you’re writing an essay, keeping your research organized is a challenging task.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a “best” way: when this question was asked by a History student we didn’t have just one single answer.  The bottom line is you have to choose a system that works for your learning style and your writing habits.

That said, I put it to all of the library staff to tell me how they organize their research (we’re librarians! Of course we have systems!).  A few themes emerged that may help you out.

In the beginning…

  1. Do some preliminary reading.  Get a sense of your overall topic before really getting into the “heavy” research.
  2. Research with your final product in mind.  As you research, think about what “subheadings” or chunks you may want to write about (even though you don’t have all your information yet)?
    • If you need help with identifying your topic chunks, you could try Writing a Concept Map.
  3. Keep a journal/Write a research plan. Keep track of what databases you’ve tried, what keywords you’ve used, what didn’t go well, your thoughts and ideas…

Once you start finding good stuff…

  1. Organize by “subheading” or chunk.  There were lots of different ideas for how to do this:
    • Write a working outline: what will each subheading or part of your essay include? What will your arguments be? What sources support that point?
    • Ignore the interesting-but-not-useful stuff:  what are your essay’s subheadings?  What is your argument?  Read for that information, make notes on that information, and then throw everything else out.
    • Colour code (Who’s surprised that librarians do this?):  assign a different colour to each subheading.  Then use highlighters, post-its, tabs, or font colour to organize your notes and articles.
    • Create different folders on your computer  or different Word files for each subheading.  Or if you like to print everything else, have a different folder or binder tab on each subheading. The bottom line is: keep related things together!
    • James also organizes chronologically within each chunk.  As he says, “each article/book may have been influenced by those that preceded it; even in a very short time-frame” and you may find overarching themes or arguments that you may not have noticed otherwise.
  2. Write notes, in your own words, on why your sources are helpful. Again, there were different ideas for how to do this.  It’s important to also note that these techniques can be done by hand or on a computer!
    • Use cue cards: with the citation at the top (including page numbers!), write down the general ideas or concepts you want to use from that source.  You may have more than one cue card for each source, if you’re organizing your notes by subheading.
    • Create annotations: again with the citation at the top (and, of course, with the page numbers!), create a summary for each article/book you want to use.  Include the key parts/arguments/quotes that you liked from that source.
    • Write your notes in your own words: why is this source helpful for your essay?  How does it support your thesis?  Say it regular language in your research notes, rather than writing out word-for-word what the book says.
  3. Save your research. You won’t find it again.
    • Email your search results to yourself, print them, write them down by hand, use RefWorks/Zotero… anything but having to replicate your searches!
    • Create a working bibliography: add resources that you want to use to this bibliography as you research

When you’re ready to write…

  1. Write out of order.  You don’t need to write your introduction first and your conclusion last.  You can fix transition sentences and weird phrases later  (Editors note: I always write my introduction last!).
  2. Write down ideas as they come to you.
    • As you finish up your research, full-sentence paragraphs may come to you.  Write these down – even in your notes/working outline/cue cards, etc.
    • If you’re working on the same project for a few days/weeks, you may get ideas as you try to fall asleep.  Or in the shower.   Or when you’re talking to your mom.  Keep a notebook or your phone handy to write these down as they come to you (and then go back to sleep!).

There are software products that will help you with many of these steps (see our blog post on Zotero and RefWorks for examples) but many students still choose to do a lot of their organization by hand.  What system works for you? If you have additional suggestions, please leave a comment below!

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