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!

What should my first step be? How do I start my research project?


This question was asked by one of the Foods and Nutrition 1030 students, within the context of the 2 hour library workshop they had to complete.  That said, other Brescia students may find my response helpful.

The Research Process: Heather’s List for Reducing Your Research Anxiety and Becoming a Clever Researcher
(aka the whole point of this blog)

  1. Read your assignment instructions.  At least twice.
  2. Read your assignment instructions again, this time making a list of what you’re being asked to do.  If you have questions about your assignment or what you’re supposed to do, ask your prof at this point.
  3. Choose your topic (if applicable). Make sure it’s appropriate for the length of  your assignment (I’ll write a blog post on this soon).
  4. Make a research plan by Presearching (many parts of this step have links to other posts I’ve written)
    1. Make a list of what questions you have: this list will grow beyond the ones from your assignment instructions the further you get in the research process.  At the beginning it might be “what is my topic all about,” while later it might be “has anyone else ever researched this awesome point I’m trying to make?”.
    2. Know where to find the answers to these questions: choosing the right kind of resource for a specific kind of information is very difficult. If you don’t know, don’t worry: this is when to ask a librarian.  My biggest advice is: journal articles are not the answer to everything.  Consider using  a wide variety of resources, including academic encyclopedias, books, government information, AND journal articles.
    3. Develop a list of keywords you can use to research with: these will help you with searching Summon, databases, the Catalogue, Google, etc.  This can take practice, but is one of the most important steps in this list.
    4. Organize your research somehow: write it down, print it off, colour code, anything – just don’t try to remember what you’ve done.  Research takes a long time and will be a multi-stage process, so it’s very difficult to remember what you’ve done.  There is computer software available to help you with this stage, too.
  5. Start researching.  Be prepared to spend a lot of time in this stage, as you will have to repeat Step 4 each time you have a new research question.
  6. Evaluate the research you’ve found: do your results answer your question? Are they credible and appropriate for a university-level assignment?  Can you stop researching and move on?
  7. Ask for help when you need it: above all, don’t waste hours of your life by struggling over any step in this list.  Remember that you can ask your professor, the library staff, or the Writing Instructor for tips and suggestions along the way.