Note-taking and Abstracting

“Revision Notes” by Jez’ on Flickr:

This material was created in 2005 for my graduate “Media Research Methods” course, then adapted for my 2008 “Understanding Media Studies” lecture course, and it is continually revised.

When you’re engaging with a text at a “granular” level, you’ll want to take notes on particular passages and specific details. Note-taking can be done the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper (or index cards); the middle-tech way, by typing notes in a text document; or the hi-tech way, with a note-taking software program. There are dozens to choose from: EverNote, OneNote, Scrivener, etc. Some citation managers, like Zotero (which is free!) and Endnote, allow you to link notes to your citations. The Taking Note blog and the ProfHacker blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education both regularly review various note-taking applications.

I prefer to store all my notes in DevonThink (see left), a personal database. I collect these notes by transcribing (either by typing or by using voice recognition software) passages from hard-copy materials and cutting-and-pasting passages from web resources or PDF’ed articles that I’ve previously annotated. It was Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You and Interface Culture, who sold me on DevonThink; he described his own use of the software in a blog post (the original post is gone; we’ll have to settle for a post about the post), and again in the New York Times Book Review (See also Rachel Leow‘s and Chad Black‘s discussions of how they use the software, and various other users’ video tutorials). I use DevonThink to search my notes by keywords, generate topical or thematic reports, find connections between seemingly unrelated sources, and draw connections between those notes and relevant multimedia I’ve filed away in the database — photos I’ve scanned from books, videos I might use in an interactive project, etc. The software helps me work with my raw material; it does essentially the same things I used to do when I wrote all my notes on index cards, then arranged them in various orders to test different organizational schemes.

Scrivener, via

Some people also like to use Scrivener (see right). Ryan Cordell, at ProfHacker, talks about how he, too, uses Scrivener to write. There are also some great video tutorials.

But one needn’t feel obligated to go high-tech with note-taking. A legal pad and a pencil are no better or worse than a custom-designed database; it all depends on what works best for you. All the technology in the world can’t make someone a great note-taker. In fact, with the increased ease of note-taking, it’s much easier for a researcher to simply record everything he or she reads, often copying directly from source text to computer file. Please take precautions to make sure you distinguish quoted passages from passages in your own words; perhaps you could color-code each differently, or simply make sure to begin and end each quoted passage in your notes with quotation marks. This practice will help you to avoid accidental plagiarism later on, when you write up your research. It’s also good to get into the habit of stepping away from the words on the page and periodically paraphrasing the author’s argument, or summing up various sections or chapters. Forcing yourself to regularly insert your own voice into your notes helps get you into the practice of reformulating your research material, making it your own, and priming your brain to organize that material into an original format or argument.


Hayakawa’s Abstraction Letter, via

Of course we don’t only read at the sentence or paragraph level; we’re engaging with the text as a whole — and we want to make note of our impressions of each text at this “meta” level. In the previous guide, on “Reading Effectively,” we closed with a few questions that you might ask yourself as your read through your research resources. These aren’t rhetorical questions. You should actually make note of your responses, for future reference. On my very first day of graduate school, my classmates and I were encouraged to pose the following questions to every text we read throughout our graduate careers. The following is adapted from that list, with a few hints from John Cresswell’s Research Design thrown in:

  1. In two or three sentences, what is the central thesis of this work, or what is the major problem it is addressing?
  2. In two or three sentences, on what assumptions or points is the thesis of the work built, in logical order?
  3. What are the major terms or concepts central to this work, and how does the writer define these terms? Interrogate buzzwords. How are key concepts related to each other?
  4. What are the methods of research and argumentation and kinds of evidence used to develop and support the thesis of the work? What research methods – content analysis, interviews, discourse analysis, fieldwork, etc. – did the author employ? What methods of argumentation, or rhetorical strategies, is he or she employing to make his/her case? How else could the argument be made? Is it sufficiently elaborated? How is he or she supporting his/her arguments?
  5. In your judgment, what are the limitations, shortcomings, errors, or weaknesses in the work?
  6. In your judgment, what are the major contributions of this work to your understanding of the field and your specific research topic?

Each week, in each of my graduate seminars, I was expected to submit a two-page abstract, addressing these six questions, of each book we read for that week. Abstracts are of course, as their name would lead you to believe, abstracted critical summaries of a text as a whole — they help you step away from the details and consider the bigger picture, the larger argument, of a text. I’m no longer quite so diligent in composing and cataloguing thorough abstracts of each text I read (instead, I keep notes in a research database) – but I do recognize the value of the exercise: I still frequently refer to my notebooks of grad school abstracts.

The list of six reading questions, supplemented with others we posed in our previous discussion on “Reading Effectively” and issues that are unique to your own specific projects, can serve as an effective template for abstracting the resources you review. This template will evolve as you get more deeply involved in your research and discover what you’re asking from each of your sources, what you want to remember from each source. It’s a good idea to add these abstracts to your research journal/database – ideally, in a searchable format online – so, later on, you can easily search for patterns and keywords.

Abstracts have personal value, of course, in that they allow you to keep record of what you’re reading and watching and listening to. But getting in the habit or writing abstracts is useful because they have plenty of applications in the professional world. You may have noticed the abstracts at the top of many academic articles or essays; publishers will usually ask you to provide a brief (usually about 150 words) abstract with your submission. You need to know how to distill your argument and methods and explain the value of your contribution. You’ll also commonly be asked to submit abstracts as part of your application or proposal to participate in academic or professional conferences or festivals, or to have your work considered for inclusion in exhibitions or edited volumes. In these cases, you’ll need to be able to explain, in just a couple hundred words, what your work proposes to do, what methods you’re using, what key concepts you’re working with, in what traditions you’re working, etc. Organizers and editors have hundreds – if not thousands – of proposals to wade through, so you need to be able to get across the specificity and soundness and potential value of your proposed project quickly and clearly.