Ask TON: Organizing Notes

The Open Notebook

Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

I have a confession. I don’t really know how to take good research notes. When I’m reporting feature stories, I end up with a stack of research papers and other materials. I read through the papers, highlighting things and maybe writing little notes in the margins. But I don’t have any logical way of processing or organizing these bits and pieces of information that I thought were relevant enough to highlight. I end up just hoping some portion of what I’ve read will have oozed into my brain and will obliquely influence how I concoct my story. I feel like I should have learned this when I was about 10, or at least by college, but I guess I never did. So what I want to know is … what exactly do other people do in order to process what they’ve read and organize it into something that is actually useful for planning and writing a story?

Freelance science writer and editor Christine Mlot:

When it comes to organizing notes for lengthy features involving many sources, I use a variation of John McPhee’s technique.

The master and teacher of creative nonfiction has widely shared his writing methods over the years. I first came across his shoptalk in Sierra years ago. Siri reminds me the introduction to The John McPhee Reader also talks about it. More recently, his working wisdom has made its way into TON, as well as The New Yorker [paywall]. Here’s how he describes his process in the Paris Review:

“First thing I do is transcribe my notes. This is not an altogether mindless process. You’re copying your notes, and you get ideas. You get ideas for structure. You get ideas for wording, phraseologies. As I’m typing, if something crosses my mind I flip it in there. When I’m done, certain ideas have accrued and have been added to it, like iron filings drawn to a magnet.”

So that’s what I do: flip open the notebook and start typing. Initially it feels like drudgery, but then pots start simmering. Inevitably, the story structure starts to suggest itself. I can see what goes with what, the holes that need filling, which threads to develop.

I annotate each section as to where it came from: a paper, book, interview, observations, public talk, or website (with access date). To preserve the context, I’ll transcribe, with quotations, a source’s long ramblings, tangents, and random words, and italicize the highlights I know I’ll want in the story (ideally I’ve captured these right after the interview). I’ll quote key information from papers as well.

I [put in brackets] my own thoughts, and phrasing I’d like to use in the story. I note when I’m paraphrasing someone with a PP.  I throw in lots of ?? and [ck] for things that need clarifying.

I end up with what I call a source document, and this is what I consult as I write.  I’ve never used literal scissors on it, as McPhee is said to do, but I do cut and paste from things I’ve drafted in the document. It jump-starts the actual writing.

Science journalist and author Paul Raeburn:

I’d like to know the answer to this question myself. I’m currently deeply immersed in several years of research for my next book, Do Fathers Matter? While I don’t know how best to organize all of this material, I can pass along a few tricks I use.

One is to be sure, in interviews, to ask sources what they think are the most important things to consider. I try not to read too many papers before doing an interview, because interviews often change my approach, and make clear that things I thought might be important are not so important after all.

Another trick is to try to organize and extract information in files that will not be part of what I am writing, but which summarize my research. Reading a book and marking it up with a highlighter is only half of the job for me. The next thing I do is create a file in which I go through the book and make a note of everything I’ve highlighted, like this:

p. 52—practices of hunter-gatherer fathers

p. 54—infanticide among hunter-gatherers

p. 62—survival of offspring, and possible correlations with fathers’ behavior

And another thing I try to do is to be very careful about setting up folders and subfolders that are clear and direct me to the right place. A folders that says “psychology” is not very helpful. Better choices are such things as “fathers-infant development,” and “fathers—language.”

None of this will completely solve your problem. But these ideas might help.

And when you find a better system, please let me know. Now, where was I ….

Science staff writer Greg Miller:

I really have no coherent system. I look forward to reading what others have to say about this, but part of me feels like this is something I don’t want to dissect too much (like a baseball pitcher over-analyzing mechanics and losing his mojo). I report and read as much as I can in the time I have, I spend some time thinking about what shape the story should take, and then I start writing. Elaborate organizational schemes are just not my style. They are absent from all aspects of my life.

Freelance journalist and author Dan Ferber:

My solution to organizing research and notes is low-tech and perhaps not as efficient as it could be—just a bunch of file folders or piles, depending on whether I’m in the middle of working with them that day or not. I have one that’s called “organizational” that holds the pitch, the assignment letter, earlier drafts and outlines. If I focus on one or two characters, then I might have a folder for each of them with printed out interview notes and transcripts. Mostly I have folders for different subtopics that I’ve researched. I’ve learned from experience how to divide it up so it’s most useful to me. If I have too many folders, I can’t find what I need, and if I have too few, same thing.

I run through my material to get a sense of it, and then I sit down without any notes and brainstorm a rough outline. The outline is conceptual for explanatory stories (Blundell’s block organization idea was a big influence). For features with more of a narrative spine the outline describes what I think should go in each section: A scene? backstory? An explanation of this or that bit of science or technology? A riff of some sort on an idea? caveats? A look to the future?

This all makes me sound more organized than I actually am. It’s hard work every time and the process isn’t that neat. But I do trust my intuition about this now and don’t try to over-brain it, weird as that seems when you’re pulling together as much information as you must for a feature story.

Freelance journalist and author Maryn McKenna (excerpted from an earlier TON interview):

I’m a Mac user. I put everything—transcripts, journal articles, PowerPoints, screenshots of web links—in DEVONthink [screenshot] because it creates a searchable database; that program will also show you associations that you might not have noticed between pieces of material. I make a master index with OmniOutliner [screenshot], and also use that for outlining when I’m getting ready to write. For anything that requires a chronology I use FileMaker Pro [screenshot]; you can set that up so that, for any single entry, you’re filling out something that looks like an index card, but it exports into something that looks like an Excel spreadsheet. It’s very useful for building chronologies. For instance: When I was reporting Superbug, I set up a Google Alert for any MRSA outbreak, and entered each one into Filemaker. That returned a spreadsheet of community MRSA outbreaks over three years or so, which both gave me a rough anecdotal sense of what was going on in the U.S. and also yielded places and contacts that the book’s publicists could use in marketing efforts. This system worked pretty well, but isn’t perfect because the programs don’t talk to each other. I’m sure there’s a better way to do it, it’s just what I happened to work out at the time.

Author and freelance journalist Beryl Benderly:

When I have to handle large amounts of information for a piece, I, as it happens, still do use a variant of a method I learned in grade school. It has served me very well on countless large or complicated projects, including 8 books and many deeply reported articles, for decades. I have adapted it a bit to take account of advances in technology, but basically it remains the same.

In 6th grade, I think, Miss Bornstein taught us to take notes using two sets of index cards, one the small size and one the larger size. The bibliographic data for the sources went on the small cards one for each source. These were kept in alphabetical order to be used for assembling the footnotes and bibliography. The larger cards are used for the actual information. At the top left goes the author’s name for the source I’m using. If I have more than 1 source for an author, I add a note that indicates the item’s title. Below this, on the left, I write the number of the page where the information appears. In the old days, before xeroxes and Internet printouts, I would then write the information on the cards, using one card for each separate idea or topic or whatever. I do not try to economize on cards but use all that I need. You’ll see why later.

Today, however, I use a lot of printed out or xeroxed copies of materials, and I have slightly modified the method to suit them. First I read the article and underline the important points or quotations. Then, after I have had a chance to digest what the article says, I go back over it. At this point I write a large identifying number within a circle on the article’s first page. Then I go back through the underlined passages with index cards close at hand.  I mark each passage that I think I will want to use with a bracket and a large identifying letter in the margin next to it.  I then write the circled source number and the letter, plus the number of the page where the passage appears, on an index card and add a short note indicating what the passage contains. I do essentially the same thing with interview transcripts, placing the brackets and letters and then making a separate card for each passage or idea I want to use and including the interview name, the circled letters and the page numbers on each card.

All the time I am collecting material, I am thinking about the piece’s structure, and before I start writing, I make a tentative outline and I number the parts, also as Miss Bornstein taught us, with Roman numerals for the main headings and capital letters for the subheadings, etc. Now comes what is usually the hardest and also most intellectually exciting and challenging day of the whole project, the sorting of the cards. Now I make a card for each Roman numeral or subhead. Then I sit at a large table and lay out the numeral and letter cards across it so as to indicate a space on the table for each topic on the outline. Then I read the card one at a time, each and every one, and put it in its appropriate place on the outline. If a card pertains to more than one topic, I put it under the topic earliest in the outline and write on it where else it should also go. And I mean literally that I read and handle every single card.  This can take a lot of time, but it is simply invaluable in preparing to write.

Once I have sorted the cards, I put rubber bands around each bunch, with its numeral label at the front, and arrange them in the order they appear on the outline. Within each bundle, I next arrange the cards in the order I think that they will appear in the piece.

Then I sit down to write. I have the cards before me and the numbered printouts and interview transcripts close at hand.  I start at the top of the card pile and proceed from there. If I’ve done the sorting seriously and carefully, I find that I rarely have to struggle with organization while I’m writing, because the cards present the ideas and quotes and facts in the order I need them. I generally find I have to make some changes in the original order and I move the relevant cards to their new positions and proceed.

So, that’s my method. Admittedly pretty archaic and low-tech for this digital age, but it has never failed me in all these years. I find that the writing out of ideas and handling the physical cards really helps me get the ideas into my mind and where they belong in the piece. I think Miss Bornstein would be proud.

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