I love research--diving in, searching wide and deep, digging up as much treasure as I can find.
But then comes the puzzle of how to shape all that wonderful material into a proposal, book, or article. How do I arrange my notes to facilitate my writing?While I’m learning about a subject and thinking about what to write, I formulate key questions to focus on. Besides an overall question for the book or article, I develop specific questions for each section or chapter.
These questions arise from what the research says about the topic — what the major issues are, what discoveries have been made, and what puzzles remain to be solved. I also consider what questions readers will be asking and what information they need to understand the topic.
I use these key questions to organize my notes into tables. On the left side, I list the questions. Across the top, I list each source. Then I fill in the cells with what each source says in relation to each question. The cells expand vertically to fit many lines, and my tables become multiple pages long. Usually, I orient the page horizontally. Here’s a sample, without the cells filled in:
Alternatively, if I have more sources than questions, I put sources on the left side and questions across the top.
• Assess if there is enough information to answer a question. Do I need to consult more sources? Ferret out more details?
• Compare and contrast what different sources say. Where do they agree or disagree? How do I make sense of a discrepancy?
• Discover new, unexpected ideas and insights. Combining my notes in this way helps me see connections across sources I didn’t see before.
• Keep track of where I found information for source notes and fact-checking (very important to include page numbers!). They’ve saved me countless times when I know I’ve seen some fact or statement somewhere, but I can’t remember where. They also help when an editor asks a question or requests elaboration.
Give It a Try: Which questions are driving your nonfiction work-in-progress? Create a table listing your questions and sources. Fill in the cells with your notes on what each source says in relation to each question. As you review your table, what do you notice?
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