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  1. Research
  2. Proposal
  3. Compiling Notes
  4. Planning the Essay
  5. Writing
  6. Finishing
  7. Extras
  8. Examples

How To Write An Essay

Part 3 - Compiling Your Notes

Now that you've done the bulk of your research, you should have several pages (on the computer, on paper, or both) of point-form notes. In those notes should be full quotations you intend to use or paraphrase later, as well as general notes that you've already summarized or paraphrased. If you sit down to write the essay with this pile of unsorted stuff, inevitably you'll have trouble deciding where to begin and you'll keep leaving things out. It is much easier to group the notes, plan the essay, and then write, rather than trying to stick random bits in as you go.

This is where a good supply of coloured pens or highlighters comes in handy (on the computer, you can make use of a word processor's various coloured highlighting tools). If these things are unavailable, you can still make do by coming up with notations that indicate the different sections and writing them beside the individual points in the notes.

Look at your focus. Chances are it has several different elements to it, and now is the time to break out those elements separately. Don't worry about what element should come first or last, that will be sorted out in the planning stage next. For now, you're just going to group your notes according to where they fit into your focus.

For our pretend focus of "The life of Joe Smith (1856-1902) and how he contributed to the field of widget watching," we would pick out the following subtopics:

  • Joe Smith's personal life
  • Joe Smith's contributions to widget watching
  • widget watching information

In some cases, the subtopics themselves may contain further subgroups, so break those out as well:

  • Joe Smith's personal life
    • childhood
    • schooling
    • things that lead Smith to widget watching
    • adult life
    • death
  • Joe Smith's contributions to widget watching
    • the New York group
    • the widgetiscope
    • Smith's publications on widget watching
    • other contributions he made
  • Widget watching information
    • definition of widget and widget watching
    • brief mention of widget watching during Smith's lifetime

Now, assign colours and/or notations to the subgroups right on your written list, so you don't forget what you meant later. Your choices here will vary according to your personal preferences. You may wish to use letters representing the group that are simply alphabetical, or that directly represent the word. Most of mine represent the word:

  • Joe Smith's personal life - blue highlighter
    • childhood - blue highlighter plus C
    • schooling - blue highlighter plus S
    • things that lead Smith to widget watching - blue highlighter plus X (X is for "extra" in my head)
    • adult life - blue highlighter plus A
    • death - blue highlighter plus D
  • Joe Smith's contributions to widget watching - pink highlighter
    • the New York group - pink highlighter plus NY
    • the widgetiscope - pink highlighter plus W
    • Smith's publications on widget watching - pink highlighter plus P
    • other contributions he made - pink highlighter plus O
  • Widget watching information - yellow highlighter
    • definition of widget and widget watching - yellow highlighter plus D
    • brief mention of widget watching during Smith's lifetime - yellow highlighter plus X

If I didn't have highlighters available, I probably would substitute by putting letters representing the main groups before the ones representing subgroups, such as PERS-D indicating a note about his death, CONT-NY indicating a contribution relating to the New York group, or WW-D indicating a widget watching definition.

Now go through the notes and attack them with the highlighters and/or letter descriptions, so you can tell at a glance whether each page has something relating to a part of the essay, such as shown in the following graphic:

Sample Notes[d]

The same notes on the computer might look like this:

Widget Watching in the Late 1800s, by Michelle Bogus, Publishers Anonymous Inc., New York, 1968

  • the widgetiscope was invented in 1891 in New York, page 16 CONT-W
  • "By far, Joe Smith's most important contribution to the field of Widget Watching was the Widgetiscope." page 93 CONT-W
  • Phineas Goofius tried to claim he invented the widgetiscope, but Smith proved him a liar, page 94
  • the widgetiscope works by placing the widget on the slide, adjusting the focus, and then monitoring the behaviour of the widget, page 138 CONT-W
  • "It was Smith's teacher Brian Googlebrains that first introduced Smith to the field of widgetry." page 93 PERS-S
  • the New York group gave Smith funding, page 27 CONT-NY

You will have to decide whether some points better fit one group than another, but do decide now rather than accidentally repeating yourself later. If you change your mind later, make note of it directly on the page. You will also find that some notes don't fit any category. Chances are, these are things that should be left out. You still have them written down if you decide to include them, but don't try and make every note fit your groups.

In going through the notes this way, you may find that you have managed to completely forget to look up information on a section, or the information you do have is too little. Doing this at an early stage allows you time to go back and find more information, if possible.

Once you have your notes thusly in order, you're ready to start planning out your essay.

Next lesson: Planning the Essay

Last updated in February 2005.

Copyright © 2000-2005 Kimberly Chapman. All rights reserved.

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