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