I am starting to do research for a new, big non-fiction book I hope to write. I already have stacks of books and internet resources, though I have more sources to gather, many paths to go down. I love doing research! But there is that moment, right at the beginning, when I get lost and overwhelmed. Everything is so interesting. There is so much to learn. How the heck can I take notes? It happened just yesterday. I was reading an autobiography and panicking. Everything I read I thought, should I write that down? And the answer kept seeming to be yes. I should write everything down. Birth date. Color of father's hair. Mother's maiden name. But if I write down everything, it will take me forty years to finish this book. At least.
I tried to stay calm, and just read. I told myself I could always come back and write down the facts that I will need. (And I know I won't forget that her father's hair was red.) So that's what I did. I made a cup of tea, took the book to the couch in my office, and read. I had my notebook with me just in case I couldn't resist writing something down. And then a few pages in something I read hit me in the solar plexus and I said, aloud, "OH WOW!" And then I remembered : I have a system. I do! I have a system! Thank goodness.
Seriously, I knew I had system. It's just been a little while. I've developed this system over the years, and it works very well for me. It's very simple: Every time I say "oh wow" I take a note. And I call these notes, yes, my "Oh Wow Notes." Here's an example of a page from notes I was taking while researching Celebrate Halloween.
I, of course, don't end up putting all of my "oh wows" into a book, especially not those from the beginning of my research. But as I take notes, I know more what I'm looking for and so the "oh wows" come less frequently. But I know that if something makes me say "Oh wow," it is most likely to end up in a book. And it is definitely worth writing down.
When I talk in schools, I tell teachers and children this system. It seems to work for them, too. I modify it a little by saying that you should write down the facts you know you'll need: birth and death dates for people, when important things happened, what those things were, etc. But that the details that will make your research paper (or your book) really sing are the ones you first reacted to that made you say "Oh wow!"
I'm sure everyone who writes for I.N.K., and many of you who read I.N.K. have little tricks that make note-taking easier (and even fun). Please share those here so we can all learn from each other.
Now this is not my whole system of taking notes. This is just a crucial part of it. In my next few posts on I.N.K. I will share more of my system. As soon as I remember it.