Dissertation Guide

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How do I give order to a jumble of notes?

“To be really mundane, I sort out my notes into piles, section by section, then take the notes from the first section’s pile and work out what my order of play for that section is going to be. I work out, say, the twelve paragraphs that are going to be in that section, and annotate my notes to show which bit of the notes is going into which paragraph for which section. I used to annotate with an array of differently coloured pens, but it was quite time-consuming putting pens down and picking them up. Now I use numbers for chapters and letters for paragraphs, so 3D written on my notes is the fourth paragraph in the third section. Then I create more piles, one per paragraph, or, if I’m running out of office-space, a pile for two or three paragraphs.”

“I think a lot of inexperienced writers panic at the amount of notes and the messiness of it all, whereas experienced writers expect some feelings of confusion and look for ways to cut to the quick and summarise their discoveries. All you need to do is tell people the key things that you’ve found and tell them the story of how you found them. I remember reading a study of postgraduate failure in the eighties. The author said that postgraduates who failed to complete seemed better at putting things into box files than taking them out.”

“I would always tend to have a sense [at the start] that at the very least I can construct something that looks like a set of chapters, even if I’m not sure precisely what each is going to contain. I’m not going to worry too much what each is going to contain. What I want to do is make the whole thing reasonably plausible. Then sometimes there are some things that I know are important that I know I need to read. I don’t know where this bit of literature is going to come into play but I’ve got a feeling that it’s going to come into play somewhere. Rather than spend a lot of time poring over these articles, or book chapters, I’ll skim-read them, write on them, desecrate the books, mark them up, make little notes, occasionally type out the quote, if I think it’s a really good one … and then start to pull those things out and fill out the outline with the basic Harvard reference, the author’s name and the date and the page number so that I can simply go back and find it. I might put a little note to myself with ‘quote about …’ or whatever it is.”