How I Take Notes When I’m Doing Research

Writing personal summaries of what I encounter turns raw info into knowledge

Clive Thompson

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I know a lot of reporters, and we often talk about various writing techniques: How to establish rapport with an interview subject, how to structure a long piece, how to stop procrastinating. (That last one is a biggie.)

But one thing we almost never talk about, I realize, is how to take notes when you’re doing research.

When I say “doing research” I mean specifically when I’m doing textual research — like, reading books or scholarly articles or news-site posts. (There’s a whole other art to taking notes when you’re interviewing someone, or doing on-the-scene reporting. That latter stuff, I’m not dealing with here.)

As it happens, my journalism often requires I read a mountain of material. For any given Wired column, for example, I might read dozens of white papers, reports, and news articles. I’ll also do ten or twelve interviews and transcribe them. When I’m researching a longer feature for a magazine? This number quickly grows to scores of documents, and several dozen interviews. And with a book — like my last one, Coders — we’re talking about literally hundreds and hundreds of documents (books, papers, etc) and several hundred transcribed interviews.

Early in my writing career I found myself drowning in all this research material. I’d read stuff, but then months or weeks later — when time came to write — I’d forget what I’d read, or what some interviewee had said to me. Sure, I had oodles of digital clippings from PDFs, web sites, digital books and transcripts, and stacks of paper books and documents with post it notes and handwritten marginalia. But all that reading and clipping never entirely stuck in my mind. It rarely became useful knowledge.

Then, around 2010, I interviewed a bunch of cognitive scientists who specialized in the science of note-taking. They explained something that really clicked with me — and which changed the way I take notes from reading material.

Their main point?

Merely reading something isn’t enough to make it stick in your mind and your memory. Nor is taking a clipping of something — nor highlighting a passage, either…

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net