A lot of our MA students ask how I arrange the notes and readings for my thesis. While I can’t magically take away the processes of reading or taking notes, here is how I personally organise my readings, to help make thesis/dissertation writing easier—not to mention, try to stay on top of things, as this method lets me more easily incorporate and engage with new research as it comes out.
Step 1. Develop topic (plus research question), so that I know what I’m looking for.
Step 2. Find my readings using a scattered/snowball approach, searching Google Scholar by name, subject area, and keywords. As my readings progress, I identify further readings from citations; I also look at ‘related texts’ and see who is citing/cited by the papers I’m reading.
Step 3. Scan and rank my collected readings A-D, based on apparent importance to my topic (A = essential B = good C = supplemental material/examples only D = irrelevant). I add all references to my reference manager, Zotero, as I download, or later on, as I’m writing.
Step 4. Create a mindmap of my concepts at that time, so that I can start mapping authors and papers against them (I use ConceptDraw MindMap). These ‘concept islands’ occasionally migrate, becoming bigger or smaller. I’m a very visual person, and arranging readings in this way helps me understand how everything fits together. (It also helps me search for information later on—I can type a keyword or author into the search bar, and all related papers will pop up.)
Step 5. Do my initial read-through of all papers ranked A-C, in no particular order, highlighting (admittedly, like a fiend).
Step 6. Add the paper to my concept mindmap, and add my notes for that paper to the mindmap. This is my second read-through of the paper, though this time I only read the content I’ve high-lighted. I divide my notes into “key concepts”, “abstract”, and “notes and quotes”. I do this for all papers and chapters I read. This is what my screen looks like as I’m doing it—my concept map is on the far left, my notes attached to each paper are in the middle (same program), and the paper I’ve highlighted and am reviewing is on the right:
(I am totally okay with someone offering to buy me a bigger monitor.)
Step 7. Now that I have a much better idea of how everything fits together, I might rearrange my concepts, and I do so in an order that makes sense for that paper or thesis chapter.
Step 8. I export my mindmap to a printable document, and this document is a nice physical copy of my notes to have next to me as I’m writing.
Step 9. I open my writing program—I use Scrivener, which is designed for writing novels, but works just as well for ‘storyboarding’ and arranging non-fiction texts. I create a similar concepts structure to that in my notes, as these concepts will essentially form sub-headings in my chapter or paper’s literature review/theory section.
Step 10. I sit down and write, and because my notes are already clearly organised into ideas that reflect the flow of my paper, it’s a much faster process. I add [[insert citations here]] throughout my text, as I don’t actually add full citations until the formatting step.
Step 11. Once I am happy with my drafted paper or chapter, I export it to Word to do final formatting and to add references.
I hope this is helpful!
Further reading and resources
- ConceptDraw: https://www.conceptdraw.com/
- Scrivener: https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview
- Zotero: https://www.zotero.org
- Biggam, John. Succeeding with your master’s dissertation: a step-by-step handbook. McGraw-Hill Education (UK), 2015.
- Machi, Lawrence A., and Brenda T. McEvoy. The literature review: Six steps to success. Corwin Press, 2016.