Piles, Stacks, Folders

July 27, 2009

Wow! Now it is my turn to replenish my large caffeinated beverage. Thank you to everyone for the warm welcome to Inside Higher Ed's career advice section. I read through all the encouragement, questions and suggestions. I appreciate your taking the time to send your thoughts and my next column is inspired by one of your questions: What do you do when you have too much to say? We'll address that in my next column: Too Much to Say? Let's Briefly Discuss.

For now, let’s look at those piles of articles, stacks of books, and folders of PDFs. How do you get from a pile of articles or stack of books to a well-referenced dissertation? This process is part of prewriting. My dissertation adviser Bob Boice (who I introduced in my first column) used to say that fluent writers spend as much time on prewriting as on writing. By the time they are ready to write, these fluent writers have taken the time to read any relevant materials, thought through the ideas of others, played around with their own ideas, threw some out, modified a few, and picked one to focus on for a particular piece of writing. Also, they have carefully planned their writing by developing increasingly detailed outlines and annotating them with notes from their reading. Only after completing these stages are they ready to write.

Skimping on the prewriting stages can lead to staring at a blank screen, procrastinating, and unfocused writing. The act of writing is hard enough all by itself. The act of retrieving the correct words in an appropriate order and having that information flow through your fingers and onto the computer screen or page takes a lot of cognitive energy. If, on top of writing, you have to recall external information, plan and organize, then too often you are overloading your capacity. Not just your capacity, but most writers’ capacities. For this reason, the fluent writers who Bob referred to made sure that they separated the reading, creating, planning, organizing, and writing stages.

Your goal is to transform the information from those piles, stacks, and folders into a format that you can use in your own writing. And, I will warn you right now, this can take a lot of time. Time and effort that you will make up later, but time nonetheless. So if you have impatient tendencies, please allay them as best as you can.

And, what is this format to which I referred? You already know it well. Pick up an academic article or book and look at the phrases, sentences, and quotations that precede citations: The concise and targeted summaries found in the introduction and discussion sections of journal articles or throughout a book or monograph. This is the format, as dictated by your field, into which you will have to distill your reading. I call this format citable notes. I coined this term to emphasize that these notes will end up becoming the citations that you will use in your academic writing.

After you have taken citable notes on your reading and have completed a detailed outline, then you pull from your citable notes and insert them into your outline. By this time, you have completed your reading, creating, planning and organizing and now you are ready to write; to write in a fluent manner unhindered by that internal critic who triggers the “overwhelmed” switch in your brain.

But how do you get from that stack of books to a list of citable notes? I will provide an overview of the process now and in the upcoming columns we will discuss each of these steps in greater detail.

The first step is interactive reading. In this step, you engage in a conversation with the authors, underline the ideas that pique your interest, and write in the margins to make it easy for you to take notes. While I am keeping this brief, I do want to emphasize the importance of reading through the whole article or book before taking notes; otherwise you will take notes that are overly detailed and spend so much time reading and note taking that your piles, stacks, and folders will only grow larger. After you have finished reading, refer back to your margin markings to take focused and succinct notes. To take notes on your interactive reading, record the findings and conclusions, the theories or methodologies used to arrive at the findings and conclusions, the context for the research or scholarship, pithy quotations, and a few sentences on how this reading influences your thinking about your dissertation topic.

Of course, you will never reference all of this information, but it is there if you need it. The goal of this stage, called interactive note-taking, is to have all the information you need typed into your bibliographic program so that you do not have to refer back to the original work. You read it once and take notes on it once.

Next, you distill your interactive notes into small unique bits of information that contain the “active ingredients” from your notes. Notice I wrote, “from your notes” not “from your reading.” Citable notes are notes derived from the notes you have already taken. The citable notes serve as individual jigsaw puzzle pieces that you play around with as you make sense of the literature and crystallize the topic for your dissertation. Then, set them aside for a while and after you have completed a detailed outline, you slot the citable notes into your outline. In this manner, the citable notes serve as placeholders — small manageable placeholders — from which you can refer back to your more detailed notes while you are writing.

I have known far too many students who while writing have riffled through books piled on their desks or have flipped frantically through a pile of articles. And I’ll admit, I was one of them. This is not a good use of any writer’s time, will only lead to writer’s block, and will keep you from developing the habits of fluent writing that are necessary for writing a dissertation in a timely manner.

Rather, I want you to develop a list of citable notes, use these notes to help you crystallize a dissertation topic, and then utilize these notes as placeholders in your outline. This outline serves as the agenda for your regular writing routine. As you are engaging in a regular writing routine, you can now rely on your citable-note-placeholders and refer back to your interactive notes rather than having to search through books or articles as you are writing. As you can imagine, this is not only a more efficient process, it is vastly more enjoyable.

I know this was a broad overview of this process and I did not go into details about the individual techniques; rest assured, we will go over those techniques in the future. A central focus of my column is to pass along techniques to help you develop habits of fluent writing. Learning effective prewriting techniques, such as writing citable notes, and taking the time to implement these techniques are important stages in developing habits of fluent writing.

As always, if you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future articles, please contact me at


Search for Jobs


  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Loading results...
Back to Top