Taking effective and accessible notes greatly eases the process of your writing, and saves time too. Immediately below, we list some basic note-taking tips; on how to create a note-taking system of your own, click here.
The basic purpose of all notes is to act as a memory crutch: to help you recall, after the fact, the main arguments and specific details of a lecture, a book, a journal article, or any other "text."
Therefore, begin with the basics: if they are lecture notes, jot down the date and the name of the class or professor; the topic of the day is helpful too. Later, as you sift through reams of notes looking for that one lecture, this basic information will help you more rapidly find the specific notes you seek.
The same goes for notes on a book, a journal article, even a website: always begin by taking down all basic bibliographical details (see Bibliographies). Further ensure that you will be able to identify and/or retrieve the source at a later date by taking down any information that will help you locate it in the future: a call number if it's a library book; an exact URL if it's a website; the title, volume, date, and page number if it's a journal article.
As you read, be sure to take down the exact page number(s) your notes refer to. What good are notes if, in order to find that one quote you seek, you have to re-read the whole book? Avoid this by taking down specific page numbers that indicate the exact place in the text you will go to in the future, when seeking a particular piece of information.
Short quotes you think might be useful are best transcribed fully in your notes, and always accurately: word for word, down to the punctuation, along with page numbers and bibliographical information, as suggested above. This way, it becomes unnecessary to return to the text when it is time to put a pithy quote into your paper: it's already in your notes.
For lengthier quotes, save time by xeroxing the relevant pages, rather than transcribing them. In such cases, be sure to specify the basic substance of each quote in your notes, along with its page number(s). Indicate in your notes that the relevant passage has been xeroxed. Keep the xerox handy and mark it in a manner that clearly identifies it as the section of the text you have referred to in your notes.
The above practices will help you create detailed outlines of the texts you have read for any given assignment, and will greatly ease your ability to locate those texts, and (more importantly) particular passages or quotes within them, when the time comes to begin writing.
As you will most likely be working with multiple texts, consider the following:
Assign a number to each one of your sources, and a lower case letter to each note within each source. If one of your sources is a book - say, Iris Chang's The Rape of Nanking - and it yields ten individual items of interest, number those items 1a through 1j in the margins of your notes. A second source - say Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners - will be designated source # 2, and its eleven individual items of interest will be numbered 2a through 2k in the margins. A third source will be source # 3, and its eight items will be numbered 3a - 3h, and so on.
Later, once you have completed your research and have catalogued all your notes on each individual source in the above-described manner, it is time to begin putting them together in a new order. This will become your outline, which will no longer reflect the order in which these quotes and passages originally appeared in their sources, but the order in which you are now re-assembling them to serve the argument of your own paper.
The outcome will seem like a jumble of numerals and letters to an outsider, but to you, it will make sense. It's as if (here's another option) you've assigned each note to its own individual index card, and have now re-shuffled the cards in the order in which they best serve your paper's argument. Essentially, all note-taking systems are variations on this basic index card approach. Whether you resort to cards, cut and paste on your computer, assign numbers and/or letters to your notes, color-code them, or any other such variation really doesn't matter, as long as it works for you - what's important is that you create a system of note-taking that allows you to identify each individual piece of information you have researched, and that you are able to re-shuffle those individual pieces of information into an order that serves your argument.
For an example of the type of outline that might result from this process, see our outline of the sample research paper topic "The Austrian Catholic Church and the Anschluss," for which we designed a simple but effective system that indexed a large number of individual pieces of information from multiple sources and allowed us to re-assemble them into a complex order that perfectly suited the argument we were trying to make.
Figuring out and implementing such a system of your own may create a little more work up front, but will greatly facilitate the process of writing - we guarantee it!