Tips for Organizing Information for a Research Paper

You’ve got a huge paper due for the end of the semester and you have no idea where to begin. You have picked out your topic, or perhaps have had one assigned to you, now where do you go from there? The next step is researching your topic. Each person approaches research in a different way, finding different routes to the end result. But there are only a few tired and true ways to organize the information collected from the research process. There is the formal outline, note cards, highlighting and bookmarking, and writing as you read. The following is a brief description of each method and instructions for how to best utilize each one.


The formal outline method is very tidy and quite useful, however, can be difficult to maintain during the research process. The reason for this is that the formal outline’s usefulness comes from its rigidity. The format for a formal outline is fairly strict, which is what makes it difficult to maintain if you are trying to do it by hand, that is with a pencil and paper. If, however, you have access to a word processing program the entire time you are doing your research (i.e. a laptop computer you can take with you) and can easily move and edit text as you work, the formal outline is an outstanding method for organizing your research information.

Working with a formal outline goes as follows: Every new topic is indicated by a Roman numeral. All information pertaining directly to that topic will follow, inset five spaces (many word processing programs will recognize the outline format and do this automatically for you) and indicated by a capital letter (should you have more than 26 items directly related to the main topic, double letters can be used, however, should this happen you may want to reconsider the importance of each item, unless you are writing a book length piece). Information pertaining to the lettered information, or subtopics, will be indicated by the numerals 1, 2, 3, and anything subsequent to that information will use lower-case letters a, b, c. Anytime you find yourself with only one subtopic, do not use the indicators as each indicator, I, A, 1, and a, signifies that there will be a II, B, 2, or b.

Note cards

Note cards are my personal preference when collecting research, especially for large projects. The reason I prefer note cards is that they are easily shifted and reorganized to create a final project. Also, there are a couple of levels to the organizational procedures of using note cards, such as using cards of varying color or size. The main drawback of using note cards is finding a way to store and transport them. I often just used a rubber band or small manila envelope. You may find a card file or binder more suited to your tastes.

Each reference used will be recorded onto a note card. Be sure when recording the information regarding your references to write it exactly as you would on your reference or works cited page to avoid having to reorganize later. Notate the reference cards with a letter or number, either one is your preference but be sure to do all reference cards the same way. Labeling your cards this way is strictly for organizational and maintenance purposes, should you drop the cards or they somehow get out of order. Since each reference card has a letter or number somewhere on it (I put mine in the upper right corner), then each of your informational cards should have that letter or number and then the opposite, sequentially, for each card.

For example, should you chose to label your references A, B, C then all information that you obtain from reference A will be on cards labeled A1, A2, A3, and vice versa if you label the reference cards with numbers. As far as organizing your note cards, a good practice is each time you quote a reference, use a new card and be sure to notate the page number where you found it, even if your notation style of choice (MLA, APA, Chicago) doesn’t require page numbers, notating them will help you if you need to go back to it later. If you are paraphrasing the reference, each time you turn the page, start a new card and notate the page number, again, for quick reference. The exception, of course, is if your quote or paraphrased information spans more than one page.

Highlighting and Bookmarking

This method is most practical with books you own. In order to highlight information obtained from library books requires you to make photocopies of each page you want to use. Returning to books that you own, highlighting and bookmarking is as simple as it sounds. As you read through the text and find passages that you think will be useful, highlight it and mark the page with a tab. You can buy page markers in the office supply section of your local grocery store or make them from colored paper and clear plastic tape.

You may also chose to use different colored highlighters for different types of passages. Use blue for passages you want to quote directly and yellow for passages you want to paraphrase. If you want to connect two direct quotes on different pages, make a notation on the tabs of the “other page.” For example if you are quoting from page 40 and page 45, mark 45 on the tab on page 40 and vice versa. That way you can easily find your quotes when you come back later.

The main drawback to this method of organizing your research is that there is a tendency in a lot of people to highlight more than they don’t, making it hard to differentiate in the end what is important and what isn’t.

Writing as you read

Some people find it easiest to write as they read. Open your word processing program and pull out your books. Start with your works cited page, or reference page. You can edit it later if a reference doesn’t prove to be useful. List all the references you have collected. From there, start reading. When you come across something you want to use, return to the computer and type it out, either paraphrased or quoted.

One benefit to this method is knowing when you have collected enough research material to reach your target. If you are writing a five page paper, your research should probably amount to five, or even six, pages, as you will most likely omit passages that don’t quite fit when it comes down to writing the paper. From there, simply connect your research with your own thoughts, cutting and pasting where needed.

While the “writing as you read” method eliminates the step of collecting your research then transposing it to the computer, it doesn’t work for everyone. Some people find it confusing, or even more work, cutting and pasting the information from one place to another all the way through the paper. If editing and revising is not your strong point in writing a research paper, this method may not be for you.

Try each of these methods to find out which one works best for your needs. Some people may find that certain methods work better for certain projects while other methods work better for other projects. You may find that the outline format works well for short papers and the note cards work better for longer projects. And you may find that while one method seems to work well for you, it works better with a little personal tweaking. There really is no right or wrong way to organize your research, these are just a few methods for you to try.

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