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Notebook - Journal

English 127
Research Writing

An important part of being a writer and researcher is keeping a writing notebook or journal.  This is your own private space to explore your topic and other related issues that arise during the quarter (and beyond!).  You never have to share your notebook with anyone, so don't worry about grammar or even coherence.  However, you should see it as a powerful resource and friend since you'll often be surprised that something casual you jotted down came in rather handy later on.  Note the date at the top of each entry and then write as much as may be relevant or useful; I recommend writing the year and not just the month and day for the date since you might return to some writing notebooks after a long time.

When an Insight Arrives Unannounced:  I will occasionally suggest notebook exercises (which I will never collect), but you should write in your notebook of your own volition as well.  You can go to your notebook, for example, when you happen to have a certain insight or flash of brilliance, which you should jot down so that you can pursue it in greater depth later on.  Or you might realize, as you're reading, surfing or thinking, that it's important to find out some information relating to your topic but you can't stop what you're doing to go seek it at the moment; just jot down the information question in your notebook for future reference. 

Suggestions for Entries:  You can also go to your notebook more intentionally even if you haven't been struck by a particular insight or unanswered question.  Here are some ideas:

Freewriting:  At several times during the quarter, for different papers or aspects of the research process, try doing a seven-minute freewrite.  Give yourself a fixed amount of time and then commit to writing nonstop for that period on some prompt or even just randomly.  If you run out of things to write, then just write over and over again, "I can't think of anything else to say," until time runs out or you find your brain moving in another direction.  The point of a freewrite is that there are unconscious thoughts we have or connections that our brain is making that we may not even be aware of.  Writing quickly and without stopping allows you to get in touch with a different part of your own brain, and you might be surprised to discover what you truly feel, believe or think, and how things matter to you.  You can play with the seven-minute time recommendation, but your hand should hurt at least a little bit by the end of the exercise!

Brainstorming:  Brainstorm by creating lists and/or idea clusters.  After some revisions, additions, subtractions, and rearrangement, you may be able to organize your brainstorms into individual paragraphs or sections.  Brainstorms can very naturally evolve into informal or formal outlines. 

Labeled Pages:  Dedicate individual pages to some key aspects of your project.  Here are some recommended pages for a research writing notebook: 

  1. Possible Topics
  2. Narrowed Aspects & Issues (once you've chosen a topic)
  3. Information Questions (what information do you need to find out about your topic?)
  4. Research Questions (the distinction between info and research questions is explained in CR, Ch. 3)
  5. Debates, Disagreements, Controversies (in addition to listing these, reflect on what is at the heart of the various disagreements--why specifically has it been difficult for people to come to consensus on a particular issue?)
  6. Relevant Parties, Groups & Organizations
  7. Possible Titles and Subtitles (these may be for the project as a whole but may also turn into section headings; be creative in crafting various possible titles)
  8. Your Insights (jot down any interesting thoughts, connections or interpretations as you read, surf and think; you may only realize later which of them is truly significant or original; and many of these insights will appear in your Final Research Article)
  9. Sources (possible leads you might come across that spark your curiosity as you're reading or surfing)
  10. Quotations (you might copy and paste quotations from electronic sources directly into a word processing file; make sure you list publication info for proper citation later on)
  11. Experts (a list of relevant individuals, some of whom you might actually contact for an interview)
  12. Other (be creative in coming up with your own labels and lists!)

Choosing a Notebook:  Put a little thought and effort into finding and purchasing a writing notebook that you like.  Some writers may be content with a cheap 8 1/2 x 11 spiral notebook, while others may want something smaller or even something more elegant and distinguished such as a leather-bound journal.  Go to a bookstore or browse for notebooks on amazon.com.

Journaling on the Computer:  Also consider creating one or more computer documents (word processing files) named Research Notebook, Journal, etc. since you might end up doing some brainstorming (especially listing) and freewriting directly on the computer.  If you run across a great or useful quotation in digital form while at your computer, copying and pasting are obviously more efficient than writing it out by hand.  Make sure you note down all relevant source information (author, title, publication source, date, page or paragraph number, website address, etc.) for any quotation.  If you have created multiple documents, you can create a folder titled Research Notebook with individual files labeled "Brainstorms" (for lists), "Quotations," etc.  Explore your options, and see what combination of notebook ideas works best for you.

Personal Anecdote:  If I am working on a project, ideas rush to my head at random times, whether I am at my desk or not.  For example, if I am taking a walk I have found that I can only comfortably keep about three new ideas or connections in my head before risking losing one or more of them.  Not wanting to lose even a single insight that has come to me, I try to jot them down as soon as possible, even in fragmentary form.  On several occasions while driving I have had to pull over to the side of the road to jot down some unexpected insights!