Atomic essay #20 – how I do research: part three (Literature Notes)

The highlights for a given text will now become a Literature Note (LN). An LN is simply my notes about what was worth remembering about a text, especially in light of my current lines of enquiry, notes, and questions.

Atomic essay #20 – how I do research: part three (Literature Notes)
Photo by Mitchell Luo / Unsplash

So far, I've:

  • Got a project I'm working on
  • Got a reading list
  • Got my lines of enquiry / questions / pre-conceptions set up, so my reading has a focus
  • Read something and highlighted it

The highlights for a given text will now become a Literature Note (LN). An LN is simply my notes about what was worth remembering about a text, especially in light of my current lines of enquiry, notes, and questions.

Page for a text: here’s the highlights section

Page for a text: here’s the highlights section

Why take Literature Notes?

I do this because I want to remember what I’ve read from a given writer and text. These notes are very useful for when I need to cite later, because the bibliographic information, key quotations and link to the original source are all part of the LN. Each LN is a text in capsule.

They’re also the building blocks for later Evergreen Notes, which are the notes that really matter. Evergreen Notes are about concepts, not texts, but one can’t discuss concepts without having read about them first. The ideas that comprise Evergreen Notes will have been extracted from one or more Literature Notes, as I’ll cover in part 4.

Making Literature Notes

Same page as above.  Note how short the Literature Notes are.

Same page as above. Note how short the Literature Notes are.

To make it, I open the note that contains the highlights for the text for which I want to write the LN. I’ll read through them again and, if I feel I need to, make some Fleeting Notes. These are quick jots that just help me get things on the page and start to shape my thinking. If I do take FN, I’ll keep them in the same note as the highlight.

I’m then ready to write an LN. I’ve had some trouble with them in the past. I knew that I wanted to write a summary of the key ideas I’d need to remember, but they ended up taking a long time. I’m now trying to be more concise by using this template:

Three key ideas

This seemed like a good amount of ideas without being too restrictive. I like to start with a top-level bullet point – the general idea, then clarify in nested bullet points, like this:

Further questions

I don’t force myself to do this, but there’s usually something that comes up as a result. These questions get copied to my main question bank on the project page, too, so I can see if they get answered by other sources.

It might be that another text is mentioned, or that there’s a text of which I’m already aware that will help continue, clarify or rebut the ideas contained in the text for which I’m writing the LN. Thinking about related reading might signal to me that a certain text is best read next, or that I might need to revisit a text I previously read in light of insights gleaned from this new one.

Final thoughts

This might all seem like a lot – but it really isn’t. I try to do this with as little friction as possible; if it’s taking too much effort to maintain, there’s no point. And this is my final point: I’ve tried many versions of this system, and they’ve not worked in part or in whole. They haven’t worked because they’ve taken too much effort to maintain. The version I have now will no doubt be modified as I go, but it’s based around lessening friction for myself in the moment and in the future. Both selves are worthy of consideration.