How to Keep on Top of Your Writing and Reading Activities

If you follow PhD-related topics on Twitter, you may have already come across the #phdchat forum, founded and moderated by Nasima Riazat. In the forum, a topic previously chosen through a poll is discussed “live” every Wednesday (7.30pm-8.30pm BST) as a Twitter chat. Some time ago, the question on “How to keep on top of your writing and reading activities” came up as one of the popular “problems” faced by PhD students. In fact, I would argue that this can be challenging for established academics as well. Luckily, becoming a better writer and a more careful reader gets easier with time and practice.

If you are also struggling to keep up with the literature search for your PhD thesis or if you are losing track of all the papers you are reading for your Review Article, here is a simple yet effective way to manage your reading and help you with your writing.

The first thing to do is to create a template file with the following fields: title, authors and journal (for easier retrieval later on); nature of the paper (theoretical, computational, experimental); aim of the work; why was the study undertaken (i.e. importance in the wider context); method used for data taking; method used for data analysis; key findings of the study; implications for the wider context; limitations of the study; conclusions and outlook. Of course you can pick and choose the fields that are more relevant or modify them to suit the specific needs of your subject.

Then, every time you read a paper, just fill in the relevant information in the appropriate field. You can do so by hand, or on a computer, depending on your preferred learning style (I typically prefer to take my notes by hand when reading a journal article). Also, you can fill in the form as you read the paper (my recommended option), or you can do so at the end. Whatever you chose, make sure that you:

1) Do not spend too much time on doing this activity. A few minutes should be enough. If you spend any longer, you will soon lose interest and motivation and will not see this exercise as worthwhile. Remember too that things will get easier with some practice.

2) Record only key pieces of information (bullet points are perfectly fine). The purpose of the exercise is not making a summary of the article you are reading, nor to transcribe all of its details. Simply aim at notes that are factually correct and do now worry about style.

3) Do not exceed two A4 sides. This should be plenty to record the key aspects of the paper. It is also a good length to provide a quick overview of what the paper is all about.

Once finished, attach your filled-in form to the paper and store in a folder.

With a bit of practice, this activity will become very natural to you every time you read  an article relevant to your writing project. As a result, you will become a better reader because you will:

  • focus on the key issues
  • extract critical information quickly and effectively
  • retrieve relevant info from papers easily, even months after you first read them.

In addition, this activity will help you becoming a better writer too, because you will more easily:

  • compare and contrast different papers, methods, and results
  • spot and highlight possible discrepancies in the current state of the art
  • organise your literature review.

I hope this is useful and just in case you think preparing a template is too much of a hassle here is one for you to download: Paper Annotation Tool-Sheet.

Happy reading!

4 thoughts on “How to Keep on Top of Your Writing and Reading Activities

  1. Eljee Javier

    Thanks for the stellar advice and for posting your link on my blog. I’m in the midst of trying to organise my reading into some kind of understandable database (for me at least) and your note taking advice is really (really) helpful. I’m experimenting with seeing how some of your suggested headings work as notes and/or tags in Sente (the referencing software I’m trialling) and so far, so good. It’s helping me a) find info more easily b) like Ben mentioned, forcing me to read more carefully (as opposed to letting it wash over me like a wave).

    1. Marialuisa Aliotta Post author

      That’s terrific,Eljee 🙂 Thanks for your comment and very pleased to hear you are finding my advice useful. Let me know how you get on with Sente. Would love to find out more.

  2. Ben

    Great post. I love the systematic approach to making notes about articles. Keeping the notes with the article (either physically or electronically) is also very important.

    Making notes like this will help you be more critical too. Especially if you try to answer certain questions such as those detailed by Wallace and Wray (see the download of the questions here under sample material or Geof Hill

    Not only does making notes like this make it easier when you want to go back and review the articles, but it also helps you to engage with them much more in the first instant.

    1. Marialuisa Aliotta Post author

      Hi Ben. Yes, I fully agree: taking notes in this way almost “forces” you to engage more with the article than by simply reading it. Thanks for the references, will check them out.


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