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HOW TO WRITE A PAPER USING NOTECARDS

Copyright 2006, 2011 by Dr. Jim Jones
of West Chester University


Go to the HIS480 Syllabus or Assignments.

This lesson assumes that you have completed your research; i.e. you've done the reading, taken good notes, typed them into a computer file, converted the results into notecards and organized them into notecard files.

You write a paper using notecards the same way you would write a paper with a stack of paper note cards. Start by 1) reading your notecards, either by scanning through them in order or else by seaching for words that interest you. 3) Next, take a look at your historical question and write an outline of the argument that leads to your conclusion. Keep in mind that there will probably be some correlation between the items on your outline and the topics covered in your notecard files, but that you are not limited to those topics when you create your outline.

Create your outline in a word processing file. Now make a copy of it and begin to fill in your outline by adding subheadings and/or descriptions of what you need to say about each item on your outline. As you do this, be prepared to add notes to some items that say "I need to learn more about this before I try to write about it." The number of these notes will depend on how early in the process you begin to switch from collecting your data to writing it up, but each time you write an outline, be prepared to do some more research.

After you've written your outline, filled it in and done any additional research, you can start to write your first draft. Over the years, I have found that it is easier to revise than it is to create, so I write my first draft as quickly as I can without worrying about whether it is good or not. To write quickly, I use abbreviations and other "shortcuts" that tell me what needs to go where, and I indicate places where I need to include a footnote. If I can remember anything about the source, I include that as well, such as "Footnote: Terkel's interview with `Can You Spare a Dime' author."

So far, this should be very familiar to you -- it's no different than writing a paper the old-fashioned way. By putting your data on the computer, however, you can do something remarkable. You can change your mind about your research topics and view the results within minutes.

Imagine that you were researching life in West Chester in the 1960s. From secondary reading, you concluded that five topics -- race relations, growth of colleges/universities, the Vietnam War, government social programs and the "Generation Gap" -- were critical topics for your study, and you created notecard files for each one. As you did this, however, you gradually realized that you also need to examine a new topic -- gender roles. In the old days, you would go through each of your index card files, make copies of any cards that relate to the new topic, and place them in their own index card file. Then you would do more research to fill in the holes in the new file.

The computer speeds up the first three tasks -- so much so that it becomes practical to "try out" different topics to see if they shed any light on your historical question. Think of search terms that might lead you to relevant notecards, like feminism (and feminist), sex, liberation, women, male, female, lesbian, gay and discriminate (or discrimination). Each time you get a "hit," look at the notecard and decide if it is relevant. If so, then copy it into a new notecard file for gender roles. Keep doing this until you've gone through all of your notecard files, then look at the new notecard file. If you've got enough data, go ahead and start writing. If not, then resume researching.

At some point, you will feel that you've got enough data (or, if you have procrastinated, feel that you're running out of time) and you'll start writing. If you want some suggestions on how to go about it, or you merely want to see how your professor does it, take a look at Write Your Paper.


Go to the HIS480 Syllabus or Assignments.