Working Notes

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Once you’ve isolated a claim that you want to make about a specific topic in one of my upper-division classes, you need to start thinking about how to flesh this whole project out. What ideas are relevant to your topic?  What questions will be raised by your claim, and how will you answer them? How are you going to support the claim you’re making?  What scholarship will you draw on to buttress your various points?

You can start to develop answers to these intimidating questions by generating some working notes. Start with a blank sheet of paper or a new Word document and jot down the different ideas and  fragments of thought that you think will be relevant to your topic.

The point of this exercise is to document the ideas and scholarship you might use to support your claim. Write these down as they occur to you. Don’t worry about fleshing them out at the start, or writing perfect sentences, or the order in which they occur. The point is to get these ideas down on paper so you can see them together. Think of your working notes as a way of “thinking out loud,” except in writing. All of this should occur over a period of days, weeks, or months, depending on the scope of the topic and your final deadline. Spend at least a few minutes with these notes every day, even if you don’t write something new.

Spending time with your own thoughts will allow you to always be thinking about your paper at some level, even before you start writing it. You might even dream of your topic, and wake up in the middle of the night with ideas. When this happens, jot these down so you don’t forget them.

Of course, working notes can be infinitely revised, but at a certain point the ideas you’ve written down will start to gel, and that’s a good point at which to start working on a draft introduction for your paper. But working notes become really invaluable when you go to draft an outline that will provide more structure and direction for your paper. In the end, working notes help to make the task of writing easier.

© D. R. Koukal