How to retrieve, read and record information to include in your essay

Last week, I talked about how to identify good quality sources such as books and journal articles to build your knowledge and write assignments. I covered what factors make a source credible and reliable and then discussed how to find the very best books and journal articles, including those on the ABS list for Business School students.

This week I am going to walk you through a step-by-step account of exactly WHAT to read when you are doing background reading for a module or preparing to write an essay.

I'm going to outline two different methods, which I call the Snowball and the Search.

Sounds like a Disney movie title? Well, maybe. But will you remember them? Absolutely!

how to read and record info for your essay

The Snowball method is a quick process you can use to write an essay or assignment if time is short (or you started too late!). The Search method is a comprehensive approach you can use to complement the Snowball method or as a stand alone process when you have allowed sufficient time to complete your essay.or want to aim for higher marks.

But before we get into the two methods, I want to spend a bit of time discussing how to create a system for storing all the information that you’re going to collect.

Creating a system for recording your essay material

You’re going to be gathering a lot of information for your essay and if you want to have a fighting chance of recalling and retrieving it when you come to begin writing, then you need to have a sensible and systematic approach to recording it.

This system can be either paper-based or electronic; both have their pros and cons. Some people prefer to hand write information and having a paper system can be very useful when you haven’t got access to a computer (such as when you are travelling). On the other hand, the advantage of an electronic method is that you can store your spreadsheet in the cloud, using Dropbox, Google Docs or similar programmes. An electronic system is available whenever and wherever you want to work, and you can copy and paste your reference or any quotes directly from your spreadsheet into your essay *.

Paper-based notes

If you want to record your notes on paper then the best and easiest way to do this is with index cards. These are small cards about 8 cm x 13 cm in size, with lines printed on them. You can purchase them from most stationary or office supply stores or online.

index card.jpg

To use index cards as your record and retrieval system, write the title of the book or journal article on the top of the card, together with its full reference. Make your notes on the card beneath the title – I prefer to write bullet points with the main ideas and information from the book or article on the front.

Then on the back of the card, there is room to write out in full any quotes you might want to use together with their page number. I suggest buying a storage box especially for your index cards so that they are easily portable and so you can organise them alphabetically or by essay.

Electronic notes

If you want to keep your information online then you can record your book and article information in a spreadsheet (such as Excel in MS Office or Numbers on Mac). You’ll need to create three columns - the first is for the full reference of the book or article, the second for main bullet points and the third for any quotes that you want to write out in full. 

One extra benefit of an online system is that you can create a new tab in your spreadsheet for each module you’re studying or each essay you’re writing. You can also easily search for information you need, which is handy if you want to get hold of a reference or quote quickly.

Remember our faux Disney story, the Snowball and the Search?  Well, now I’ve covered the different ways of storing information, it’s time to look at the two methods of finding WHAT to read.

The Snowball method I'm going to share with you is a good approach for those times when your workload is heavy or you simply left it too late to do wide-ranging research. If you are an undergraduate or you are looking for solid marks then this method may well be sufficient for the majority of your essays and assignments. It’s the method that I used in my first few years at University and it’s simple to understand and implement. If you are a postgraduate or have more time to do your research then I would recommend the Search method that I will describe later.

The Snowball method

I called this the Snowball method, not just because it reminds me of Olaf, the cute snowman dude from Frozen, but because you start with one source and then use it to find other relevant material. Your list of sources quickly grows in much the same way as a snowball increases in size as it rolls down a hill accumulating snow.

Begin with the recommended reading list that your tutor, lecturer, or module convener has provided for the course.  Then gather together your lecture notes and a copy of the slides that were presented and discussed in the lecture relating to your essay question.

Next, write out the essay question in full. Circle any authors it refers to, draw a box around any theories it mentions and underline any key terms or concepts. You can use different coloured pens for each if you find that helpful.

Start with the main textbook recommended for your course. You may have this textbook already if you bought one at the start of the semester or took one out on loan from the library. If you haven’t got a copy of the core textbook then your first step will be to obtain one.

Take those authors, theories and key terms and concepts that you identified in the essay question and look them up in the core textbook. You may find that there is a whole chapter or section dedicated to that topic;  if that is the case then it makes your job easier! If not you may need to search for that topic in a couple of different places in your textbook. If the information is in more than one place then be sure to bookmark where you found it.

This is the start of your reading plan. Read the relevant chapter or passages you’ve found and make sure you understand broadly what the topic is about. Now, turn to the end of the chapter (or chapters) you've just read. In most course textbooks, you’ll find the author has given a list of the sources they’ve used or additional sources they recommend students should read at the end of the chapter. This is where your snowball starts to grow!

I want you to look down that list of recommended reading at the end of the chapter, using the exact same approach as you did with your core textbook. Find any books or journal articles that relate to the words that you circled, boxed and underlined in your essay or assignment question and make a note of their titles in the storage system you set up at the beginning (index card or spreadsheet).

Once you have this second list, get hold of a copy of those sources and proceed to read the book indexes and journal article abstracts. (The abstract is the short summary paragraph on the front of the journal article.)

You should be able to tell from the index or abstract whether the information inside is going to be relevant for you. If the book or article looks relevant, put it to one side for now. You can safely ignore any that aren’t a good fit.

Read through the books and journal articles which are relevant. If you are very short of time then read the most valuable sections of the books and the introduction, results and conclusion of the articles. This will save you some time. Make sure you write the reference and your notes in your storage system.

After reading the relevant material in the core textbook(s) and in the additional reading the core textbook recommended, you might have sufficient information to begin (and possibly complete) your essay. If you want or need more information, simply repeat the process again by looking at the references at the end of your second group of book chapters and articles, before reading them and noting the information you need for your essay.

You've now gathered information three levels out from your original source, your core textbook. That should be more than enough information for a regular essay at the undergraduate level.

One point I must note is that you MUST read the books and articles you reference! It’s not sufficient to list them in the references at the end of your essay if you've not read them. Any experienced essay marker can easily spot where people have added references without reading them because the material won't be discussed properly in the essay or assignment. Put in the reading time and you'll write a much better essay as a result.

The Search method

The Search method is a more comprehensive approach which will allow you to gain the highest marks possible. It's the approach that I’ve used for my essay writing throughout my third year as an undergraduate, and as a Masters and Ph.D. student. It takes more time, but you'll come up with more original and interesting material to include in your essay or assignment, and subsequently you will get higher marks

Again, start with identifying the key words in your essay question. Now find and read the relevant information in your main textbook and other books or papers included on your reading list or captured in your lecture notes. Be sure to record the information in your spreadsheet or on your index cards.

So far, so good! This is the point where the process diverts from the Snowball method. Instead of looking for references at the end of the chapter or in the references at the end of articles you are going to perform a library search. This will bring up all applicable information on your essay topic.

To perform a library search login to your University’s library database which you should be able to access in the library itself or remotely with the username and password you were assigned at the start of the year.

Enter the key words you want to search. For example, if you wanted to search for Human Resources you would enter those words and this will bring up any references on that topic. You can use commands called Boolean operators to refine your search results. These are words such as AND, OR and NOT. They are used to narrow down your search. Instead of searching Human Resources, you could search:

  • Human AND Resources, or
  • Human Resources OR HR, or
  • Hum an Resources NOT Personnel

Each of these would bring up a different list of results and it may be worth conducting all of these searches to get a comprehensive list of sources. 

You may also find using wildcards is helpful. Wildcards mean that instead of writing the suffix for a word you enter an asterisk symbol *. This means that the computer will look for any entries that deviate slightly from your search term. If you typed in manag* then the wildcard search would bring up titles which include managers, management, and managing. This can be helpful when you are not quite sure what terms are commonly used to describe a topic.

You may find that you have hundreds (or thousands) of books and articles returned by the search. And while it’s not a bad problem to have, you may be thinking 'how do you get this down to a manageable number?'

To narrow down your search, you may want to apply filters so you only search for information in relevant journals or subject areas. This will stop you getting information unrelated to what you are studying. In practice this means if you are searching for ‘blue ocean' within entrepreneurship strategy, you'd need to restrict your library search to entrepreneurship journals - otherwise you may get results for blue ocean from the field of marine science too!  

Finally, you may wish to use the date filter to only select recent books and papers. This will prevent you from quoting old research that has since been extended or challenged. Do bear in mind that as academia is based on previous scholarly knowledge, applying a date filter will also leave out any seminal or foundation texts on your subject. You should know who these authors are though because they will undoubtedly have been mentioned in your lectures.

Once you have performed your library search, you’ll want to look down the list and discard any results you can tell are  irrelevant just from reading their title. Obtain a copy of any books or articles that look like they're pertinent to your essay title.

Do not read the whole book or article at this stage! Simply, read the indexes and abstracts, just as you did with the Snowball method and discard any material that isn’t suitable. Record any material that’s related to your essay question in your storage system.

You should be left with recent books and journal articles that relate to your essay question. It’s time to make a large mug of coffee, sit down and read the material. Unless you are planning to do a very comprehensive literature review, you will probably not need to read all the books and articles on the list you’ve created. You’ll probably not be able to include all the information in your essay either if your word count is restricted to 2,000 – 3,000 words. Instead, choose the ones which you think best illustrate the points you want to make.

Putting it all together

I've given you a number of practical and actionable methods for completing reading for your University module or course. By now you should know how to create two types of storage system for your information - paper and electronic. You also know how to implement the Snowball method to gather information quickly and the Search method for when you have more time and want higher marks.

When you use these two methods alongside the other skills I've taught you such as identifying WHY you are reading and knowing WHAT sources are the most credible and reliable you will find that preparing and researching for your module or essay becomes straightforward and stress-free.

Which one of these methods are you going to use for your next essay? Tell me in the comments below!


* Make sure you only copy direct quotes from your spreadsheet and include the author, date and page number for the reference. Do NOT copy and paste material from your notes column. If you haven't put your notes completely into your own words, this is one of the ways in which students can inadvertently plagiarise.