>On keeping a research journal

>In response to my rambling post below on how my dissertation became a book, What Now? brought up something worth responding to on the front page. She wrote in the comments:

I was particularly interested to read that you do your research upfront and then turn to the writing, since I just made the decision this weekend that I’ve been trying to write too soon and need to step back and immerse myself in research for awhile. And this is counter to some writing gurus who say “Write before you’re ready.”

It’s true that I tend to frontload the research and do the “real” writing closer to the end of the process, and I’m one of those people who likes to get the whole argument in her head before she writes, at least in outline form. I find that then I write pretty quickly. However, I do a lot of other kinds of writing throughout the process. First of all, when I’m taking notes, I write questions and responses to the scholars I’m reading. Things like “This is compelling, but what about…?” That way my process really does take the form of a conversation with the scholars. That sometimes happens with the primary texts, too. There’s a name in the attestation of ownership of the manuscript I’m currently working on, which I have circled in my printout of the microfilm. Next to it I’ve written, “Who are you?”

So there’s that kind of short-form writing. And I also keep a “work-in-progress” or research journal, and in that I write longer-form but informal essays on ideas I have during the research. Sometimes they start with questions such as “Could I say…?” or “What if I argued…?” Sometimes they’re about texts I’m teaching or reading in other contexts which might have something to say about the current project, and so I do a kind of reading response to save for future reference. I don’t always turn back to what I’ve written, but the process of writing, I think, helps me test ideas and keeps them more actively in my thought than just thinking about them would. It’s because of such a journal that my dissertation project changed from issue X in texts A & B to issue Y in them. And I did go back to that journal for my reading of one particular segment of those texts. So it has real, concrete value, as well as process and practice value.

I realize as I write this that these kinds of writing — marginal notations, notes, journals, reading response — are exactly the kind of things that Writing Across the Curriculum experts urge us to put into practice in our WAC (and non-WAC) courses. I never had WAC courses as an undergrad nor taught them as a graduate student, but somehow I’ve been using WAC methods in my own writing all along. Huh. Who knew? I must remember to bring this up in my WAC courses, to show students that this isn’t just cant, that regular writing practice of all forms does actually help you think through writing.

So, yes, I save the “formal” writing for later in the process, but really, I’m writing all along.

2 thoughts on “>On keeping a research journal

  1. >I tend to talk things through in advance of writing them, but I also do quite a bit of note-taking. The process goes like this:1. Photocopy relevant articles and primary texts.2. Underline key sentences and words, scribbe notes in the margins.3. For secondary texts, type up relevant passages, generating long Word documents complete with bibliographic information.4. Write chapter with secondary source documents and primary source documents spread out all around me. Check off quotes when used.You’ll note that manual memory is very important to me: I need to write down or type down key passages so that I’ll remember them when it’s time to write. I also need a horizontal “memory space” when I actually am writing: things buried in a folder will not be remembered. I have to see it to use it.I don’t know if there’s stuff out there on the kinesthetics of research, but it’s something worth considering.

  2. >Thanks for reminding me – I haven’t done this systematically since I invented it for a *pre* dissertation research project.The reason I invented it was that I was in a foreign country on a grant and having trouble gaining access to some archives, for bureaucratic and very arcane reasons. (Eventually I did gain access, but not before inventing the journal.)I was concerned to show the granting agency, at the very least, that I had tried my best, and so every day I wrote down what I had done, with whom I had spoken, which documents I had been able to see.That morphed into the research journal (voluminous) which I have kept, partly because I *still* have not mined all of it! But it got me my first refereed journal article.

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