6 months in

How do you untangle all those ideas? – source

I am over six months into this PhD thing, and just starting to get my confirmation documents in order. This has made me realise that my note taking up to now has been completely inadequate.

For the first three months, I was a robot note taker. I would read a book/article, taking handwritten notes as I went – these included quotes and my responses to what I was reading. I would then type these up, editing the handwritten notes and making a bibliography as I went, filing them under the month that I had read them. I found that the doubling up, helped me to comprehend the complexities of what I was reading and I felt good because I had about 10,000 words typed per month. Sounds impressive, but three months in, I hit a snag.

This year is the first year that the University of Melbourne has introduced compulsory coursework for first year PhD candidates in the arts faculty. I had two small essays due in June – both 2,500 words – one specifically related to my thesis and the other more general. Sadly, I found my notes pretty useless in helping me write these essays. They were not in a form I could easily translate into my own words or into any form of argument; they were really just an abridged copy of what the writer had written. I found the writing torturous. I wanted to sound elegant and intelligent, but I was just chewing up other people’s ideas and spitting them out. This process was so disheartening that found it difficult reading anything afterwards. I had turned all my attention to the essays and forgotten about where my own work was going. I stopped typing my notes out. I read very little and I fretted a lot.

If I had trouble writing two puny essays, how could I possibly write a massive thesis? And would I ever have any of my own ideas that would be good enough to write about?

It is at this point I was grateful I am doing a creative writing thesis – because when the going gets tough – the tough write a story. I hadn’t written anything creative since starting this, and it took a while to get in the right head space, but now the creative juices are flowing and I feel much better about everything. I have decided to write several short stories instead of one novelesque piece. Which in turn has helped me to look at my theoretical section as multiple smaller theses instead of one big one.

I have read lots of blogs about organising your notes and it seems to be a very personal preferences. I have tried evernote – which is great for keeping track of interesting websites and posts I come across – but not useful for my big picture thinking. And while typing out my notes makes me feel like my word count is mounting – it is really a waste of time. I already have them written in a notebook – and typing them out is not making them more accessible for me. I would love to go paper free, but with confirmation looming, I have decided to go old school with organising my notes.

Here is my old school plan: Index cards and blue-tack.

I have a reasonable idea of where I want my thesis to go, so I will pull out a pile of old notes every day, have a quick read and make a note of the important RELEVANT points on an index card and stick it on the wall next to any other cards that it relates to (I have found a space behind our bedroom door). Most importantly – I will make a note of how I can use that reading in my own work. For all new readings, I will continue to take handwritten notes, but instead of typing them up I will pull out the most useful points and put then on a card and then up on the wall they go.


I have stolen the kids coloured textas, so it should look pretty, and I can colour code subjects. I have researched  computer programs that could do this for me, but I like the visual and tactile aspect of this system. I can physically move them around and it feels like I am getting somewhere.

So I will let you know how this new plan goes. What is this, Plan D?

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