modular notes and SER: how I work, part 2 (day 5 of 100)

As promised yesterday, and in the hopes that thinking about my writing process will help me jump into writing mode, I wanted to explain how I go from notes to writing. Historically, this has been the most difficult part of writing for me--that is to say, I'm fine at taking notes on texts, but the act of getting started coming up with my own ideas about them is supremely challenging. But I've had some luck with a process like the following:

When I read a source, I take notes by hand, in a smallish notebook. I use the Cornell method, even though I often forget to note the main ideas in the margins. I use a symbol system that I've used since high school: an asterisk for a main point, a circled asterisk for an item that requires follow-up, a simplified arrow (actually just a greater-than sign) for a connection to another source or a citation I want to investigate, and an exclamation point for original ideas I have. If an item seems especially useful or exciting, it gets a double or triple symbol (!!!). Regular old notes just get a hyphen-style bullet. Each note has a page number associated with it, of course, so I can cite it later.

Once I get all these notes collected in my notebook I let them sit for a little while, but not too long (ideally a couple of hours). I return to the notes with the intention of mining ideas that are relevant for my current project. I take these pieces of evidence and form them into units that I call SER blocks. I got this term from, again, high school. (It may be simple, but if it ain't broke...).

SER stands for statement-evidence-reasoning. It looks like this:

"Here is a statement describing the evidence I'm about to present, and noting its context in the original source. Here is the evidence, either paraphrased or quoted directly, with a proper citation. Here is my reasoning about this piece of evidence: an evaluation, a synthesis that brings in other ideas, etc."

The process of creating these SER blocks happens in WorkFlowy, which makes it easy to move the blocks around and cluster them into relevant subtopics/subarguments. The key thing here is that the WorkFlowy page I dump the blocks into isn't restricted to the one source: it contains all the sources for the project I'm working on. That way, the sources can play together and I can start to find the connections and contradictions between them.

Once I have a bunch of SER blocks clustered around similar topics, I simply start writing out my ideas without looking at an outline--I try to get into a writing flow state. (I truly don't think I could do this without The Most Dangerous Writing App. It's been a lifesaver.) Once I have a rough (rough) draft of where I want the argument to go, I insert the SER blocks in relevant locations. Only later, at another sitting, do I edit for consistency and flow.

I like creating SER blocks as an intermediate step between reading (collecting) and writing (creating), because forcing myself to contextualize and evaluate each piece of evidence before I insert it into the outline gets my critical thinking going. That way, when it comes time to get into the flow space of writing, I have seeds of ideas to start with.


SHOUT OUTS to my high school teachers, and to the book Destination Dissertation by Foss and Waters, whose explanation of how to write a literature review describes a similar process.


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