The Soul of the Research Process
Before becoming famous for The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco wrote a handbook to help students in Italy complete their undergraduate degrees. How to Write a Thesis*, in print for 40 years, has become an underground student classic.
Despite its cherished status in Europe and beyond, it was only translated into English in 2015.
The book’s somewhat unexpected popularity stems from its wry style and useful advice for writing, research, and life. Eco encouraged students not to worry about topic, or profundity, or breadth, but to pick something very narrow and to explore it with rigor. The rigor would bring them the joy and satisfaction of completing something challenging. The process would provide the skills that would help them for the rest of their life.
The soul of the book, according to the translators, is Eco’s handwritten index card system.
It’s this system that allows a student to capture and organize knowledge, to make connections, and to ensure that the work is complete and comprehensive.
Eco outlines a few basic types of index card for each phase of the research process.
The process begins with identifying the sources for reading.
In 1977, this meant physical books and papers, excursions to the library and much photocopying. As sources are identified, they are put into a hierarchy of importance.
For every source identified, Eco suggests writing a simple bibliographic index card. Note the source details, location, and a comment about relative importance.
A card is portable (when placed in a card box) and preferable to a notebook to allow for alphabetizing the sources easily by author (Eco also suggests using an address book.) Today, bibliographic sources are much better done in a spreadsheet, doc, or in reference manager software.
While sleuthing for sources, you should skim or read a few of the most important ones. A few sessions of this and your field should start to come into focus.
The next step is to create a work plan.
Write a title, introduction, and a table of contents with sections and subsections for the proposed thesis — in advance. Even better to also write short chapter descriptions. It may seem premature, but it will provide an initial structure to organize the research. This will need to be rewritten continuously.
The table of contents becomes the work plan. When you read a source or have an idea you should map it to the work plan/table of contents. This allows you to work on any section of the project in any order, and it helps to organize the next phase — reading.
You should have your own copy of primary sources.
You’ll need to take extensive notes. Physically underline them, and mark up with comments. Use colored markers and abbreviations to connect underlined points to the relevant section of the work plan.
Secondary sources can also be marked up, but they should each have their own reading index card(s).
These index cards are much larger (half a page) and you might need several for each source. The cards essentially capture the source; with a bibliographic reference, a summary, and any important quotes, paraphrases, and notes, all cross-referenced to the table of contents. They are the indispensable element of the system.
The standard method for filling in reading index cards:
- Bibliographic source
- Author information
- Summary of the book or article
- Quotes, clearly marked as such
- Personal comments, clearly marked (Eco suggests square brackets and color)
- Abbreviation or color to designate which section(s) of the work the card corresponds to
More or less detail can be captured, Eco suggests, depending on how much you trust your memory.
It’s good practice to also note a relevant source on the work plan too. For example, you might mark on your reading card that ‘Book X’ says something that relates to section 3.5 of the work plan. In that case, also go to your table of contents section 3.5 and make a note there to check ‘Book X’. This will ensure you don’t lose anything.
If you don’t have a copy of a source, these cards are essential — but even if you do, Eco encourages writing a reading card anyway.
The power of these notes, especially the summary, is that you now own the text intellectually.
To write a reading card you have to assess the work you’ve just read and put a stake in the ground. A book with highlights, or a hundred articles photocopied or bookmarked on Instapaper can deceive you into thinking you have captured a source.
There are many things that I do not know because I photocopied a text and then relaxed as if I had read it. (Page 125).
The card solves that problem.
As the reading and research develops, Eco suggests some special cards that might be added to the process.
Which cards you create is dependent on the structure and needs of the research.
If your research is structured to look at a series of ideas or themes, you should create index cards for those ideas or themes and group them together — you may need to pull some information out of your reading cards to do that. If you are writing about authors and have a chapter on each author, you probably need author index cards. If, what you need are illustrative quotes, then you can create quote index cards.
Eco’s only rule is that these card sets are comprehensive — if you write idea index cards then all your idea notes should be contained within the set.
A special type of card, called a connection card can be useful for connecting ideas.
Frustratingly, Eco doesn’t give much information exactly how he uses these cards. They are essential elements of other carding systems. In his novel Foucault’s Pendulum* the main character, Casaubon, talks about the usefulness of a card system to make connections and to uncover new ideas.
Even the sloppiest manuscript would bring twenty new cards for my hoard. I had a strict rule, which I think secret services follow, too: No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them. (Foucault’s Pendulum. Page 225)
Beyond the cards mentioned above, you should also capture any hard to classify thoughts, questions, and areas for further inquiry on separate cards. Regularly go through these cards to make sure that you are covering everything and that you don’t forget something.
I consider these insurance cards because they won’t get lost in some notebook or scrap of paper, or email to oneself.
So depending on the context, we can create index cards of various types: connection index cards that link ideas and sections of the work plan; question index cards dealing with how to confront a particular problem; recommendation index cards that note ideas provided by others, suggestions for further developments, etc. Each type of index card should have a different color, and should include in the top right corner abbreviations that cross-reference one series of cards to another, and to the general plan. The result is something majestic. (Page 118).
When it’s time to write, choose a section, grab your pile of index cards for that section — and write.
The key to the whole system is the work plan/table of contents — having a sense for what the structure of the project might look like lets you tag your readings and create organization. At that point, writing becomes much easier.
By capturing quotes and references carefully when you first read them, you will save yourself an enormous amount of time and stress at the end of the process. (This is a critical lesson. I can’t tell you how many late nights I spent early in my career, close to deadline, searching for an exact reference or quote that I did not get down perfectly the first time .)
And after the thesis is done, you have an organized set of knowledge you can use for other things.
Remember that an index card file is an investment that you make during your thesis, but if you intend to keep studying, it will pay off years—and sometimes decades—later. (Page 122).
Eco’s system is fairly straightforward, and effective: a series of reading cards for each source, and other cards to help make connections and structure the knowledge. The system could be on physical cards, or put in a note taking app, or a mixture of the two.
Click here for a summary of the whole book.
Pick up a copy here*
I’ll leave the final words to the Italian translators Caterina and Geoff Farina:
Much as today’s college students lug laptops to the library in their backpacks, Eco’s students lugged their files of index cards. Today’s students carry access to boundless information that Eco’s students could not have begun to fathom, but Eco’s students owned every word they carried. They meticulously curated every byte of information, and they enjoyed the profound rewards of both the process and the product. (Page xvii -vxiii).
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Eco, Umberto. Come si fa una tesi di laurea: le materie umanistiche. Milan: 1977. Trans. Caterina Mondiat and Geoff Farina as How to Write a Thesis. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press. 2015
Eco, Umberto. Foucault’s Pendulum (p. 225). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.create