The Post-it Note Journal Article: Crafting an Academic Argument

So you’ve hit the wall. That spot where you have enough information that you should be able to write but you sit at your computer and every key you tap is futile. Your words are useless. Your brain is mush. You can’t remember what a clear argument sounds like.

When I get to this point I have two strategies. One is to turn on an old episode of Gilmore Girls and bask in the glory of the girls’ witty banter. The other is to clear off my desk entirely, grab a stack of different colored post-it notes and a marker, and organize my thoughts visually.

Which one is more successful you ask? Complete toss up. But, since I imagine most of you are already proficient TV watchers, I’ll focus on strategy two.

I start off with a list of 6 statements and I assign a post-it note color to each.

  • This is the problem:
  • This is how others attack the problem:
  • This is what I did:
  • These are my initial findings:
  • This is what these findings mean/why they matter:
  • This is what I can say/conclude:

The next step is to start filling in post-it notes in response to each statement. There can be as many post-it notes per statement as you like – the only rule is: One, and only one, idea per post-it. I start laying the post-its out on the table as I go, grouping them together in terms of ideas and placing them in the order in which a logical argument would require. For example, methods go before findings which go before overall conclusions.

Once I have written down everything I can think of I use a series of prompts to help me make sure I have as complete a list as possible: Do you have RQs? What is the main thing you want to say? What are you certain of? What is in my paper/notes but not on the post-its?

Again, as I add post-its I re-arrange and re-organize.

Finally I check to see if there are unnecessary post-its or missing bits of information by asking: Can you get from any given post it to the top and to the bottom logically?

The process can take me anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. The end result looks like this:

Post-it Note Plan

This particular post-it note plan contains all the information I needed to write an article that looked at identifying influential users on Twitter. I helped a friend use post-it notes to plan a paper that examined wikipedia as a news source, and in the past I’ve used the method to sort out my thoughts on topics ranging from youth engagement in democracy to strategies for composting in a city.

Taking the time to respond to each of the six prompts and to ensure you are connecting all the pieces of your puzzle together coherently makes it easier to sit back down at the computer to write. The visual aspect and ability to physically move post-it notes around, for me, is particularly important because it lets me manipulate the information in new ways.

Here is a short presentation on post-it planning.


3 thoughts on “The Post-it Note Journal Article: Crafting an Academic Argument

  1. Randal Smith says:

    thanks Elizabeth, I might use this in the critical thinking course we teach in Japan. Back in the day, when I was writing my thesis (1994) I used cue cards. All research evidence was collected on this and sifted many times. I then structured my chapter and laid out the cards paragraph by paragraph. The big advantage was the ease of shuffling; the big disadvantage was that they could get knocked off/swept off the desk.

  2. Randal Smith says:

    One thing I might suggest when presenting this to others is to ensure that you have references on these where appropriate.

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