Research tips: using a “working” glossary as part of your research by Glenn Price

(This post is drawn from one I wrote earlier this year on the Under Construction blog)

I have a system when I am note taking from a book or an article. I won’t go into the boring details – I can do that in another post. But it does involve using a variety of bright colours of highlighter or page markers, with each colour corresponding to a particular theme. To give you an example, orange for interesting ideas or concepts or, in this case, pink for a glossary entry.

I use pink a lot.

You see the glossary I am referring to is not the one that will end up in an appendix of my future PhD thesis. This glossary is actually one I use just for myself. I had never really thought of writing and updating a glossary before (although I had to include one for my MRes and undergraduate dissertations, these were not “working” ones).

It all started when I was still in the grip of the good old “imposter syndrome” many of us face periodically. In the first few months of the PhD, I was doubting my knowledge and ability of the subject and when I kept on encountering words that I had not faced before it wasn’t exactly a confidence boost. Then (during a mild procrastination moment) I thought “what if I just got organised on this?”

In order to try and learn these words and phrases, I started writing them down in a little notebook. Just the word, an abbreviated book and page reference where I encountered it and a couple of explanatory sentences. At first there was only one or two words phrases in French (I think the first entry was “chevauchée“). When I realised that the very act of writing them down was helping the words to sink into my head, I realised this habit wouldn’t be going away any time soon. Pretty soon I had even ascribed a colour in my note taking system to it (yes, bright vivid pink was one of the only ones left by that point) so whenever I finished a book, I copied the words highlighted in that colour into my little book.

These words ranged from French, Latin or German words concerned with medieval or early modern weapons technology right through to the delightful range of English words I would only find in a thesaurus or an academic work. “Comminatory” is one of the latter that springs to mind. It spread beyond when I was simply reading – if I was in a seminar or a work in progress and I encountered an unusual word it was scribbled down for later definition and entry. The whole process takes perhaps twenty minutes after a week’s reading. I still think it is time well spent.

I find it useful not simply for a reference point but also as sort of track record of my research. The more the notebook became filled, the more I could visually see progress in my reading and research. I cannot emphasise enough how useful I found that. When library books go back; loaners are returned to the supervisor; PDFs or Word documents are closed; or the PDLP is updated and saved (…….) it is pleasant, almost reassuring, to have something to hand that physically shows progress.

The accompanying sense of confidence I felt in those first weeks and months was a definite boon, and the product in my little notebook is in itself an invaluable resource as I face more research ahead. While a working glossary may not be for you, it works for me and I recomend you try it out. You may like it.

The original little A6 notebook I used for the glossary has fallen apart now. Its pages became a bit too cluttered with my scribblings and the spine only held up for so long. It’s (larger and more substantial) successor is going strong though, and I suspect it will be a presence at my elbow whilst I work for a good while longer.


This post was produced by Glenn Price a PhD student in History. Glenn, who began his research in Autumn 2015, examines military logistics, supplies and the course and conduct of warfare in the British Isles in the middle of the seventeenth century.


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