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How to Quickly Capture Quotes from Electronic Sources

Electronic Quote Bible 2

Electronic Flatness

A reader recently wrote me with an improvement to my flat outline method for research paper writing. The original method asked you to build an ordered list of the topics you want to address in your paper, and then start typing in quotes from your personal copies of the research sources directly into the outline, putting each quote under the relevant topic. By the time you start writing your paper, this flat outline contains all the information you need — allowing you to focus on writing without having to rummage through a pile of sources.

This reader noted, however, that for some papers, she had to read lots of electronic sources, usually in PDF format. It seemed like a waste to print each of these and then manually type the quotes she needed into her flat outline. So she innovated a new approach.

It works as follows:

  1. When reading a PDF source on your computer screen, if you come across a quote you want to capture, do an image screenshot. On a Mac this means pressing Command + shift + 4, and then dragging a box around the quote.
  2. The image will appear on your desktop. Immediately rename the image in the format “Author last name cit # pg #”, with cit # standing for the citation number — if it’s the first quote, it’s cit 1, second, cit 2, etc. (See the screenshot at the top of the post.)
  3. Build your flat outline in Microsoft Word as usual. To add a quote to the document, drag the image file right where you want it in the document; the image will embed itself automatically, as shown below:

Electronic Quote Bible 1

This technique is best suited for medium size papers. For short essays, it might be overkill. For long research papers, I’m still a fan of the paper research database. But for medium size papers that require you to quickly process a dozen or so electronic sources, this tip can help you capture relevant quotes fast, so you can spend more time crafting the story: the step that makes the difference between a ‘B’ and an ‘A+’.

12 thoughts on “How to Quickly Capture Quotes from Electronic Sources”

  1. Instead of making a screenshot and pasting that image into my word processor I’d copy the text directly into word and add the citation directly after that text snippet. That way I don’t have to retype those quotes afterwards.

  2. Unless there is some compelling reason to save each quote as a separate file, you can copy and paste from a PDF the same way you would from anywhere else… The snapshot feature can also be used if you want to copy equations or figures…

  3. Check out Zotero (
    It’s a Firefox plugin that no only makes this collection process much easier but also organizes your references.

  4. Just to complement your post: If you are using Linux, there is a very nice program that grabs parts of the screen on demand – BasKet note pads.
    Just click the button/press the keyboard shortcut, and the program’s window disappears. Now you can select the area you want to copy, and it appears instantly in the middle of your notes.
    It is extremely usefull when studying from ppt/pdf presentations, or when doing mashups of data from different softwares. (btw, nice blog 😀 )

  5. Sounds good to me. Thanks. My next assignment has all the research online (cognitive science) so, that’s handy.

    BTW, sometimes you can’t copy right from the PDF to Word, because it’s just an image file or because of copy protection.

  6. Sounds legit. I quite like this site, I might be returning as a mature student next year to tie up some loose ends and I might find myself in need of something like this.

  7. I use Cinta Notes and Plain Text To Link (Firefox add-on) for the content, then I open them with Word or another word processor and paste the images near the content that I collect.
    Cheers for your excelent work.

  8. Thank you everyone who has suggested some piece of technology that might accomplish the same general idea — capturing notes electronically and adding directly to a flat outline — with less hassle. As longtime readers know, I am a DIY type when it comes to tech strategies (if it can’t be done in Word, Excel, and a text file, I’ll probably lose interest) so I rely on you guys to point out alternatives for the more techphilic among us.

  9. One of the technoproblems is operating platform. CintaNotes works only on Windows. Evernote only on Windows & Mac. So you have to look around for something that works with your system. Glad to see that all the bases including Linux appear to be covered in these comments!


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