Memos and journals for analysis

Memos and journals are useful tools throughout analysis of qualitative data. They can be used to support reflection, record-keeping, and rigour.

While the term 'memo' means different things to different schools of thought, Birks et al (2008) suggest mnemonically that they can offer ways of: 

  • Mapping research activities: Recording the decision-making trail from conception of the research to the completion.
  • Extracting meaning from the data: Helping the researcher "to articulate, explore, contemplate and challenge their interpretations when examining data. Similarities and differences are identified, relationships are explored, and hypotheses spawned" (p.71)
  • Maintaining momentum: Creating a space for decisions, perspectives, thoughts and ideas to be captured as they emerge - including when new ideas and decisions replace the old as the research progresses. Using memos in this way can maintain momentum by helping to overcome 'analytic paralysis', where the researcher is blocked from moving forward because "they fear making a mistake" (p.72).
  • Opening communication: While memos are often written for the researcher alone, they can be useful tools to share early thoughts and ideas in research teams.


Advice for CHOOSING

Records of the research journey can take many different forms, depending on the researcher’s personal preferences and the demands of the project. Choose the type of record (or combination of types) that best suits your project. Different types of records can include:

  • A personal journal – some reflections on one’s personal situation might be included in the eventual report or thesis.

  • Interview notes - about expectations and ideas prior to interviews and ideas arising from after the interview. Key passages in the interviews may be typed underlined and reflections added. 

  • A combination of paper and electronic records - for example, an exercise book full of dated notes, minutes of meetings that have been typed and emailed, specific electronic folders with documents detailing important decisions and records.

  • Collaborative record-keeping for teams - for example, Google groups and/or Google documents, OneDrive and other share platforms.

Advice for USING

  • Memos of should be written in the active voice (“I did this” “I think that” not “the category emerged”). This helps to highlight that research is not an uncovering of an external truth but the creating of a truthful account.

  • Often, memos can productively be filed attached to the item that sparked them. So, in a paper-based project, a memo about the concept of giving voice could be stapled to the manila folder with the pile of quotes in it. In a project that used NVivo software, it could be attached to the node as shown below. In a project using Excel spreadsheets, it might be in a cell that is the intersection of the column headed giving voice, and a row called memos as also shown below.


  • Don’t overthink memos - just catch your actions and thoughts before they fly away. Your jottings about what you have done and what you think (those that cover mapping research activitiesextracting meaning from the data and maintaining momentum) might all stay as notes complete with misspellings at least until final write up. Memos for other people (the ones that cover opening communication) will probably need editing as they are written.

  • Whether they are carefully crafted communications or rough notes to catch what is in your mind as you work, memos can be used as you start writing up the research. Your notes on what you did can tell the tale of your methods. For this reason, it is useful to date the memos as they are written. Your jottings on what you think, in which you have extracted meaning form your data, can become the basis of your analytical discussion along with the filing system you have made as you coded. The system offers you the structural bones for discussion, the memos put flesh on the bones.


Birks, M., Chapman, Y., and Francis, K. (2008). ‘Memoing in qualitative research Probing data and processes’ in Journal of Research in Nursing 13(1) 68–75 DOI: 10.1177/ 1744987107081254

The comments in this Option page are based on the deliberations of the Qualitative Interest Group on 7/8/2018.

Cite this page

Marshall, H. (2018). Memos and journals to aid analysis. BetterEvaluation.

Updated: 11th April 2019 - 12:48pm
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A special thanks to this page's contributors
Senior Associate, , Social and Global Studies Centre (formerly Centre for Applied Social Research) RMIT.
Melbourne, Australia.


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