How to get good at note-taking

Interviews and presentations are the raw materials of journalism, and good notes are the tools. Here are a few tips on taking good notes, based on my own experience and a couple of articles I Googled recently:

  • Use a laptop, or tablet with keyboard, where appropriate for note-taking. When interviewing an executive for an article about their business, keyboarding is very appropriate. When infiltrating a prison, not so much.
  • For most of my career I tried to be discreet about taking notes. I felt notetaking would make them uncomfortable. Now I’m the opposite. People are there to be interviewed, let them see your fingers and elbows fly. If they say something great but you don’t get it, don’t be shy about asking them to repeat it.
    • Except when they’re nervous about being interviewed.
    • Sometimes when they’re nervous, you can’t take notes at all, or they’ll freeze up. This is what bathroom breaks are for. Drink plenty of iced tea.
    • Just because you closed your notebook doesn’t mean you’re off the record.
  • There are many methods of shorthand other than the classic Gregg. Probably worth learning. I never have.
  • It’s a good idea immediately after an interview to review your notes and retype them, adding details that are fresh in your memory. I never do.
  • Don’t try to take down every word. Listen for quotes, summarize the rest.
  • Avoid recording interviews unless there’s a specific reason to do so. Transcribing recording is slow, slow, slow. Also, recorders fail.
  • Computers fail too. Best to take notes with pen and paper. I don’t — I use electronics.
  • Lately I’ve been using Notability with the Adonit Jot stylus to take handwritten notes on my iPad mini during face-to-face one-on-one interviews. I like it, but I’m not sure I’ll stick with it. Typing is faster and I feel like it’s more reliable.

A couple of good articles with more tips:

Taking Good Notes: Tricks and Tools – The Open Notebook

12 basics of interviewing, listening and note-taking – Roy Peter Clark,

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