Tag Archives: note-taking

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, Poynter.org

Back to Evernote

I’m getting back into using Evernote more. Primarily for interview notes and research materials for articles. I haven’t found anything as good for mixing media types (plain text notes, PDFs, and images), and I like the synch between multiple platforms. The recent price increase doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t look like much money, frankly.

I had nearly abandoned Evernote in 2014 or so because it was bloated and slow on my then-primary computer, a 2010 MacBook Pro. And I really didn’t like the public statements by then-CEO Phil Libin about the way the company was going to go. It looked like Evernote was going to get worse, not better, adding more useless features in an attempt to steal Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information.

I’m encouraged by comments by the new CEO that they’re looking to refocus on note taking, rather than being a company that sells socks and software to take food selfies. Maybe they’ll even kill work chat, which nobody likes.

I’m still writing in Ulysses, though I’m not using it to take notes anymore. One thing I liked when I was taking notes in Ulysses was that the notes and article would be together in a single folder. My solution now that I’m using different apps for research and writing: Tags. I tag each article, starting with the letter n to be sure all the tags are grouped in the list, followed by company name or keyword, short code for day of the week, followed by the date I start work on the article. Example: “n Microsoft Thu 2016-06-30”. I use the same tag for every document, Ulysses sheet, and Evernote note related to that article. Seems like that will work. Ask me again in a year.

I found a note in my journal from three years ago saying I’m getting back into Evernote. So this is not my first turn on that merry go round.

My iPad-and-stylus-based note-taking system completely broke down while I was on the road

Notability locked up a document. I shut down the app manually and restarted it only to find the document gone. Fortunately, it was only a short interview and I was able to reconstruct it from memory.

After that I switched back to using a paper notebook and pen. And found I liked it much better than digital note-taking. I still had all the muscle memory of my previous years using notebook and pen, even though I’ve been using the iPad (and briefly a Nexus 7) for all my field notes for several years now. And whipping out a notebook while having drinks with a business contact is much more human than whipping out an iPad and stylus. So I think I’ll be sticking with the notebook and pen, at least for a while.