Analog tools,  Pedagogy,  Scholarship,  Writing

Taking Notes

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A few days ago an acquaintance spotted me taking notes by hand in a notebook as I read a printed book. They were surprised not only by the way I was taking notes (with a wood-cased pencil in a notebook) but that I was taking notes at all.

Why I Take Notes

  • I take notes because I can use them later when I don’t  have access to the source of the information they contain.
  • I take notes when I’m reading for research, or attending a conference, or as an alternative or supplement to annotating a book.
  • Sometimes my notes serve as a permanent record, for instance taking minutes as an official record of a meeting.

The Purpose of Notes

Usually my notes are a reminder of what I’ve heard or read, not a complete record. If I’m listening to a lecture, I don’t create a transcript by writing down every single word.  I find it’s more effective to pay attention to the lecture, and only make notes about points that are especially important, involve specific data (a date, a citation) or useful, or that I suspect I might need later. Thinking consciously about what I’m reading or listening to and putting it into my own words helps me retain the information because I’m integrating new information with what I already know.

Taking notes for research reading is a way of annotating books without marking up the books themselves. When I take notes about something I’m reading I only make notes about the most important points, the highlights, the bits that I find interesting. I copy short passages with a citation if I think I’ll use a particular quotation as a reference. Often, my notes are closer to an outline than a summary; this is particularly true of primary sources I’m translating, where my notes are intended to help me find specific sections of the text later.

Analog vs Digital Note-taking

Although I’m writing about taking notes by hand, I also take notes on computer and other digital devices. Digital notes, using any of several apps, are easy to share and backup, they make it fairly easy to combine textual notes, drawings, and photos (for instance of a white board or a handout or a diagram of an argument). Digital notes are also easily indexed and searched. In general, my methodology for analog notes also applies to the way I take digital notes. Right now, as I research for a particular project, most of my notes (those I will use) will end up in Scrivener, but taking notes by hand means I can take notes anywhere without having my laptop, even if I’m reading on my phone or iPad.

One of the advantages of Ebooks is the ability to export notes, annotations and highlights. You can export notes and highlights with Apple’s Books, Amazon’s Kindle and Kindle apps, and Overdrive;s Libby, for library ebooks.

Note-taking Equipment

There are some positive aspects of taking notes by hand. I’m more likely to retain the information as I use my own words to preserve key points. The physical act of writing by hand, in part because I write much more slowly than I type, encourages me to think about what I’m writing. Writing by hand increases my retention. There are circumstances (for instance using special collections materials in a library) when I can’t use a digital device, and must take notes by hand; such places typically restrict users to pencil. I often take notes by hand and then keyboard them or scan them for digital preservation and use, and to integrate wimy notes with related notes.

I usually take reading notes using pencil, though I use both pencils and pens for taking notes by hand, if I don’t have to keep up with a speaker. Pencil makes it easier for me to neatly correct my errors. In a library I’ll either sharpen a handful of high quality pencils in advance, or I’ll use my favorite Kuru-Toga mechanical pencil.

Don’t overlook the importance of paper for note-taking. The paper needs to be of good enough quality that it will stand up to being written and read and annotated, good enough that pencil won’t smear and will erase easily, and that ink will dry without smearing or bleeding. For research notes, I typically use affordable high-quality notebook paper like Kokuyo Campus, or something that is quality paper but doesn’t weigh a ton like Write Note Pads spiral notebooks. I make sure that the paper will erase, and that it won’t take forever for ink to dry before I use it. Sometimes I’ve been able to find low-cost (.50 to .99 cents) Composition books made from rice or sugar cane that have really high quality low acid paper; those work well too. I use those a lot for disposable notes that I transcribe

For me, the point of taking notes is to get the information down. I can make it pretty later, either when I transcribe the notes to make a fair copy or during review, when I may use highlighters, or different colors of ink or pencil. Once I start actually using notes to write a draft, I often use stickie notes and flags to mark important passages.

Note-Taking Tips

I usually date and label my notes. If I’m making reading notes, I include citations and page numbers. If I’m dedicating a notebook to a particular project, especially when I’m working in a library, I create and keep a list of project-specific abbreviations on the front or back page of my notebook. I often use a template inspired by Cornell notes when I’m taking notes about a scholarly article or monograph, or for translating Medieval texts

I deliberately leave a lot of white space.  I often add headings and subheadings later, and I like to allow for annotation and emendations when I revise or review my notes.  I make marginal notes; I use ? to mark things I need to check, I asterisk * bits that are important. I use outlines, bullet points and lists rather than full paragraphs and coherent sentences. My notes are for me; they don’t really need to make sense to anyone else (given my handwriting, this is fortunate).

How I Use My Notes

The point of taking notes for me is to remember and make the information mine, both by virtue of retaining it and by being to go back to my notes. That means not only re-writing information in my own words, but making connections with information I already know. I make these  connections when I review my notes, or, when I’m working on a specific piece or drafting a book, when I keyboard my notes.

Long-term reading notes generally end up in HTML files on my computer. I’ve tried lots of text-based non-proprietary note apps, but have gone back to using hand-coded HTML files.

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