Making notes on drafts and research is important. It can also be a pain in the butt.
Actually, note taking is a “two problem” problem. It’s two sided. There’s the taking notes part and also the organizing and using your notes part. The best solution depends on how you work and what you’re using the notes for.
The way we take notes may vary depending on what our project is and how the notes are to be used. And finding the actual best method (at least the best method for us and our project) is usually a matter of experimentation. Unless there is a genuine constraint (your teacher wants to see your notes and wants them in a particular way or you have to submit your notes for some other official purpose) do what works best for you.
Sure, you may have been taught a particular method. But, they’re your notes. Unless there’s a teacher/agency/boss demanding a particular method, what works for you is far more important than what you learned in junior high.
All of that said, let’s look at some tools to help in note taking…
You might want to take notes on your phone/tablet/computer. There are many programs out there and good reasons to use electronic notes. If they work for you, do it. You’ll want to experiment with what program to use based on your situation.
Even if you’re more of a paper and pencil person, sometimes electronic notes are helpful. Notes made within an electronic manuscript can be shared with others (and help us writers while working on that next pass). This is especially useful in multi-author/editor documents and extensive projects. Most credible text editors (Word, Scrivener, Google docs, etc.) include ways to make comments. Modern versions also allow you to track revision histories and even revert to earlier versions. I usually have a print manuscript available for my print book/document projects, but by having the electronic notes and revision history available, I can keep it down to one active paper copy rather than having to hold on to multiple paper drafts.
The other place electronic notes are helpful is when you’re dealing with pdfs. And, if you do serious research/writing there will be pdfs.
Back in the bad old days, researchers went to the library and copied journal articles. If your library didn’t have the journal you needed, you did an interlibrary loan request and, eventually, got a sketchy and hard to read photo copy that a low paid student worker at some other library made. I’m very glad those days are (mostly) gone.
In modern research, much of what we need is available on-line, and often in pdf form. Pdfs allow us to store our materials conveniently (no more filing cabinets!) but, unless you print them out, it’s hard to make physical notes on pdfs. Often, Pdf manager and reader software will allow you to highlight and note parts of your electronic research. It’s a space saver and a useful sharing tool. Some e-book readers allow note making too.
Notes in books:
If you use “dead tree edition” books, you might not want to read and type. With physical books, that keyboard or finger swipe can get in the way. So, sometimes we do it the old way and write in the book.
I’ve met some folks who swear by this method. I’ve met others who think it’s sacrilege. Of course, that second group often subscribes to the “if it’s in print (or on screen) it must be true!” school of thought, which can be a barrier all by itself.
There is one big problem with making notes in the book (two, if you want to keep your book looking nice). If you make your notes in-book you have to lug the book (and any other books with notes you need) around with you or have them conveniently available in the place where you work, and then you have to remember which book it is, and what page, and…
A method I’ve used for many years that alleviates a lot of the notes-in-books problems is using a separate notebook. You have plenty of organization options in a notebook. Of course, that means figuring out your note taking style and including things like what book and page you’re referring to in addition to making your note.
But, you can make your own notes along with the reference notes you keep and even make a sketch or two (which separates this method from a lot of electronic document note systems…).
Notebooks are also helpful for field and lab notes separate from reading research. There’s more space than in a book’s margins and you’re freer about where and how you can make notes. Of course, now you have to keep track of your notebooks…
The power of sticky notes!
I’ve tried and used all of the techniques I’ve mentioned. I still use most of them depending on the project. But there is one tool I currently love and really can’t work without. The sticky note.
Sticky notes allow you to do all the notes in books stuff, and the notes on documents stuff, and the ‘I need to remember this later’ stuff. But they aren’t stuck in one place. They can be moved, reorganized and even transcribed into a notebook or electronic form. Technically, if you want the electronic version, you don’t even have to transcribe them. You can take pictures.
Sticky notes have liberated my note use considerably because I can move them as needed and I’m not afraid of damaging the book or document I’m working with. The fact people have developed and use an electronic version kind of validates their usefulness to…
I won’t say my method is better than yours. My method may not work for you. Many people’s methods don’t work for me. Instead, dear reader, I encourage you to find the tools and method that work best for you.
Take notes. Find your success. And, I’ll see you next post.