Taking Good Notes: Tricks and Tools

Close-up of part of a spiral notebook with some unreadable writing on the right-facing page.
Chris Blakely/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Whether you rely on a digital recorder or a laptop or a ragtag collection of mismatched notebooks, you need to take good notes. That doesn’t just mean that your handwriting needs to be legible—though that matters too. It means that your notes capture the essence of what you have observed, from the words your sources uttered to—in some situations—the direction the wind was blowing as you spoke. Every situation calls for different note-taking strategies, and every writer has his or her own preferences. Recently, Science’s Online News Editor David Grimm offered us a trove of advice on note-taking, which he assembled for students at Johns Hopkins University’s science writing master’s program, where he is on the faculty. Grimm polled colleagues about the best way to take notes during interviews. Here’s their advice:


Prepping for the Interview

  • Plan of attack: Go to an interview with a plan and an expectation of what the interviewee is going to say.  If the person says something surprising, write that down. If a person has a great quote or turn of phrase, write that down. Though you may not be writing much, keep your pen moving by writing down points you expected the person to make—that way you can guide your interviewee to make sure he/she actually makes the points you need for your story, and you don’t wonder later, “Am I making this up or did the person actually say something like this?” Continually writing also helps your interviewee think you’re interested in most of what he/she is saying, so the interviewee might give you something that he/she might not give to other interviewers. (Robert Frederick) /// Whichever medium I’m working in, I go over my notes right after the interview, fill in blanks from short-term memory, and clean up any mistakes or illegible patches. (Robert Coontz)
  • Questions: I always draw up a complete list of questions before an interview and then put the list aside. I don’t consult it at all during the interview, concentrating instead on keeping the conversation flowing and following up right away on points I don’t understand or need more info on. Then at the end,  I pull out my notebook and quickly scan the list to see that I’ve covered everything I needed to, and if necessary ask any remaining questions. Usually though I’ve covered all the points, and often gotten far more than anticipated from a source. (Heather Pringle)


Taking Faster Notes

  • Shorthand: The only reliable method, I think, is shorthand. I don’t know shorthand, so in this situation I try to filter info as I’m putting pen to paper—jotting down sure-bet quotes, key data, etc. It’s hard to keep that up. Sometimes I drift into a robotic trance where I’m trying to jot down every word. (Richard Stone)
  • Speedwriting: We discuss interviewing a lot in my class. I advise them to start learning Speedwriting as soon as possible (a more user-friendly version of shorthand which can be used right away, while you’re still learning). Amazon has various courses available: Speedwriting for Notetaking and Study Skills and Speedwriting Skills Training Course. (Michael Balter)
  • Drop vowels: I drp vwls. (Jon Cohen)
  • Make up your own shorthand: I use my own invented speedwriting. My abbreviations change a lot from interview to interview—a capital C might stand for crocodile if I’m doing a story on crocodiles, or might stand for chromosome if I’m doing a story on genetics. I’ll actually try to jot down a few abbreviations before I start an interview, with words I think will be common in the conversation. That keeps me from getting distracted later in the interview thinking about what to abbreviate. I think my biggest stride in note taking came when I realized I didn’t have to get every word of the entire interview written down exactly verbatim, just the parts I might want to quote (as a beginning writer I recorded every interview, made a full word-for-word transcript of the entire interview, and then would look through it for quotes … sooo time-consuming, but I really thought that’s what was done). Maybe it’s because I got better at immediately recognizing when something is quotable—I’ll focus on getting that down right and not worry if I’m missing the exact wording of some less quotable material that comes after it. When someone is giving me general background information or explanation that I need to understand but probably won’t quote, my note-taking is more like it would be in a class—an outline form or general thoughts and ideas and how they connect. Depends how familiar I already am with the subject area though. (Sarah C.P. Williams)
  • Software: When I am doing phone interviews, I record and type notes in PearNote. The text is tied to the audio, so I can click on a particular spot in the text and it will play the audio from that time point. The sound comes from my landline and goes into my computer through some weird RadioShack gadget. Also, I use a headset so that I can have both hands free to type. I think PearNote is only for Macs, but MS OneNote does the same thing. When I am on the road, I scribble illegibly in a notebook and use a recorder. I try to remember to mark the time on the recorder if someone says something interesting. (Cassandra Willyard)
  • Hardware: I’m no techno-geek, but I’d like to make a strong plug for Livescribe, a recording pen. Your written notes—page scans—are uploaded to the computer and you can either play back the entire recording or jump around to where you’ve noted juicy quotes or key information. It’s the most valuable tool for my work since the Internet. (Richard Stone)
  • Others: Particularly if you don’t have much advance notice of an interview, and so cannot necessarily prepare and come to an understanding of what the interviewee is going to say, learn one of the alternative handwriting systems.  Here’s a site that discusses a lot of them: http://www.alysion.org/handy/althandwriting.htm. (Robert Frederick)
  • Or … Write Slow: I use notebook and pen and my own bastard shorthand. One of the benefits of this not very speedy technique is that it creates voids that the interviewee feels obliged to fill. If they finish what they were intending to say, and you don’t immediately come back with another question because you’re scrawling down their words, they’ll often just keep going and say things they might not have wanted to say or make off-the-cuff comments that provide good color. Once you sit down to write and are reading through your notes, the most indispensible piece of technology is a highlighter pen. A splash of color over the juiciest quotes makes them so much easier to find among pages of dross. (Dan Clery)


In the Field

  • Listening/Seeing: Concentrate on listening; your notes are just going to be a reminder of what the person told you. You’re not going to get every word they say. So you have two goals: Understand what they’re saying and get quotes. Oh, three goals: You also need color. For quotes, when someone says something you want to capture, stop listening and concentrate on repeating what they just said in your head until you have it down. Don’t forget the color. That’s the hardest part to get later on the phone. Then as soon as you are back at a computer, type up your notes. You’ll remember things you didn’t write down, and you’ll still be able to remember what your scrawls mean. (I can’t read my handwriting by day two.) With time and practice, you’ll start developing abbreviations that work for you. (Helen Fields) /// One thing I want to add is that if you are writing a book or magazine article where you might want to describe a scene, make sure you take notes at the scene about how the place looks, smells, sounds, etc., and take photos or video (great for voices and catching a person’s cadence, etc.) that you can look at when you’re writing. Jot down apt analogies, etc. while the material is fresh. And always date the interviews/times in case you need to use the notes later. (Ann Gibbons) /// I think it’s important to not just write up your notes from a lab or field visit within 24 hours, but to actually write scenes in at least as much detail as you’d use them in your article. My notes from the field tend to be a mix of scattershot details and quotes. When I actually start describing the scene, other details I hadn’t thought to note often seem necessary. If I do this within a day or so I can remember them. When I haven’t done it soon enough, I’ve regretted it. (Greg Miller)
  • Photos and Videos: I am loath to rely on my notes when describing a scene in a story. I take loads of photos not only as potential illustrations but to better reconstruct scenes. I’ve also begun recording short videos for that purpose. (Richard Stone)
  • Computers: I sometimes use a laptop during an interview in the field, especially if it’s in a setting where laptops are common. For example, at a scientific conference, if I go to a coffee shop with a researcher during a break, a laptop doesn’t create any distance between us. But if I’m in Nairobi visiting a woman in her wattle, the last thing I’d do is pull out an indiscreet chunk of high-tech gear. One advantage to handnotes is I often draw something in the environment. This both helps me remember color and puts me back in that place. I also like to ask people to write their names for me, especially if they’re not used to being interviewed. It increases the likelihood that I will not misspell the person’s name, everyone’s handwriting has a beauty to it, and it creates an intimacy with the source, as though we’ve entered some sort of contract with each other that is binding. As far as electronic letdowns and glitches, handnotes have shortcomings, too. I once lost a notebook. It broke my heart. With electronic files, I can easily back them up, e-mailing them to the cloud. They also are much easier to work with when writing a story (though I typically type in all my handnotes for longer stories). I’ve played with several voice-recognition programs. None are all the way there, but, interestingly, Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5 and Adobe Soundbooth CS5 can do crude transcripts with time logs, which make it much easier to then search your digital recording/video clips. I think we one day will record everything and use these programs. (You can download the Adobe products for free trials and test drive.) (Jon Cohen)
  • Good-Old-Fashioned Notebooks: I scribble my notes in notebooks, too, and record if I absolutely must, since I truly hate transcribing. I also don’t like reading the pages and pages that come from a full transcription service. Like others, I’ve developed my own speedwriting system—and like someone mentioned adapt it to the story at hand. If I’m writing about Earth, I note it as E, for instance. I prefer notebooks (Rite-in-the-Rain pocket notebooks) for many reasons—they don’t run out of batteries; are pretty much indestructible (unless you lose them; I often “wear” my notebooks, keeping them in a special pouch around my neck or waist or daypack, and never ever put them in checked luggage); and it’s easy to flip through them at the end of the day, or even as an interview is in progress, to review where you are, and what else you need to know. Sometimes new questions arise from the interview itself. I also mark my notebook up with stars and underlines and highlights, and draw pictures, graphs, etc. You do develop a listening skill—you get that sense when a quote is just perfect. I find that I can mentally record those, and I do make sure I get those keepers down fast. (Virginia Morell)
  • Drawings: I also often draw in my notebooks, and often ask scientists to draw for me—they often think graphically or in diagrams, and this helps me to understand. (Elizabeth Culotta)


Other Interview Advice

  • First Statements: One thing I often do when starting an interview is to explain to the interviewee what sort of story I’m intending to write. This helps put them at their ease. (Dan Clery)
  • First Questions: My go-to in interviewing is asking people about how they came to do what they do. Most folks like to tell their origin story. (Gisela Telis)
  • Act Interested: And make sure you appear interested. You need to get them to trust you. (Dan Clery)
  • Organize! I’ve become a big fan of Evernote, which is an app that lets you create notes and organize them into notebooks. It all gets synched to the cloud automatically and pushed out to your other devices, so any notes you take on your laptop are automatically updated on your desktop, iPhone, etc. It also lets you attach files (PDFs of papers, photos taken on a reporting trip, MP3s of recorded interviews) to particular notes. You can also add websites and emails to your notebooks. I really like it because I can keep all the various media related to a story in one place, and it’s all automatically backed up and synched across devices. (Greg Miller)
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