Notetaking Wonders & Woes

What’s the most efficient and effective way to capture information from discussions, interviews, presentations, and other real-life events? Journalists, students, researchers, and others often rely on taking handwritten notes, or sometimes by making audio recordings. However, some notetaking practices tend to work better than others.

(UPDATE: After you read this article, you might want to check out my Nov. 10, 2003 followup which offers more notetaking tips.)


Ordinary handwriting, for instance, is a notoriously slow, incomplete, and (worst of all) illegible notetaking tool.

One of my journalism colleagues, Randy Loftis of the Dallas Morning News, recently commented, “Once I called home to get my wife to read me some notes I had left behind. She got them, laughed at me and said, “Here’s what they say. ‘Glib sprackly dorf libber.’ She wound up faxing them. Sure enough, she was right. That’s what they said.”

Shorthand is one possible solution for handwritten notes – although if you want to learn it, you’ll probably have to teach yourself. Very few shorthand courses are offered these days, anywhere.

If you prefer to type your notes, one option to build speed and save your wrists is to learn the Dvorak keyboard, which is far more ergonomically benign than the common “QWERTY” keyboard. You can buy Dvorak keyboards, or change some settings in the Windows or Mac operating system to convert your existing QWERTY keyboard to Dvorak.

If you use a collapsible Stowaway keyboard with your PDA (a great option for journalists and others), that also has a Dvorak setting.

Audio recording as a notetaking tool can be either a godsend or a chore, depending on why and how you use it. I generally find that audio recordings are most useful in these circumstances:

  • For accuracy. Your project requires exact verbatim quotes – especially for Q&A interviews, or where liability issues are at stake.
  • For safety. You take good handwritten notes but you want to have a backup for accuracy. Or your source has requested a verbatim record of the interview or presentation. Or you know or suspect that your source is recording and you want your own recording to protect your interests or reputation. (In these cases, you may not ever listen to the recording.)
  • To keep up. Your source is throwing a lot of information or jargon at you very quickly, and there’s no hope you could keep up with more than the basics. Here, the audio recording is useful for a quick review.
  • To listen well. You have difficulty splitting your attention between listening and taking notes.
  • To be courteous. You normally type your notes, but the setting is such that clicking away at a keyboard would be distracting to others (like at a conference session).

If you do make recordings as part of your notetaking process, I strongly urge you to use a digital voice recorder (DVR), rather than a cassette tape recorder. Here’s why:

  • DVRs are smaller and generally more reliable than tape recorders.
  • They offer substantially longer recording times than most tape recorders.
  • You can create “bookmarks” in the audio file while you’re recording in order to note important points that you want to be able to find easily later.
  • Most models allow you to download audio files directly to your computer through a USB connection.
  • They come with software that allows you to edit, mark, enhance, and otherwise manipulate files on your computer. You also can save files in a variety of audio formats.
  • Digital audio files are much easier and faster to zip through when you’re searching for something, compared to cassette recordings.

Transcription is the biggest timewaster for any audio recording used for notetaking. In the vast majority of cases, transcription is completely unnecessary. It’s usually far more efficient to just zip through your recording after the fact to retrieve key quotes or facts.

There’s no single “best” way to take handwritten, typed, or recorded notes. Consider your options and choose what’s best for you. For myself, I type about as fast as most people can talk, so I usually type my notes. If I can’t type, I take sparse handwritten notes supported by a digital recording – which I almost never transcribe unless I’m publishing a Q&A interview.

CONTENTIOUS readers: What are your notetaking tips and troubles? Post them as comments to this article!

4 thoughts on Notetaking Wonders & Woes

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  1. I am a full time telecommuter and manage content on several Intranet sites. All of my meetings are via conference call. I always struggle with how to take good notes from the calls. I try to have printed pages of the web content to make notes on, but that isn’t always practical — especially with new content. Many of the calls are focused on strategy and processes, not directly to content.
    Any suggestions?

  2. Notetaking Wonders & Woes
    “What’s the most efficient and effective way to capture information from discussions, interviews, presentations, and other real-life events? Journalists, students, researchers, and others often rely on taking handwritten notes, or sometimes by making a…