Notes on Taking Notes

24 March 2018

Bulging three-ring binders. Index cards stuffed snugly into a wooden recipe box so it won’t close. Books crammed with Post-it notes. Everyone has their own way of taking and keeping notes.

It’s best to make a fuss about your notes. I’ve discovered that the more convoluted your note-taking process, the better it is for you. It cements the note ideas in your mind and makes it easier to find them later when you need them. Ryan Holiday, a writer and passionate note taker, uses a densely conceived system that verges on the absurd; but it works for him.

Effective note-taking makes writing smoother because you’ve already cooked your ideas before you get to the composition stage.

Holiday insists on paper and pencil and notecards. I use a digital system because I write in a (mostly) digital environment. I start with an app called Things which is an enhanced to-do list. I fill it with things to do that never happen, but brainstorming and early sorting are how I process things in Things. From there I migrate to Bear, which is a sleek writing platform that uses hashtags to track everything. I pull articles off the Web and stick them in Bear, tagging them so I can locate them later. I talk into my phone and let Bear take dictation, syncing itself to iPad and laptop. I dictate when walking down the street, pretending that I’m on a call. Since I get many ideas while walking, it works to convince bystanders of my sanity. Later, I will look over the notes in Bear and mark them up with highlights, additional notes, links, and references. If I’m looking at my notes on a phone or iPad, I can highlight passages with my finger.

My next step is to group the Bear notes and bring them into Scrivener. Scrivener is a digital writing workspace. I open the chapter or article I’m working on. In a sidebar, I link to all my Bear notes. When it’s time to write, I split the screen with my original work on one side, and my notes on the other, either as live links or marked-up PDFs. My writing process is streamlined. I don’t have to jump all over the Web looking for stuff — it’s right there, bookmarked in the Scrivener sidebar. Check my Instagram for a screenshot here.

John McPhee’s book Draft No. 4 has had a big influence on my note-taking process. McPhee recommends getting all your research together before you start writing. He has an elaborate coding system to help him find things. Hashtags work for me. Read everything you can about your topic, do all your interviews, construct your tower of ideas, precook (parboil?) your thoughts, and you will hit your flow state sooner and stay there. Not only is this faster, but it’s more fluid. By the time you are in the creation stage, you’re just taking dictation from your own mental processes or downloading from a divine source, if you prefer. It’s the best kind of transcription.

Thanks for reading,


Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

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