Taking notes in a notebook made from trees



A few weeks ago I started a new job that calls for a lot of training, and I chose to take notes using a dead-tree notebook instead of a notebook computer (gasp!).  The notebook itself was conference swag dating from 2011, and happened to be a a Moleskine Ruled Soft Notebook Large (13x21cm, 192 pages). I have since grown fond of it and finished the last page today. Yesterday I bought another despite the disturbingly high price per page (on Amazon it's about 30% less and still pricey).


The last time I did weeks worth of note-taking was 2005, so when I started again a few weeks ago my notes were messy with little structure, lacking ways to find notes or identify the subject of a page without reading it.  But I've re-learned and refined some techniques over the many training sessions. Here are some methods I favor at the moment:

  1. Write the title of the session in centered block capitals, keeping some empty space around it.
  2. Write the date in the page corner (I write them like 2013.03.14) - these do double duty as a form of page numbering besides answering "When the hell did I write this?"
  3. Adjacent the date include a compressed form of the title of the lecture or meeting, this labels the rough subject of the text and makes it easy to riffle to an entry.
  4. Use colored pens to make important text stand out. The scheme I use is roughly:
    1. Black: most text and section headings.
    2. Red: newly-defined term or paragraph subject, and also key terms and points.
    3. Blue: external references like URLs, and later annotations.
  5. Use first 6 pages for a table of contents.  Why 6?  This leaves 192-6=186 pages, and I get about 23-25 titles per 30-line page, so 6 pages gives 140-150 titles.
    1. For each entry, write the date in red followed by the title in black.
    2. For conferences, put the conference title on it's own line, with dated talks indented on the following lines.
For later notes at least, I have a nicely indexed, easy to find-and-identify sequence of notes in which the subject keys and external references stand out clearly.

But why did I opt for the notebook technology state of the art in 1800 C.E., when I was also issued with a lightweight, latest-model 13" MacBook Air on my first day? Well, I did use the MacBook at first. But the first time I did so, another attendee tapped me on the shoulder to tell me the sound of typing was breaking her concentration. I suppose I was typing too fast and too much: the temptation for a fast typist is to take down nearly-verbatim what the speaker is saying as they say it.  But I want key concepts, not a complete dictation! Quality over quantity. With digital notes I also feel like editing them during the session, or I'm tempted to quickly search on something the speaker mentions - when I should be paying attention to what the speaker is saying. Afterwards. even though I rarely revisit the notes, they take up visual space in my notes folder, vying for attention and turning up unwanted in search results, becoming clutter.  And they're still editable, with the temptation to tend them later.

With a paper notebook, the slowness of handwriting forces me to stick to key concepts, the permanence of pen and paper prevents me from turning my attention to editing, and the linear succession of notes is it's own form of organisation.  And using an attractively-bound notebook makes me feel like keeping the notes around instead of tossing them in the trash.

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