Skip to Content

How to Take Better Notes

How to Take Better Notes

Note taking isn’t something that ever goes away. You might not be in school anymore, and you probably aren’t a journalist about to break the Watergate scandal wide open, but you still need to be able to copy down accurate information quickly. The skill comes in handy anytime you’re talking to customer service, negotiating your way through a new contract, or trying to remember what your boss said in a meeting. Of course, it’s entirely possible you are in school or a journalist about to break the Watergate scandal, in which case, you’re looking for some new tips. Regardless of your motivation, here’s how to take better notes.

Use Bullet Points and Stay Consistent

The bullet point is powerful and one of our favorite written organizational tools. So much so that we developed our own version to include in our Word. Notebooks. Keeping organized notes with bullet points is as easy as dropping to a new line and poking the page. 

The second half to the tip is to stick to the system you devised. For us, the main idea starts with a bullet point, and details about the idea drop below, and get an indent, then a short dash instead of a bullet. If there are deeper details necessary, we’ll drop again, indent more, and go back to a bullet. Deeper levels would follow the same alternating pattern, but we found three levels is all most of our notes ever needed.

The Cornell Note-Taking System

Because Andy Bernard’s Big Red couldn’t possibly go without giving the world a new note-taking technique, Cornell’s Walter Paulk invented this method back in the 1940s. It’s one of the easier methods to wrap your head around, where the main change you have to make is to your organization. Essentially, you draw a giant I on your page where the center line is off-center towards the left side of the page. The left side of the I is for your main ideas, while the right side gets the detailed notes. There should also be enough space at the top of the page for a title, name, date, topic, or any other important info you need, and space at the bottom for a summary of your notes.

It looks different, but the principles are essentially the same as what we were talking about in our tips for bullet points in the previous section. Organization and following the format are the key to success here. If you manage both, you’ll end up with a dense, easy to read page of information. Video Explanation

Learn Shorthand

Gregg Shorthand isn’t a pen name on the cover of a cheap paperback novel. It’s the most commonly used form of shorthand in the United States. For those of us who need a refresher on what shorthand is, it’s a second way to write English with sound instead of letters. Basically, you’re copying the phonemes of the language, a more basic but much quicker way to record information. It’s how a court stenographer can record every single word of the proceedings, often at speeds exceeding 200 words per minute.

This is one of those skills that definitely wouldn’t hurt to know, but will only really reach its full potential in the hands of journalists or the aforementioned stenographers. If you’re driven, it’s easy enough to teach yourself. You just have to train your brain to sometimes think in symbols instead of words.

If Gregg Shorthand looks too intimidating, there are other methods. Some are more complicated, while others are closer to stunted cursive. It’s a matter of what you think your brain can retain and what you think best fits your need.

Develop Your Own Shorthand

Learning a professional shorthand can be a great skill, but we wanted to emphasize the value of allowing a personal system to develop, either naturally or by concentrated effort. We found ourselves falling into a system where we have abbreviations that we use consistently, like the weird 3 with a line in it for “and” or the w/ for “with.” Then we’ll drop vowels where we find it helpful or leave out whole words when we know we can. Other people advocate putting together your own shorthand, in a similar way to how some twins will invent their own language. The main tip there is to invent phonetic symbols you can quickly understand, then use them to represent sounds, which is exactly how shorthand works anyway, you’re just personalizing it.

Limit Notes to the Core Points

This is another one of those tips that feels obvious, but even in our own experience, one of the hardest note-taking habits to break is the compulsion to copy everything down verbatim. Many a college classroom has been dragged in molasses when someone asks to go back to the previous slide and many an aspiring journalist has sabotaged an interview they were conducting because they wanted to be able to directly quote everything their subject said. In most situations, you don’t need exact wording or a literal depiction of everything that happened. Leave that to court stenographers.

Think about it this way. If you were meeting with a banker to talk about getting a mortgage, how would you record the proposed interest rate. It’s just a preliminary meeting, so you don’t have a contract or anything drawn up, but you still need to know the info. Would you make sure you copied down, “Well, Mr. Johnson, by the looks of your credit score, we can offer you what we think is a reasonable rate of 4.5%”? Or would you just put “int. rate 4.5”? It’s the same for just about every other situation. Get the important bits and cut out the fluff around them.

Audio Recording Transcription Tips

Sometimes there’s no substitute for an audio recording. It lets you go back through whatever it was you were doing at your own speed. You can pull exact quotes, remind yourself of the tone of the conversation, and really pick apart the information if your situation calls for that kind of dissection. The problem becomes how you convert that audio into skimmable words.

Obviously you can handwrite everything. It’ll be exhausting, but, for your effort, you’ll get an exhaustively complete transcription of everything that was said. In this case, the old school approach is still the most reliable, even with the specter of hand cramps and carpal tunnel hanging over you.

And it really is the most reliable. It’s crazy, but we haven’t been able to find software where you upload your audio clip and it’ll spit out a full transcription. We could be wrong, but we’ve looked around a lot and haven’t found anything yet. Hell, if we are wrong, point it out to us. We’ll take a few seconds of embarrassment if it means we get common sense audio technology.

What does exist is software that can reliably convert spoken words into a script in real time. We jury rigged a dumb looking thing where we took a podcasting microphone, put it next to our computer speakers, then blasted our recorded interview at full volume with Google Drive’s free speech-to-text feature listening in. It worked surprisingly well, though we did have to go back over a few of the more confusing points and correct them. If you’re looking for a quick and dirty fix to your audio transcription issues, it’s worth a try.

Do Not Sell My Personal Information