The Art of Note-Taking

From the time I learned to write, I took notes. In grade school, in high school, in college (because there were no laptops then). I filled notebooks with, well, notes. I reviewed them before a test. People borrowed my notes because I drew arrows and connected related ideas, and OK, I got good grades.

Old-fashioned, write it all down notes.

Old-fashioned, write it all down notes.

Suddenly, note-taking is declassé. In my communication classes, people sit and stare. When I ask if they will take notes they ask, “Where’s the Powerpoint deck?” Tactfully, I explain that Powerpoint was developed to have marketing departments talk to engineers. Powerpoint was never meant to be a handout or to substitute for notes. They shrug and look at me.

No one takes notes anymore. Not only that, when I do, I’m asked, “Are you getting old or do you have a memory problem.” Well, we are all getting old (some of us are ahead of the race) and I don’t have a memory problem. Because I take notes.

Notes are useful. They help you remember what you heard, who said it, when, and what the circumstances were. They help you remember who said what in meetings where a lot of people speak. They help you remember specific numbers–even a lot of them, and names (plus how to pronounce them).

shortcut to note-taking. A simple mind map using space and bullets

shortcut to note-taking. A simple mind map using space and bullets

Slowly, I realized, “well of course I take notes, I’m a journaler.” And it’s true. You get used to writing down ideas, thoughts, quotes, flashes of inuition, dreams and the details of what they mean.

Writing notes helps me remember the important parts by allowing me to concentrate on both the content and how I write it down. I’ll remember it for much longer.

If you are taking notes in a meeting or a class, here are a few tips:

  • Start the page with the date, the place, the class name or meeting purpose and the instructor’s name or person running the meeting.
  • Write down main points only. You can’t write down everything, so stick to the important material. The instructor’s voice is the key to what’s being emphasized.
  • Don’t write a narrative, try to take notes in bullet form. Learn some shortcuts like dividing the page into segments of information. (see above, left)
  • Pay attention to lists, examples, and additional references. They can help you understand more later.
  • Leave room. White space helps your eyes move around the page.
  • Leave more room if you have a question. Then when you (or someone else gets an answer, you can fill it in.

Take visual notes. See example, above, and learn more at

Visual journaling example from

Visual journaling example from

CalPoly also has some interesting note-taking systems.

And speaking of notes, there is still time (till 6 p.m. Phoenix time) to sign up for the drawing to win the Strathmore journal. You can take notes in it.

—Quinn McDonald takes notes in journals for ideas, including her new book on inner heroes and inner critics.

30 thoughts on “The Art of Note-Taking

  1. I’m DancingHairWoman’s daughter/”front seat secretary.” I find that notes are handy, certainly. But I also find that going down the road is not the time for note taking. I hated taking notes for Mom because you couldn’t ever *read* what was written if you wrote it going down the road.

    However, I do think that it’s a great time to make notes! She mentioned the smartphone note taking. I started using an app called ListNote:

    There’s both a free version and a small fee version of it. The free version is plenty for road-note-takers. 🙂

    When I’m taking notes for Mom while going down the road, though, I use ColorNote on her phone. It’s easy for her to navigate and it keeps me from having to break all the lead in my mechanical pencil! Hehehe.

  2. I still take notes too. Sometimes I am the only one in the room with a pad and pencil. There have been many times that people will stop me and ask me to send them a copy later. I like the images that you included, especially the one from madebymany with all the small doodles. I am going to have to start doing that when taking notes about the various topics being talked about, makes for a much more interesting re-read later on.

  3. I am also from the old school of note takers. I remember one classmate borrowing my notebook from a certain course and photocopying it so he had notes to study from for the final exam. I still take notes on different things from interesting documentaries on television to dreams I’ve recently had. One notebook that I keep is just for bare bones notes that I want to follow up on at a later date. Compulsive, yes, I guess that I am. But, the journal that you are having the draw for will be strictly for artistic pursuits. A little free form art therapy I’m thinking.

  4. Yes, I’m a notetaker on a daily basis too – I couldn’t possibly rely solely on my short term memory for all that I need recall accurately at work, but oddly enough if I take notes, I often don’t need to refer to them! The act of taking notes often cements it all in my memory. Mine are bullet points, full of my own abbreviations and with asterisks and arrows all over the place – very messy and no use to anyone but me.

    Last year I taught literacy to a class of 9 to 12 year-olds and taught them how to make notes during a classmate’s oral presentation (presented from their own notes from a piece of text) and then to write them up as a paragraph the next day. They agonised over it at first however they got pretty good at it after some practise.

  5. I not only love to take notes, I teach note taking! I do it as part of our study skills class for people returning to education. They have to learn and prove that they have used a range of note taking techniques as part of the certification process.

  6. I have always taken notes. I remember having to have a pencil and paper before going out the door to a (girl scout) brownie meeting! I’m still the same. I can’t leave home without a notebook handy. My kids were all raised to be “secretaries” as I was driving. We did all our planning and list making that way. Whoever was in the front got the notebook and pen. They all grew up to be techies and now whenever we drive together they take notes on an app on their phones. They’ve tried to move me over. It’s a work in progress.

  7. Oh good post! Learned some good points from your words and I also gained three good links to other sites. Thanks very much for that.

    I absolutely believe in the importance of not only taking “your own” notes but also in integrating visual elements in them. This is now recognised as an important part of holistic function of the brain. From the above CalPoly link I noticed this;

    “…a graphic representation of the content of a lecture. It is a method that maximizes active participation, affords immediate knowledge as to its understanding, and emphasizes critical thinking.”

    A system of “listen to it, write it, draw it = remember it” and very important no matter how strong your memory because over time memories tend to gain embellishments or get tatty in the corners.

    A good work I always cite on this is Tony Buzan’s book, “How to Use Both Sides of Your Brain”. It’s a bit long in the fang now but is very relevant to taking good visual notes.

  8. I love taking notes. In school I was very good at note-taking, and like you I was the one that others would come to if they needed some help with their notes for studying. My favorite classes were the ones where you actually had to turn in your notebook (full of your notes) as part of the grade. I always aced those classes. 🙂

  9. I thought I was the only one still taking notes by hand. I remember it better if I hand write my notes as opposed to using electric media. This is a great post. Thanks for the links too! 🙂

  10. I not only take notes, I love to take notes. It’s focusing, calming, and when my memory fails, it’s available for recall. Can’t imagine taking any kind of notes without jotting at least a few of the highlights down, or even my own thoughts as I listen to a speaker.

  11. In my experience it’s fairly unusual for anyone not to take notes. The biggest pile in the office-supply cabinet in every tech company I’ve been in is always notebooks — different one for each project, plus a general one for non-project meetings and calls.

  12. In high school I always drew as well as wrote notes, especially in history: cartoon battlefields for world wars, pictures of rulers, flags, icons for political parties or special interests. It made the lessons even more fun (I have always had the best history teachers). I still write notes when I read books for my Ph.D. which slows my reading a bit but it’s so much easier to find quotes and references from the notes than from thick books. And, again, it’s more fun. Sometimes I photocopy pictures or longer quotes from the book and glue them into my notebook. Pictures especially can then work as icons for the whole issue (Palazzo Medici = Renaissance philosophy and world view).

    I’m VERY particular about the materials I use for note taking. I prefer black felt tip pen with very specific feel: it’s really important that there is beauty in the contact with the paper which also makes the quality of the paper important. The choice of colours I use for underlining etc. The layout. What can I say but that it’s an art form.

    Have you seen this ? I was so relieved to find out that doodling while listening to a presentation etc. will improve your learning. So now it’s scientifically proved that my drawing during class is school was not wasted attention.

  13. I’m definitely a note taker! The act of writing something down helps me remember it later. The older I get, the more I realize how important notes are. If I don’t write something down when I think of it, then it’s gone. Well it’s gone just until the moment I start to fall asleep…then it’s back with a vengeance (which is why I have a notepad, that lights up, on my nightstand).
    People that know me well know that I have a definite fondness for Post-It notes. I just found out recently that I must have gotten this from my father because when I was cleaning out his belongings, I found hundreds of Post-It notes. I was like a kid in a candy store!

  14. Yes!!! I still take notes too. Also, I think that these days, when there’s so much stimuli, it’s even more important to take note and not just rely on handouts. The act of writing things down focuses your mind, and it engages other senses more fully so you have a better chance of remembering. I also think it’s important to look over the notes shortly afterwards (while the lecture/ meeting is still fresh in your mind) and clarify anything that has been written down too hastily . Oftentimes, we write notes in a hurry, so we write things we understand in the moment, but may not understand after a while. Another reason to leave white space.

    Great post!

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