Intermission, ft. Note taking: Tools and techniques

I was chatting with a friend yesterday (hi, Micah) when I had the idea to write a post about my favorite note taking tools since arriving in graduate school. The idea came about as Micah was asking for advice for starting her thesis, so I told her what every professor and grad student I’ve ever met told me: write everything down.

It seems basic, but truly, the Academy is a world where you spin out your most intricate ideas. An idea you had on the bourgeoisie 20 years ago might be just what you need to round out that pesky paper you’ve been fighting on protest music for the last 14 months. If you have a system of documenting your ideas, you can go back to them at any time.

So, first things first, it’s worth thinking about whether you’ll do your note taking analog or digital— handwritten or digitally.

STRATEGY: HANDWRITTEN NOTES

Anyone that knows anything about me knows that I go nowhere without a physical book, (several) pens, and at least one notebook or planner. The process of writing things down with pen and paper is one of the most calming experiences I know, so naturally I use this method for note taking in class and for my readings. My thought process is that if I’m going to hand write everything, I may as well make it pretty, so I splurge on my journals and pens for the semester.

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TOOL OF THE TRADE

Up until this summer, I’ve stood firm on my love for Moleskine journals. I started using them in my second year of college and never turned back. Because I had a pretty established and functional note taking routine from undergrad, I didn’t change very much. I love the polished look of a hard back Moleskine– I label them and stick them on my bookshelf at the end of the semester like they were any other book I purchased. I’ve never run out of pages, I seem to just make it to the end of the semester in them, which brings me to another strategy…

STRATEGY: USE ONE JOURNAL FOR YOUR ENTIRE SEMESTER OF CLASSES

Okay, I definitely see how this one could be controversial. When we think about school, we’re trained to think about buying a separate binder and notebook for every subject. It helps us focus and dedicate our energy to one thing at a time, but one thing I noticed as I took more rigorous classes at UVA was that I tended to take fewer notes. The more rigorous the class, the more they tend to be built around ideas and themes, rather than a list of facts that you learn by rote memorization, especially in the humanities. I used to take 4 or 5 pages of notes per class in undergrad, whereas now, I’m lucky if I fill an entire page in my journal during one class in grad school at times. Fewer notes and a less pressing need to write down everything means you’re less likely to fill an entire notebook for each class, so I consolidate.

TIP: SO WHAT ARE YOU TAKING NOTES ON THEN?

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I think everyone will make the mistake of reading more than you need to and taking more notes that you need to until you finally get into the rhythm of what types of notes and information you’re looking for that will be useful for you.

In class: When discussing a book or an article in class, particularly if it will be relevant to me or my work at some point, I always make sure to write anything down that will put me closer to figuring out what the main project or argument of the book/article is. I write down particularly compelling arguments that my classmates put forth, important clarifications that my professors make on the book’s arguments, and anything on the author’s biases that would have impacted how and why they wrote their project. Unfamiliar terms are always nice to jot down, as well as any questions you asked that you got a particularly good answer to. I also like to write down any random thoughts that come to me while I’m thinking about the books, because often the ideas that get batted around the table like a high speed Wimbledon match are the ones that become paper topics down the line.

While reading: Take good notes on the introduction, paying special attention to the main argument and any key terms the author may introduce, then make sure you get the gist of the chapters that follow. Make it your goal to see if the author convincingly, persuasively and adequately argues their main idea in their chapters, noting passages or points that add to their argument or detract from it.

TRICK: SO HOW DO YOU ORGANIZE ALL YOUR CLASSES IN ONE NOTEBOOK?

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There is, my friends, a glorious wonderful thing called bulletjournaling. Essentially it’s a DIY planner/to do list/diary hybrid. It’s made for people who are extraordinarily type A but also enjoy adding a little creativity to their day-to-day life, especially when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. (So, me…) For my grad school bullet journal, I lean most heavily on the planner/to-do list aspect of the journal. I begin my journal with a calendar of the months of the semester, and go ahead and plug in any important dates based on the syllabi I receive. From there, I just go week by week. I start by creating a spread like you see above: on the left, I write down all of the readings I’m supposed to do for each class. At the bottom of the page, I do a tentative reading schedule, where I break down the big books into chapters, and space out my readings so I’m not overwhelmed and trying to read 3 articles before class. On the right, I like to keep an overview of my week, plug in classes, appointments, meetings, so I can see what time I might have free during the week to finish any of the assignments that didn’t get done in the designated time.

Tip: I know this seems almost a little too structured, but there’s a lot of flexibility built into this system. When I give myself three academic tasks to finish during the course of the day, I never say when during the day I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter whether I do it at 6 AM or 11 PM at night, as long as I get it done at some point during the day, it’s productive time well spent.

Tip: I also never berate myself for not doing everything on my to do list. Some days I don’t feel like doing what I listed, so I pick to do items from other days. Sometimes I get really into a book and read the whole thing instead of breaking it up over a couple days, but then I don’t do the other items on my list. Somedays, I’m not up to doing much so I do all the easy tasks and some days I don’t feel like doing anything at all. Be firm in your decision to manage your time, but flexible in ways you manage it.

During the week, I just take notes for my classes as I go. The one big seminar a week per class structure lends itself well to organizing– you have notes from class in the same order pretty much every week. Then as I’m nearing the end of the semester, I might color code my notes for even easier access by either assigning each class and schedule page a different post it note color and marking them all like that, or I might use the same strategy with just a regular marker.

For all this organizing and color coding, it’s worth having a few types of pens/markers at your disposal…

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

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Who doesn’t have a pen preference? For me, my preference often changes based on what type of paper I’m writing on. (Seriously, pens write differently on various types of paper.)

For the first few years of my Moleskine usage, nothing looked better in my journals that Staedtler black fineliners. I still very much enjoy using them today, but I find I enjoy writing with Pilot Precise v5 pens. The pilot pen is totally different– it has free flowing ink which doesn’t dry almost immediately like the Staedtlers and it’s a little more difficult to grip, but I find they don’t run out as fast as the Staedtlers. The first two weeks of use with the Staedtlers are perfect– until the felt tip starts to bend out of shape or fray or run out of ink. I would consistently go through two or three packs of those a semester, while I’ve used the same two or three pilot pens for the same length of time. The Pilots aren’t perfect but I also haven’t found a brand I like more than them at the moment.

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If you want to add some bolder black lines for headings, I highly recommend Pentel sign pens. They make great lines that don’t smudge and they’re also good if you’re interested in learning calligraphy or basic lettering to jazz up your notebook. (see example below)

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Tip: Don’t get too invested in making it beautiful. What you really need is something that is functional and practical for you. My journals are excessively pretty because it’s relaxing for me. I enjoy spicing up my otherwise dreary notes with color. Plus it helps me focus when I’m in class– it absolutely feels like it would be distracting, but the concentrating on what I want to write and how I want to write it, helps me absorb and retain information, and I’m more likely to be focused on the conversation, because I’m thinking about what I’ll add next.

LONG STORY SHORT…

Note taking is a lot about finding what works for you. I just happen to really enjoy the process of taking notes and have found my note taking strategies to be effective for me, and have been for quite some time.

Also, just because I prefer handwritten notes, doesn’t mean I always use them. For example, for articles or short excerpts of essays, I like to download them to NotesPlus and highlight important parts, do marginalia and write summaries on the document itself. This helps me keep track of all the articles I’ve ever read, since they’re all in one place without having to print out a bunch of loose pages.

I know plenty of people who swear by digital notes only, using Evernote or OneNote to keep track of the semester’s notes. Some people like having all of their notes digitally but prefer to hand write things, so an option is to get a notetaking app like NotesPlus for your device of choice and invest in a good stylus, and take handwritten notes on your device. Some people print all their articles, put them in a binder and sticky note the crap out of them.

Most people told me you’ll play around with a few different note taking techniques before you figure out what your preferred method is, saying that you definitely won’t take notes like you did before.

That may or may not be true.

I found that I take notes more or less the same way I did when I was undergrad, with a few adjustments, and that seems to have been working very well for me. Still, never be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try new things. You’d be surprised to see what works!


I tried to keep the more confusing aspects of bullet journal designing out of this post, but if anyone’s interested in how I do that, leave comments below! Relatedly, if you’re interested in how to build a finals writing and reading schedule schedule, make sure you leave comments!

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