A post on The Writing Collective about how it’s fruitless to search for the perfect note-taking app because it doesn’t exist caught my eye and got me thinking about my own preferences and habits for taking notes.

Let me state first that taking notes is not exactly what I’d call a natural behavior of mine. By inclination I’m more of a listener during lectures and meetings, taking in the vibe of the room and considering the points of view being shared. I wasn’t great at this in high school and college, often jotting down points that were irrelevant to the point being conveyed and not helpful at all when it came time to review those notes and use them for anything productive.

It was well into my professional career that I evolved my note-taking skills, finding a two-step process that seemed to work pretty well for me:

Step 1: Hand-Written Notes

After trying to use software of some sort – Evernote, Word, whatever – to capture notes and thoughts in the moment I found it just wasn’t working. I was missing too much, it was taking me out of the room. I was trying to not only quickly capture what was happening but also got distracted by fixing typos, filling in gaps and so on. It was too much and the end results weren’t great.

So I switched to paper and started making sure I packed or otherwise grabbed a legal pad or notebook whenever I knew I’d be in a situation where I needed to capture notes. I didn’t worry about outline structure or other niceties, I just tried to get down all the important points I felt I’d need later. I’d walk out of the meeting with pages of scribblings.

Step 1.5: Collect Notes From Others

OK, this is a bit of a cheat, but I would gladly take on the role of compiler in most situations. I would ask my colleagues and coworkers who were also taking their own notes to send or give them to me, so I could make sure the official record included everyone’s contributions. You never know who caught something important that you missed, so getting a variety of inputs is essential.

Step 2: Type Them Up

Here’s where the compiling happens. Usually I’d use my own notes as a starting point, putting everything in a better structure. Then, if there were additional inputs available, I’d review them and add those where appropriate. Throughout this step I’d also be adding more thoughts and comments that had occurred to me while reviewing the notes. Eventually Evernote became platform of choice for this step and is where I would keep my own version of these, though I’d distribute them to the rest of the team via Word or Google Docs or whatever worked best.

Step 2.5: Create Action Items

Another cheat, but an important one. As I reviewed the notes and put them in an “archive” format, I would keep TextEdit open to the side of the screen and throw any obvious action items for myself or the team over there. Those needed to be separate from the more general notes and called out in a different way and this was a good opportunity to identify what had been mentioned in the meeting as well as anything new that occurred to me based on the notes for later assignment.

This multistep process helped me to:

  • Stay present and responsive during the meeting itself
  • Capture what I felt was important in the moment
  • Create a final document that included the input of the whole team
  • Keep all those in a format I could search and reference later
  • Identify action items resulting from the meeting

Do you have your own process for taking, collecting and formatting notes?

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

2 thoughts on “Taking Notes Is a Two-Step Process

  1. With notetaking, I’m a mixed bag. Sometimes I’ll hand-write. Sometimes typing.

    It’s impressive that you type in your hand-written notes after a meeting. I try to have a separate area for action items while I’m taking notes, so those are captured at the moment. But how you write your action items afterwards allows for more digestion and time peculating time for creativity to come forth.

    1. Oh! And I also use textedit as part of my note-taking process. Actually, I use TextWrangler. I don’t know why, but when I type in TextWrangler, I find the process more enjoyable than drafting in Evernote. There’s something about the mono-spaced font that really pleases me.

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