Early stages

Notetaking and writing – what’s the link?

“When I was a student we used to say that PhD stood for Doctor of Photocopying.”

“My PhD was in biochemistry, and I was actually a few steps ahead of the people I worked alongside because I had done monthly reports for my supervisor. He encouraged me to submit reports on the first of each month, and in those reports I had all the experimental methods that I had used over the three years, plus references and results. I also had lab notebooks of what I was doing. Losing those would have been a disaster.”

“I would have a piece of paper for everything that I read. It would have the title of the paper and the reference and then it would say ‘reading it for’ and then I would list why I was reading that paper, why I thought I had picked up that paper, because it is very easy to get involved in the paper and forget why you had approached that paper in the first place. And then after making notes that I thought were important as I read it, I would go back to why I was reading this paper. ‘Have I got out of it what I wanted?’ And then I would actually make a note of the answers to those questions. I would end up with a stack of paper with my notes on all of the relevant papers and if I saw some themes in those notes then I would highlight them and take them out as chunks and then put them together in order to write.”

“I think notetaking is as creative as writing because effectively you should be starting the creative process when you take notes. Say you’re in a library with a book in front of you. It’s not a random act that you’ve got that particular book out of 50,000 books – it’s because of your work. When you’re reading, your brain should be actively whirring away, assessing whether this book is relevant to the project you are working on. If it seems interesting and relevant, if there’s some kind of spark, then go for it and take detailed notes. If there isn’t a spark then don’t. The process should be under way. That for me is always the huge argument in favour of taking notes rather than photocopying. I keep photocopying down to a minimum because it’s a bit like tourists taking endless photographs but not really seeing the place.”

“I think the key thing about notetaking is to be active rather than passive. That’s the difference between notetaking and composition. Notetaking can be a mechanical, routine act whereas composition is an active, creative act. As I get more experienced I’m composing as I read. If I take notes they are a mix of verbatim quotes, summary notes and (usually in square brackets) first attempts at writing. Even when taking notes, you can keep the writing habit going.”

“The way I maintain my communicative sense is to take lots of notes on books. I’m an inveterate, incorrigible annotator of margins. When it’s a really interesting book, a good book, and I want a proper argument with it, I have to buy the book so I can virtually destroy it by writing in margins, writing in the back pages and eventually on virtually any and every bit. That’s the equivalent of a log for me. I am still using words and writing, albeit sometimes in note form, but then it will develop into a kind of mini-essay or half a page, or it sprouts lots of post-its, and they become my way of keeping my thinking and writing going. When I haven’t done that, writing becomes a big deal, so the main thing is to keep it going, in whatever form. Talking is good, obviously, but it’s a rather different process. Whether you’re taking notes, annotations in margins, writing in backs of books, keeping a log or a journal, you should be verbalising on paper some of what you’re doing all the time, so you’re never out of practice.”