I mean taking notes on books or articles, not during talks/lectures. I’m bad at working out what the main points are while I’m listening. Jon Jarrett‘s posts about seminars (like this one about Chrodegang [gesundheit]) always amaze me in their specificity. I suppose that sort of listening skill is an Oxbridge thing, honed during tutorials if not earlier.

But actually, I seem to be bad at taking notes on written works, as well. Sometimes I take down quantities of material that seems useful, the quick typist’s version of undergraduate-style over-highlighting, and then I don’t use it. There’s too much to sort through. Sometimes I write down a few useful quotations that I am sure I will use in my current project. Inevitably, what I wind up using is a quotation that I didn’t write down, perhaps the previous or subsequent sentence to the one I did copy out. Sometimes I outline the whole thing, briefly, just to remind myself of main topics and structure; this works reasonably well with articles and very short books, but not very well with a long book.

So I wind up wondering why I bother. Why not just put sticky notes on the pages that seem important, stack the books around my desk, and hope memory will guide me to the one I think I need when I’m looking for a quotation? In fact, that is another of my less-than-satisfactory methods of note-taking.

But this notion of “satisfactory” needs some examination. It suggests that there is an ideal method, one that leads to having exactly the right quotation copied out and ready to paste into my document at the point where I need it, without a lot of extraneous material to read through. And that presupposes that when I read, my argument is already so well developed that I know exactly what I will want in the way of quotations. Once in awhile, that is the case (especially when I have written a rough draft full of notes like “FIND SUITABLE CRITIC ON CAMEMBERT’S SMELL”). But usually, I’m reading before I start writing, or sometimes during the rough-draft stage. I have an idea of where I’m going, but it may change in the process of reading and writing. So the point of taking notes at all is just a way of concentrating my mind on the way someone else has dealt with ideas similar to or related to mine. Even if my notes are too sparse or too prolix, and the bit I need is on a page I neither marked nor wrote about, having written about the other pages reminds me that Critic X wrote about smelly cheese.

In the best cases, taking notes leads me to arguing with, or ringing changes on, someone else’s argument. This is really useful; this clarifies my thoughts and may even be copy-paste-able into my document with only light editing. But even if I tried to make myself do that kind of note-taking all the time, I don’t think it would always work.

My note-taking is inefficient, but I am not all sure that anything else would be better. Taking notes helps me to think, and thinking is what it’s really all about.

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One thought on “On note-taking

  1. Completely true–the process is the key, rather than the notes. I do all three of these, too–sticky notes, text notes, idea notes–but going back to the text is a necessary fourth one.

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