News next: a journalism teacher's diary

September 16, 2011

Tips on taking notes

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 6:55 pm
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Photo by quinn.anya/licensed under creative commons

Want to know what to do when you’re interviewing someone who talks faster than you can write? how to get that great quote that can make your story? how to avoid burdening your story with too much quotation? or even opinions on the best notebook and the right kind of pen?

A colleague at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Indrani Sen, has been collecting tips on taking notes. She put them in a handout for her students, and I thought I’d share them with you.

Note-Taking Tips From Professional Journalists

The best reporters return from every assignment with a notebook stuffed with quotes, information and sensory detail — the raw material we need to build a story. But how do we fill those notebooks? One of the most difficult skills for new reporters to pick up is also one of the most basic — note-taking.

Every reporter has his or her own systems for note-taking, which start with some nuts-and-bolts decisions: Reporter’s notebook or steno pad? Ballpoint or roller ball? Shorthand or cursive? To record or not? Try a few combinations and figure out what feels most comfortable for you over a long day of reporting.

It’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of solid notes. As well as providing the material for your story, your notes are also your documentation of your reporting process. Your editors or professors may on occasion ask to see your notes. They don’t need to be tidy, but they do need to be complete — if it’s in your story, it should be in your notes or your research. Your notes should also provide avenues to verify information and quotes — phone numbers, email addresses, website urls. Your integrity as a journalist rests not only on your finished product, but also upon your reporting process and your ability to document that process.

In 2007, I asked some friends to explain their note-taking systems and offer tips. Please add your own in the comments below!

Taking Notes: A selection of tips and advice from working journalists (Compiled by Indrani Sen in 2007)

Ann Givens, Newsday reporter: A journalism professor of mine once gave me this tip, and I’ve used it here and there: Before you go out on an interview, prepare a handful of throwaway questions in addition to your good ones. Then, when you’re behind in your note taking, toss out a throwaway question and just let the person talk while you’re finishing up writing.

But I think the REAL skill that everyone develops over time is just the ability to know a great quote when a person says it, and then just tune everything else out while you get it down. I think we all tend to feel like we need a zillion quotes when we’re out in the field, but when we get back and write, we realize we only need 2-3 for most stories. So the trick is catching the great ones, and then not worrying too much about letting the rest slide by.

Erik German, Newsday reporter [now at The Daily]: I try to draw squiggly lines between different speakers and I use initials followed by a colon to indicate who’s talking. If I walk into a room where 4 people are talking and I don’t know their names, I very quickly assign them numbers 1-4 as I quote them. Then, at the end, I ask everyone to spell their names, which I write down next to each number on a fresh page. I also ask for their “town of residence” and “age and occupation” (that’s my trick for sounding clinical and official rather than nosey while getting ages without calling attention to the fact that I’m asking for ages).

I write out direct quotes, but as we all know hands just can’t keep up with lips. So I do a lot of summary and paraphrase, which I try to always distinguish from quotes by surrounding it with [square brackets]. I also put brackets or boxes around key facts like ages, so I can find them quickly later. When people talk to fast, I’ll often ask people to repeat themselves, or just have them wait as I write. I try to fill the awkward silence with some joke at my own expense about how I wish I wrote as fast as people talked.

Also, in a situation where there’s a bunch of people talking, I try to write down a few (three is best) physical details for each person during moments when they repeat themselves or when they’re saying boring stuff. This helps me remember who was who when writing and it gives me something to work with just in case I need to describe the characters in my story.

If I’m really taking good notes, I’ll write down the gestures people make as they say their best quotes, just in case I want to frame their words with a bit of physical description.

After I get back to the office, and before I open up the blank word-processing page, I flip through my notebook and — preferably in a different color ink — I circle all the best quotes. I also will go through my notebook and write out abbreviated or garbled words before I forget what precisely was said and can’t make sense of my handwriting. This is especially important if more than a day will elapse between taking the notes and writing from them. They very quickly become indecipherable.

Katie Thomas, New York Times reporter: One thing that sprung to my mind immediately is if I’m at a press conference, I always record as a backup to check my notes, because the assumption is other media are covering it too and it would be awkward if they have different quotes than you do… but of course I never take notes lackadaisically, assuming I’m recording it … just in case it’s not really recording.

The other thing is more a mental trick. Rather than just frantically trying to keep up, I make sure I glance down every once in a while and just check that the notes I’m writing down are actually MAKING SENSE and are READABLE … sometimes you can get so caught up taking down half-sentences and then starting again that you don’t have anything useful. The other mental trick is to really listen for quotes — which is something that I’m sure all of us have practiced well but is hard for a new person. Once I hear a good quote, I latch onto it and don’t let go until I’ve finished writing it down… even if I miss what the person is now saying. If it’s a one on one and not a press conference, I can ask them to repeat what they just said. Sometimes I even ask a question I know the answer to, just to let them ramble while I’m catching up with something they said five minutes ago.

Then things I’ve seen other people do but have never been able to incorporate them… I saw that one reporter folds the page in on itself whenever a new person starts to talk. also, Andrew Smith draws little arrows at the bottom of each page telling him whether he has to flip the notebook over or turn a page (a sideways arrow for flip, a down arrow for turn to the next page), which always seemed to me to be genius for typing up your notes later.

Wonbo Woo, producer at ABC’s World News Tonight [Now at Nightline, and a broadcast coach at CUNY J-School]: ‘fraid this has less relevance in my part of the industry, since we have everything on tape anyhow. That said, whenever I can, I take notes for reference and take time hacks as I’m listening – I note the start time so that I can go back and do the math later to figure out how far into a long interview something happens. I do the same thing with a digital recorder if I’m doing an interview by phone and won’t have access to the tape right away. While you print folks have a tendency to hate recording things because of the time involved in transcribing (or the change in tone/character of the interview) – this is a good way to minimize that time – and for those who have trouble keeping up, I think it’s worth it.

Jennifer Smith, Newsday reporter: You don’t need to write down everything verbatim—just the best quotes, and summarize the rest. Circle or star important parts, and track different speakers by their initials. Sometimes I flip the paper over and write scene descriptions or a list of people who were there on the other side.

Keep a tape recorder handy for press conferences and other fast-moving events where other reporters are likely to be, and write the time-code down in your notepad when things of interest are said. That way you can be sure your quotes are accurate (same quotes will likely appear elsewhere) but you don’t have to spend all day transcribing Mayor Bloomberg thanking every local official who showed up for the presser.

If you are doing a longer interview for a profile and you type faster than you write longhand, you can also augment your in person interview with a phone follow-up, using a headset for hands-free conversation.

Wayne Svoboda, freelancer, former correspondent for Time magazine and Africa Editor at The Economist newspaper of London, journalism associate professor: My own thoughts, as I always tell students, include: get a good notebook. I suggest Reporter’s Note Book #651, ordered from Stationers Inc. in Richmond, Virginia. Hard to find, so sometimes classes go together to order by mail a set of a dozen or two or however many. Develop a personal shorthand, with abbreviations at least you will understand even if nobody else. Learn to buy time to record good quotes verbatim by somehow or other making your interview subject pause (ask him to repeat something anodyne so you can focus mostly on recalling what he or she just said that was a keeper).

Finally, figure out where you stand on the notebook versus tape recorder. If you choose the latter, realize you are setting yourself up for lots of time spent transcribing.

Lonnie Isabel, former deputy managing editor of Newsday, journalism associate professor: I also used a highlighter or multi-colored pins to sort notes for lede, background, or divergent viewpoints. I print the talkers’ names in the beginning and use initials for back and forth.

Mohamad Bazzi, former Newsday Middle East correspondent, Council on Foreign Relations fellow, journalism associate professor at NYU: I try to go over my notes and to underline (or highlight) key quotes. If it’s for a daily story, I try to go over (“organize”) my notes before I start writing. Sometimes, this becomes a procrastination device. I also try to type up all the quotes that I think I’m going to use in my story, and I put them in a separate file from the actual story.

If I’m working on a long-range story, I try to organize my notes on the night that I’ve done the interview. That way, I can better decipher my handwriting and I can try to paraphrase things that I might have missed. I also try to type up the key quotes/thoughts that might be in my story. I’m not always disciplined about typing up notes right away, so at the end of a week or 10 day trip, I end up with many pages of notes to type. It can take hours.

The most unusual note-taking technique that I’ve seen is from a foreign correspondent friend of mine. He often uses 2 different colored pens while conducting his interviews. So he actually color-codes his notes (and writes them in sub-categories) while he’s doing

the interview. I’ve also seem him use one of those thick multi-colored pens, and switch colors during interviews. I think his technique often worries his subjects. I wouldn’t recommend it.

And here are Indrani’s tips: I write a list of questions that I need answers to in the inside cover of my reporter’s notebook, so that I can flip back to it easily during interviews. As I’m taking notes, I look out for quotes or details that could be my lede or kicker, and I mark them with stars so that I’ll find them easily later. Before I sit down to write, I go through my notebook (or typed notes) with a highlighter and mark them up with my strange personal system — quotes I might actually use are highlighted; when a new person starts talking, I mark the page with a little stick figure; and I circle any information that I’ll paraphrase in the story.

If you have shorthand, by all means use it, but be careful not to skip words or paraphrase when you need a direct quote. My opinion on recording is there’s no harm doing it (with your source’s knowledge), as long as you also take written notes. On deadline, you’ll rarely have time to transcribe recorded interviews. And keep in mind that sooner or later your technology will fail — we all have a horror story or two about that. Also, beware of the sloppiness that can creep into your note-taking if you know you’re also recording.

As for pens: ballpoint or pencil are best when it’s raining, but the thicker ballpoint ink gets sluggish if you’re stuck outside in the freezing cold for too long, so bring along something with liquid ink, like a roller ball, next time you’re on a winter stakeout.

Tim Harper, writing coach: I advise students to practice. Take notes at home watching a reality TV show, or the news. Law & Order is always good for the close-to-real-life conversational rhythms. Then I suggest they stand up and take notes. Then walk around the room talking notes. Being able to walk and take notes is a big part of our skill set. I still practice…


1 Comment »

  1. Reblogged this on Brad N' Butter.

    Comment by Brad Spudich — June 26, 2014 @ 4:16 pm | Reply

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