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A note on notes

I’ve always had a way to take notes, but have never settled into a particular scheme. This post, more for my benefit than for yours, is an attempt to dig through this history and decide what I want to do about it.

At the high level, the relevant questions are what I want to do with the contents now and how I intend to work with them in the future. Most of the notes I take don’t have a long-term future; my work from my first degree has long been destroyed. I referred to the notes during the degree which gives an upper bound on the lifetime of four years, realistically more like 2 from creation to the exam where I needed the notes.

Said notes were taken on A4 ruled paper with a cartridge pen and a propelling pencil. Being able to use text (including maths symbols etc) and diagrams interchangeably is a supremely useful capability. It even helps with code especially where UI or geometry is involved.

I no longer do this, but my strategy then was to take rapid notes in lectures and classes, and produce fair copies later. This meant absorbing more from the notes as I re-read them and put them into different words, and let me add cross references to textbooks or other materials.

I’ve used pen-and-paper note taking at other times. Particularly in classrooms or conferences, it’s much faster than typing. At various phases of my career I’ve also kept log books, either for my own benefit or other people. That’s not something I do currently. The weapons of choice in this sphere are now fountain pen, propelling pencil and Moleskine.

Evernote is my note shoebox of choice, and my destination for typing notes (in fact this draft was built up in Evernote on an iPhone, rather than a blog editor). I don’t just use Macs and iOS so an iCloud-based note shoebox wouldn’t work for me.

I sometimes put notes handwritten in books or on whiteboards in there too, but don’t really worry about tagging because I usually search chronologically. My handwriting is so poor that Evernote’s transcription doesn’t work at all which is probably something that keeps me away from search. When it comes to symbols etc I’m more likely to put LaTeX markup in the text than draw equation images or use the extended characters palette.

When I was at O2 I had a dalliance with the Bamboo stylus and Penultimate. I still use those for drawing but never for writing as the poor sensitivity makes my narrow handwriting look even worse. I haven’t tried anything with a dedicated stylus sensor like the Jot stylus, or the Galaxy S-pen. Again these get dumped into Evernote. I don’t tend to change colours or pens; I tried Paper by 53 but don’t use it much in practice.

Mind maps or outlines: sometimes. I only ever do these in software, never on paper.

I think the summary is that handwritten notes are fastest and allow the biggest variation in formatting and content. Sticking the resulting notes in Evernote helps to go back through them, but I should try to recover the discipline of writing up a fair copy. It helps cement the content in my mind and gives me a chance to add external references and citations that I would otherwise miss out.

The trick with paper-based notes is to always have a notebook and pen to hand; I don’t often carry things around with me so I’d either have to get into the habit of wearing a manbag or leave notebooks around wherever I’m likely to want to write something.