6 Hacks to Take Better Notes image

With all the drama and bustle that comes with modern living, proper organization has never been more important to maintaining both your career and your sanity.

And though it’s most often associated with students, accurate and diligent notetaking can be a valuable tool in many professional fields as well—for ordering your work and your life.

Maybe you’re taking the minutes at a business meeting… or jotting down the important points from an industry lecture at a convention… or recording an interview for your next nonfiction book or freelance article. Your future success depends on the strength and accuracy of the information you write down: if you miss an important point or can’t understand what you’ve written later, you’re in big trouble

Luckily, taking notes is a skill like any other, meaning that practice and proper techniques will make you better at it over time.

And since better notes mean better organization, you owe it to yourself to ensure that all records of your meetings, interviews, and other dealings are as accurate and helpful as possible.

But what can you do to improve a skill that seems this simple?

6 Amazing Techniques for Taking Better Notes

There’s a lot more to taking good notes than simply writing down what you hear. Human beings have been inventing faster and more efficient methods of written communication for as long as there’s been language, after all.

Today, there are many systems, techniques, and methods of preparation for note-taking that go far beyond mere transcription, and we’re going to look at a few of them here.

These are our top 6 hacks to improve your note-taking in any situation or profession.

1. Be Prepared

Good note-taking actually begins before the lecture or meeting.

After all, you can be the most diligent and thorough note-taker in the tri-state area, but if you don’t understand what you’re writing down, your notes are next to worthless.

Proper preparation before a meeting or interview nets you the background knowledge you need to be both an effective listener and an effective note-taker.

Do your research. If you’re going to a lecture, do any required pre-reading and review your notes from past lectures. If it’s an interview, review everything you know about both your subject and his or her field. If you’re going to a business meeting, check the agenda beforehand: this gives you a ready-made outline for future notes and organization.

Try making some kind of plan or outline before you arrive at the meeting, and set up your notebook or Word file ahead of time. And above all, make sure you are in a position to see and hear before the event begins: if you miss information, even the best notes in the world will be incomplete.

2. Reflect

If well-executed note-taking begins before the lecture, then it certainly doesn’t stop after the event is over.

After the meeting or interview is complete, let a few hours pass, then thoroughly review whatever information you recorded.

Like “rehearsing” a dream to remember it better, reflecting on your notes so soon after you take them will solidify the information in your memory and better link the words on the page to the memory of the event you attended.

Remember, the purpose of taking notes isn’t merely condense information for later use. The physical act of writing (or typing) the words etches the information into your memory, making it easier to call on it again with or without your notes handy. “Rehearsing” the information is another step in that process, and will make the information in your notes easier to remember when you need it most, like during a test or essay or in a business meeting.

3. Shorthand

Part of what makes note-taking so strenuous comes down to a question of speed. Unless you’re a prodigy or possess superhuman reflexes, transcribing human speech at the speed it’s spoken is almost impossible—especially if you’re writing instead of typing.

That’s where shorthand comes in.

You may have heard of shorthand already, or heard people refer to a certain term as “shorthand for…” something else.

But “shorthand” is actually an umbrella term for any abbreviated or symbol-based writing method designed to increase the speed and brevity of writing—especially compared to longhand, or common English writing. A skilled stenographer can transcribe human speech just as quickly as the average speaker talks, making shorthand an invaluable tool for note-takers of all professions.

Many forms of shorthand exist. Your typical shorthand system includes symbols and abbreviations for words and some common phrases, though some rely more heavily on symbols than words, or vice versa. Some more symbol-based shorthand systems look like gibberish to the uninitiated viewer, but many more abbreviated systems can be deciphered fairly easy by most readers.

Teeline Shorthand

One popular shorthand system we recommend for note-taking is Teeline Shorthand, invented by James Hill in 1968.

Designed to be self-taught and easy to learn and read even by untrained readers, Teeline looks a great deal like “text speak” when written out, omitting or condensing certain vowel or consonant sounds from the user’s repertoire to “streamline” their writing.

Teeline uses some symbols, but mostly relies on an abbreviated form of the standard alphabet, altering the written letters to be easier to write quickly.

When beginning to use any shorthand system, don’t aim for speed the first few times you use it. Learning shorthand is almost like learning another language, and takes some practice to master—work with shorthand for half an hour a day, however, and you should see results before you know it.

4. Personal Shorthand

But what if you don’t want to learn a new language?

Studying shorthand is a big time commitment, after all. For something that’s meant to save a note-taker time, it might not make sense to devote so much effort to learning such a system. Or maybe Teeline or other common shorthand systems just don’t make a lot of sense to you.

In that case, why not make up a system of your own? You wouldn’t have to use any fancy symbols or learn any funky abbreviations you didn’t want to, but you’d still get the benefit of saved time and un-cramped hands.

In fact, you’ve probably already begun the process of inventing your own shorthand—depending, of course, on how long you’ve been taking regular handwritten notes. You might already have “pet” symbols or abbreviations for commonly used words. I, for example, have an uncomplicated shorthand I used to use during college lectures, using + signs for “and,” right-facing arrows (->) for the word “to,” and small adjustments of that nature.

The purpose of a personal shorthand is simplicity and clarity. Don’t sit down to create your own “secret code” all at once—rather, let your shorthand evolve from your natural writing habits, then add to it over time, bit by bit.

5. Cornell System

The Cornell Notes system, also known as the Cornell note-taking system or the Cornell method, is a systematic format for condensing and organizing notes developed by Cornell education professor Walter Pauk in the 1940s. Pauk designed this notetaking system for Cornell lecture students, and advocated strongly for its use in his bestselling book, How to Study in College.

When using the Cornell system, the note-taker divides his notepaper into two columns: the “note-taking” column is on the right and is twice as wide as column on the left, which is reserved for questions and keywords that pop up during the lecture.

Notes from the lecture are written in the right-hand column, usually paraphrasing the main points and avoiding long sentences whenever possible. Relevant questions and keywords are written in the left column, to be answered and defined as soon as possible.

At the bottom of the page, the student is meant to write a brief summary of the lecture’s notes, which both condenses the notes and increases the student’s understanding of the material by forcing them to put it in their own words.

And later, when students need to study the material the notes cover, they can cover the right-hand side of their Cornell notes and quiz themselves using their own questions and keywords.

6. Color Coding and Other Visual Markers

visual markers image

Think back to high school—you’ll probably remember seeing at least one fellow student whose notebooks were spangled, stickered, and marked up with every color of highlighter imaginable.

As it turns out, those colorful decorations weren’t just for aesthetic purposes. Color coding is an eye-catching and highly effective system of note organization that links certain colors with certain ideas, making them easy to find on the page and easy to remember.

Here’s how it works. When you’re writing your notes, choose a certain color for each main idea the lecture or business meeting covers. Then, write headings for those subjects in that color, or somehow associate that color with them.

Consider highlighting your headings, as well as key points or ideas within your notes, with a certain color. Or underline them…or mark them with little colored dots or smiley faces… anything that clearly associates one specific color with one broad topic.

This way, when you reread your notes, you can use your color system to quickly find the information you’re looking for. And should you need to recall that information without using your notes (like on a test, for instance!), simply thinking of that color will jog your memory.

Color coding can be reproduced in digital formats as well. Most word processors have options to change text colors or digitally highlight certain passages.

Bonus Round: Get Drawing!

Even if you’re not much of an artist, consider doodling in the margins of your notes—even simple drawings like smiley faces or cartoon hearts.

Besides adding visual interest to your notebook, these doodles add as graphical markers in your notes, allowing you to associate certain ideas with each unique drawing.

In your mind, you’ll link the time you spent writing down certain information with a certain personalized image, and you’ll be able to remember specific details from your notes much more easily through that association.

Like learning shorthand, color coding your notes or adding doodles does take some effort, but for motivated note-takers, it’s well worth the investment.

Of course, these are only a few of the many worthy note-taking techniques in existence. How do you go about organizing your notes? Spill your trade secrets in the comments section.


And for more organizational tips and tricks for professionals everywhere, the articles below have a little something for everyone:

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Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.