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Five Step Guide to Taking Effective Notes

 Five Steps to Taking Effective Notes

Students and businesspeople feel that the drudgery of writing notes dwarfs the benefits of organization. I think this is a false assumption. There are five note-writing steps for drafting oral and written communications and for daily organization. Follow these guidelines and you will be taking effective notes and soon accept them as a welcome companion to your daily life.

  • Do I Use Paper or PC to Create Notes?: This is the first question that prospective note writers meet. If you have a computer, printer, and basic word processing software, your decision is simple: you will use both. I recommend using 8.5 by 11.5 inch paper, and setting your word processor with margins of .5 inches on all sides but the right. Set the right margin at 2 inches. Select a font, like Arial 12, that you can read easily on paper (note cards) or screen. This format allows you to create note cards measuring about 4 by 6 inches on a standard page. I cut printed pages into roughly 4 by 6 rectangles.
  • How to Organize Notes: Each card should begin with a subject header followed by several phrases on the card. Double space between the header and content phrases, and do not wrap any phrase to the next line. Assume you are organizing content on the Civil War. Have several of the cards mentioned above, begin each with the header Civil War, and avoid full sentences. One note phrase might read, “Booth shot Lincoln Ford’s Theater.” This captures the meaning without unnecessary sentence elements.
  • Do Not Attempt a Speech or Report Without Notes: Were you writing a report about the Civil War, you would conduct research and write daily notes. Writing notes and integrating them into your routine will make giving a speech or creating a 10-page report painless. I leave ample room on each card for bibliographic data, and when finished, I assemble the cards in topical or chronological order. I am then able to write a paper effortlessly and use these same report techniques in speeches. To stay focused, you need notes for oral presentations.
  • How Many Notecards Should I Use?: Aim for about 10 note cards with several phrases on each. I take about one minute to speak on phrases in each card, moving the cards to the bottom as I do. The goal is not to read verbatim, but to use terse phrases on each card to stay on point and keep eye contact with the audience. Most importantly, writing the notes each day will be my salvation in case of unexpected contingencies.
  • How PC/Paper Notes Help with Deadlines: Writing notes daily means that you have organized your oral and written presentations so they are ready for composition and delivery. Nevertheless, I use notes to keep daily tasks on target as well. I write headers that show either topical or time period categories-Complete Before Noon or Buy New Computer Equipment. I assemble key phrases under each header for each card. The benefit of using the hybrid PC/paper approach is that I have both an electronic and a paper copy and can edit on the PC. In a crunch, I print the notes and dispense with cutting them into cards.

Notes organize your content and help you stay on task, but ultimately you will be communicating your written or verbal ideas to others. Very often, this means sending documents or presentations to colleagues with whom you collaborate. Just as taking effective notes in a word processor makes your day more efficient, removing duplicate contacts from address books in applications such as Microsoft Outlook will increase productivity, and software is available to carry out the job. One such program is a cloud based app called Scrubly. Scrubly allows you to merge, delete, cleanup and download your address book quickly and easily.

Other relevant articles:

EnglishCompanion “Introduction to Note Making”
Lifehacker “Geek to Live”
MIT “Tips for Note Taking”

Productivity isn’t all about taking effective notes. Up next is “Five Ways to Unleash the Potential of Your iPhone”
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