Taking Notes

Several blog readers responded to my rant against tape recorders, that they lose control of an interview while trying to take notes and listen at the same time.

Taking notes looks simple. You hear the source say something you want to keep, so you write it down. Not simple at all. While you’re trying to jot it down from memory, she keeps on talking, saying something even more interesting and important than what you’re struggling to record. Meanwhile, you have to listen so you can ask follow-up questions.

So you start wishing for a tape recorder, or shorthand. Don’t. Taping can make you slow and literal-minded, and shorthand tempts you to write down everything the source says. I only know one writer who uses shorthand effectively, and he uses it to take notes, not to record. Good notetaking means good listening, control of the interview, and a rich notebook.

Two factors get in the way: writing down everything the source says, and trying to get it all in quote form.

After a terrific interview, you’ll probably use ten percent of what the source says, and about ten percent of that in quote form. The best quotes come late in interviews, after you’ve established an atmosphere of trust, and can ask targeted questions that get at character and depth. That’s when you need verbatim notes.

You want very little of the information in quote form. Most sources don’t speak well, so you have to paraphrase them later anyway. Lots of quotes in a story, especially long ones, tend to bog it down with apparatus.

You can train yourself to listen and take good notes. Record a good interview show or press conference from television. Try to write down everything the speakers say, then compare what you get with the recording. You’ll see how much of an interview is filler and blither and not useful, and how hard it is to make sense of those notes later. Then do the exercise again with a different program, listening hard for meaning and taking notes on content, rather than the exact words. Try to collect at least one really good quote verbatim. The second method is so much easier, you’ll want to perfect it, eventually practicing on live subjects. Interview your mother; you’ll be stunned by how quotable she is, and isn’t.

How much of a quote you should actually write down depends on your memory. One reporter friend of mine never uses a tape or a notebook. She writes down long quotes from memory later and prints them. I doubt her memory’s that good. I do have a good memory, so I tend to write down only the big words in a quote and fill in the little ones immediately after the interview. Some writers jot down key phrases and fill in the rest later.

You can control the pace of a one-on-one interview. I always ask my sources to slow up so I can get down all the good stuff they’re saying. They interpret that request as my being interested and careful about accuracy. You can slow things down by asking a question you don’t want the answer to. Then you rewrite the previous note, or jot down an observation, like “Signed portrait Elie Wiesel, desk. Ask later.”

When the source says something you want verbatim, you can interject, “Oh, that’s good. Can you say that again?” And it comes out clearer the second time. Variants include “Really?” “You mean X…, right?” “Did I hear you correctly, that X…?” Use this technique sparingly so the source doesn’t notice it.

For some pieces, you may need sound or video, but solid notetaking pays off later. Good notes make sense of your material quickly.

Got any good notetaking strategies you’d like to share with me?

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Published in: on March 16, 2009 at 8:24 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The No. 1 problem most writers have is they don’t listen. We don’t listen enough when we interview. Plus, we’re so busy trying to ask our list of questions, we don’t spot the little openings that can take the interview to new places. The object is to find out what the subject is thinking, how they think, what they think. Listen carefully and your interview may really be worth writing.

  2. I covered two government officials’ speeches recently, and the organization was recording the speeches for its Web site. Does that make recording more important so reporters make all the words in the quote match what the video? Or do readers even expect news reports to be exactly the same as what was exactly said?

  3. I don’t know of any readers, except the speaker’s staffers, who compare the wording of speeches reported in different media. During the Eisenhower administration, reporters could not quote from his live press conferences; they had to wait for the official White House transcripts. During both Bush administrations, press conference quotes varied widely as reporters tried to make sense of the two presidents’ battles with the English language. The truth is that verbatim quoting would be disastrous to political speakers. I believe that almost all quotes have to be cleaned up to make sense.
    Thanks, MW. Who else would like to weigh in, especially with anecdotes?


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