Gathering produces large amounts of information, and writers need ways to manage it. Annotating notes gives them structure, and enables us to find things. Writers who don’t annotate tend to drown in their own information.
Different writers annotate notes using various systems, and you need a system that works for you. Here’s the method my friend Roy Clark uses: he puts a check beside notes he might use. That’s it. Actually, he then types the checked notes into his computer (something I would never do because I type badly). Roy has one principle for annotating: importance. He only marks notes he might use. Some people use a highliter to mark important notes.
Other writers indicate degrees of importance, using symbols such as stars or asterisks. The more stars, the more important the note. I draw a key beside the most important notes. One writer I coached graded every note he took, one to a hundred, one hundred being most important. His method proved slow because he coded every note, including notes that had no importance.
Some people code notes by subject. On a story about the zoo, for example, they might use categories such as animals that walk, animals that swim, and animals that fly, abbreviated in the margin as W, S, and F. Then they can rapidly locate all the birds in their notes. (Penguins are problematic.)
Some writers (including me) figure out the sections of their piece ahead of time, and code for the sections. Suppose that zoo story is about animals dying from polluted water. I might use something like this: animals that died (D), animals that lived (L), probable causes (C), and likely solutions (S). That makes it easy to pull all the material related to a section out quickly.
Bradley Graham, who used to cover disasters for The Washington Post, had to write fast under dreadful conditions, sometimes under gunfire. He would figure out the sections on the way in, divide his notebook into those parts, and then write each note in the appropriate portion of the notebook. He once covered a volcanic eruption with a three-part notebook: eruption, victims, and rescuers. That’s the fastest system I know, but you can’t use it unless you can imagine the sections ahead of time.
Some writers, especially those writing profiles, organize around quotations, so they put a Q in the margin beside any direct quote. Some business writers mark figures with a $.
Sometimes you write notes to yourself in the notebook, but you need to distinguish them from what your source said. I jot my initials (“DF”) in the margin beside things I said. If you don’t understand something, put a question mark by it so you can ask about it later. If you realize in an interview that you need a document the source just mentioned; you can jot “GET” in the margin. Avoid pejorative remarks, such as “Lying creep,” in your notebook; lawyers can use them against you to prove malice.
You can also include notes on how to write the piece. For example, I look for beginnings and endings as I gather. When I spot something I might use , I mark it “PL” (Potential Lead) or “PK” (Potential Kicker, another term for ending.)
Here’s one page of notes, cleaned up so you can understand them, from a little piece on local investment clubs. The sections are club (C), investments (I), and success (S).
(How do you code your notes?)