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Science Writer, How Do You Take Notes?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Writers write. They also read. A lot. Science writers are no exception. They read articles, blog posts, press releases, peer-reviewed papers, books. The more they read, they usually say, the more and the better they write. What they don’t usually say is the amount of notes they take while reading.

Reading is great and all but if you don’t remember what you’ve read and where you’ve read it, then clearly, you’re not being too efficient, are you? Note-taking used to be the arena of pen and paper. A good ballpoint pen and a moleskin notebook and you’re all set and ready to be an investigative journalist. Just look at the movies! But with the deluge of information that’s now available online, pen and paper, I’m afraid to say, may not be up to speed anymore.

Taking notes on the computer is more convenient in a number of ways. You don’t need me to list those ways but I will do so for the excitement factor nonetheless. Your notes are virtual which is just easier considering that you type rather than write these days. And no need to flick through numerous pages of numerous notebooks since you can… wait for it… use search! You can also use tags. And if your notes are in the cloud, then you can take them on the go on your mobile devices as everything gets synced. Plus unless someone spills a whole lot of coffee in the server farm that’s hosting your notes, they won’t get soaked to oblivion.

In a recent feature, Thomas Houston, an editor at The Verge, details how he takes notes on his computer and his multiple mobile devices. He uses the note-taking software/app, Evernote, “as a memory tool for deep reading, writing, and research.” Houston is a hardcore note-taker. He notes down everything from quotations, fantastic ledes, “wow” paragraphs, and videos, sound files, photos and more.

The article made me wonder how other writers go about their business of note-taking. So, I asked a few science writers to give us a small insight into how they collect their notes. I couldn’t embed their responses in this post but here are a few snippets below. You can check out the entire branch here.

David Dobbs:
“Short-term/to read: Pocket, plus an RSS that collects tweets I ‘favorite.’ Might-blog: Bookmark folder in Safari. Of longer interest/might want someday: Devonthink Pro Office, richly tagged. DTP’s AI “See also” algorithm tends to find them.

But I still feel like I lose stuff.”

Bora Zivkovic:
“I have a few core [WordPad] files, with HTML already in them the way I want it, e.g., for my evening linkfests, for SA Incubator Picks, etc. so I just throw URLs into them as I find them. Then I also collect links specifically on a topic I want to blog about. I usually have a couple of those files floating around. Once I publish the post, I delete that file.”

Maryn McKenna:
“I have many tortured strategies, but the most important ones are Evernote for things I want to follow up on (blog fodder, story fodder, stash for book/projects), foldered and tagged; and DevonThink Pro for long-term storage/retrieval. The clip-widgets for both are an important part of my daily workflow.

This gets stuff into my storage. Remembering to look and see what’s there is a separate issue…”

Unsurprisingly, writers take and store notes in different ways. They use different softwares (Evernote, DevonThink, Pocket, WordPad). While some (me included) prefer to have all of their notes centralised onto one platform, others purposely keep specific notes in specific platforms.

Still, only a few writers revealed their note-taking secrets in the branch embedded above. I’m sure that many among you, younger and/or early-career writers, have secrets of your own. So I’m opening this up for crowdsourcing. If enough of you share your note-taking secrets, I’ll write up another blog post listing your contributions and who knows, perhaps you will save a few others some trouble. And vice versa.

To share your note-taking strategies, you can leave a comment below or tweet me at @notscientific. Feel free to request access to the branch too if you’d like.

Khalil A. Cassimally About the Author: Khalil A. Cassimally is the Community Coordinator of The Conversation UK. He's also a science blogger. He hails from a tropical island and is a happy geek. Subscribe to his updates on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @notscientific.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. CM doran 10:58 am 12/20/2012

    I am the least of the writers here…and to come, but I bookmark in chrome and favorite on twitter. I am old fashioned in other ways in that I have an aesthetically pleasing spiral notebook in which I scribble (coordinate) what I want to include in a document. I do not (really) have a cell phone or other mobile device.

    Sometimes various papers get stuffed into said notebook until incorporated in the plan for the post/project. So far, it works…but if I were to write full-time I would likely have a different overall strategy.

    Thanks for writing about this topic. It gave me some ideas.

    Link to this
  2. 2. scicurious 9:31 am 12/21/2012

    I have a dropbox folder of “blog papers”, which have pdfs, each titled with why I thought it was interesting. For more detailed notes I keep a file of the same title as a txt.

    Link to this
  3. 3. davidwogan 7:29 pm 12/29/2012

    I feel that keeping track of what I read (articles, blog posts, videos, etc) on multiple devices to be the biggest challenge/headache. I have a MacBook Air that I do most of my writing on, an iPhone, and an iPad that I also do a bit of writing in. On all of these devices I am reading and favoriting tweets, favoriting articles in my RSS reader (Reeder for iOS), and reading and bookmarking in my browser (Safari for all). If I can, I dump links and quotes into Yojimbo. Far from an ideal solution!

    And if I’m behind on links, articles stay in tab purgatory.

    I would love ONE service or app that works on all of these devices that can store everything. Perhaps Evernote is worth checking out?

    Link to this
  4. 4. notscientific 6:15 am 01/4/2013

    David, Evernote is definitely worth checking out if you want to have everything on one platform. It also allows you to integrate a number of other apps/services with it allowing you to really make Evernote your one-stop place.

    Give it a try!

    Link to this

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