Category Archives: notetaking

Learning about note-taking

Extra value comes from taking notes when learning. Exponential value? From sharing those notes.

When you take notes, you understand things better. You express ideas in your own words. You condense thoughts and expand tangents. You reflect on how to integrate concepts into your life.

When you share your notes, you create value. You build relationships. You learn from what others share.

Someday, I would like to be able to share everything I learn.

Other people are working on this too. There’s even a free e-book on how to make a complete map of every thought you think. The main challenges are: How can I capture the essence of what I’m learning? How can I organize what I’ve shared to make it easy to find? Maybe some of the things I’ve learned about capturing and organizing learning can help you share more effectively, too.

Capturing thoughts

There is no shortage of things to share. In a typical week, I may skim 10 books from the library, looking for key insights. I read countless blog posts. I listen to podcasts and participate in conversations. I experiment. I experience. What I learn provides me with material. The interconnections among things I’ve learned provide me with even more. People’s questions and ideas yield even more.

Capturing the essence is easier than most people think. I scribble a few keywords into a notebook, sketch an idea, type in staccato sentences or mental shorthand. My task list is infinite, although my priorities are few. Then I publish without polishing. Better to have something out there than to have drafts cluttering my head. I’ll learn more about a topic when I write about it again, anyway.

The mechanics of how? A laptop if the words are already in my head, open to a blog editor, a drawing program, or an outliner/mind mapper. A tablet for drawing ideas. Pen and paper if I need to explore. On the go: a notebook and fountain pen. A voice recorder when I need my hands free. An outliner on my iPod Touch.

I think about how I capture what I’m learning, like my book workflow.

Find whatever works for you. Publish early. Publish often. Get something out there. You’ll learn from the questions people will ask you if you’re unclear. Just get enough of your thoughts down so that you can use it for recall.

Organizing notes

I want to build a map of what I know so that people can find things. I used to publish a personal wiki. Maybe it’s time to do that again.

I use search engines and tags to find my old notes. I keep an index in the back of my paper notebooks. I take advantage of similarity and randomness on my blog.

Links and memories from other people help me rediscover myself. They find things I’ve long forgotten.

Every so often, I review what I’ve written and summarize what I’ve learned. The more links there are, the easier something will be to find later on.

I don’t have an index or a table of contents yet. I want to build one. Do you have any role models you can point me to?

Thanks to Dror Engel for the question!

Visual notes – Gary Vaynerchuk and Democamp Toronto 24

Funny aside: When Jay Goldman handed Gary Vaynerchuk a bottle of water, Gary offered it for sale. Little things like that reinforce story.

Key take-aways: Passion and patience are everything. Hustle. Out-care others. Offer good stuff. Pay attention to everything. How do you scale? By trying.


Notes from the demos and the pub, before I broke my fountain pen:


Explanations for scribbles upon request, or when I can make time for it! =)

Visual notes from Remote Presentations That Rock


Visual notes from the women’s leadership session I helped facilitate. =) The ice-breaker was “What superpower would you like to have?”, hence the icons along the top.

It was fun taking visual notes during  the discussion of my Remote Presentations That Rock session!

Taking quick notes for books

I love my book notes system. I almost always ask fellow bookworms how they keep track of what they’ve learned from the books they’ve read, and their suggestions have helped me put together a pretty darn good system. Here’s how I work:

Capture: I usually read books in front of my computer so that I can use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to take notes while I read. I speak the page number and the quote I want to remember. Using speech recognition to write book notes means that I don’t have to take my hands off the book, and I don’t have to perch it precariously on my lap as I try to type in quotes. Speech recognition is reasonably accurate, and I love breezing through a passage at some 300 words a minute. This is awesome. This is so much better than my old way of doing things. I suspect this also does good things for my ability to recall important points. When I finish a page, I correct the text that’s already there.

If I’m not at my computer, I record notes into a portable voice recorder. If I’m feeling lucky, I get DNS to auto-transcribe the recordings. This doesn’t usually work. Background noise messes up the recognition. But it’s usually good enough to let me find the pages again. Or–shhh–sometimes I dogear pages. ;)

Organize: I copy the book notes into a plain text file that uses the Org outline mode. I organize my booknotes with the titles as second-level headings, and I sometimes tag the books with keywords.

Store: I copy my book notes onto my Nintendo DS, where I can use
the ReadMore homebrew application to quickly review my book notes on
the subway.

Review: Every so often, I whiz through the books in my book notes system so that I can keep the key points fresh in my mind. This review is also a good opportunity to pass a book’s idea on to someone else.

What would make this even better? A Nintendo or Palm text editor that understood Org files would be just amazing.  Integration with LibraryThing would be nice, too, so that people could easily find out which books to discuss with me. Even without those pieces, though, my system works really really well for me.

What’s your system?

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Chapter 7: Managing Your Notes in Emacs – done!

By golly, it’s starting to look like a book.

I just finished putting together my third chapter, which is really chapter 7 in the book: managing your notes and Emacs. This chapter is about taking notes in Emacs, focusing on Remember, Org, Planner, and blogs. At 38 pages, it’s a little over my planned 35 pages, and I haven’t even covered all the things that I wanted to like random information management with Howm, blogging to Blosxom, and customizing Planner templates. Maybe after some really fierce copy-editing, I’ll have some space.

I sent a copy off to my editor, and I just finished uploading a PDF and document that you can download and read. There’s also an HTML version, but the formatting is a little wonky. I hope you find this useful! I didn’t blog as much of this as I did last time, so I missed out on all the wonderful feedback people could’ve given me. I’ll do that next chapter.

I formatted most of the chapter this afternoon, hanging out with Leigh Honeywell, Seth Hardy, and a few other geeks at the Linux Caffe. Leigh’s working on a book proposal, and we’re thinking of organizing a writing group for technical authors. We’ll start by meeting this Thursday at Leigh’s apartment. iI enjoyed chatting with them as I worked on my book, drifting in and out of conversations. I think it would be a good idea to work somewhere quieter, with plenty of table room for assorted gadgets, but this was a good start.

Next chapter: contact management in Emacs. I’ve got a lot of fun hacks that I want to share here, so coming up with material shouldn’t be hard. I’ll keep you posted!

(UPDATE: Fixed links. Thanks to Leschinsky Oleg for pointing that out!)