Monday, 4 July 2016

How to Take Notes

A while ago Timothy, one of my readers, asked me to do a post on taking notes (for sermons, for instance). I'm happy to oblige! Here's my post on taking notes.

Firstly, it can be tricky knowing where to start. You're listening to a sermon or a talk and you are supposed to be taking notes. But how? What is the best way to do it? You can't go crazy writing down everything the speaker says, can you?

Speakers/pastors/teachers/lecturers are all the same in one main area :they all use a lot of words to illustrate what they're trying to get across.

They will usually have a main point that they want you to grasp and then some minor points to help get that across. They might have a list of things they are trying to teach ("7 Steps to Eating Healthy") and they'll explain each thing in the list.

Which means that your job, as a note-taker, is to weed out the main points from the illustrations and explanations.

Your goal is to write down the main ideas.
You obviously can't write every single word they are saying (unless you know shorthand or write/type ridiculously fast) so you're just going to be writing down the main things.

So you have to learn to distinguish the main things from the explanations and illustrations.

This can be easy (some speakers make it really easy) or it can be hard (those speakers that waffle on and on in a really confusing and elaborate and hard-to-follow style).

Now that we know what we have to do, how do we do it?

1. Listen carefully.
Try not to miss important things because you're busy writing down other important things (keep listening while you write!). Sometimes you'll have to write fast to get it all in, sometimes you will wait ten minutes between writing anything.

2. Practice.
When you read something or listen to something, try thinking to yourself, "If I was taking notes on this, what would my notes be?"
Practice pulling the main idea out of what you are hearing.

Here's a little practice exercise for you.

Read the paragraph below. There is a main idea in the paragraph that I'm trying to get across. Your task is to try and figure out what it is.
Summer is a wonderful time to spend at West Beach. It is a beach with light- colored, soft sand. The coastline goes on for a long way and many people enjoy walking along it. Children like to play in the surf and walk along the rocks that are visible at low tide. This is a fun beach for people of all ages.
What's the main idea? It's that summer is a wonderful time to spend at West Beach. Sometimes the main idea will be in the middle of the explanation. Sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end. You must listen closely and write down the main ideas. Don't mistake illustrations for main things.

3. Find a style that works for you.
Everyone takes notes differently. I quite like doing little doodles and illustrations to illustrate my notes. Some people write notes in paragraphs, some people bullet point. Find what works for you.

It's helpful to start your notes with the speech/sermon/lecture title and the speaker's name. Then it's all yours from there!

I personally like to use bullet points to go along with my doodles. If, for example, the sermon was on Jeremiah 29:11 ("For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope"), the speaker might be talking about how God weaves his plan through the tapestry of our lives.
He might be illustrating this with examples from his own life.
He might have a bunch of ideas that tie in to that.
He might talk about what plans are.
He might spend some time discussing God's purpose in suffering.

I would do a bullet point for most of those and then sub points with them to correspond with what the speaker was saying.

The most important thing is to find a style of note taking that works for you.

4. Find friends.
There are some helpful 'friends' of note takers out there.
Powerpoint is your friend. Often the speaker will have his or her main ideas on a presentation or slideshow that you can base your notes on. This is helpful!
A good pen is your friend.
Concentration is your friend. Try not to let your thoughts wander too far from the speaker and your notes.
Brevity is your friend, although beware of too much brevity. You want to write enough notes that a person reading your notes will still understand what the speaker was trying to get across to the audience.

5. Be careful with illustrations
You can't write down the entire example.
However, if you write down something like, "Be like Mr X" then when you reread your notes later on, you likely won't remember who Mr X was or what he did that was so notable!
As you listen to an illustration, think to yourself "Is this important enough to include in my notes?" If not, don't include it at all. If it is, write what's important, enough so that you'll understand it later, and leave out the rest.

Those are all the tips I have for taking notes. I hope that what I had to say was a wee bit helpful.

Do you take notes?
What is your advice for someone starting out with note-taking?
Are you a doodler, long paragraph writer, bullet pointer or something else?
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  1. Thank you Bonnie, this is really helpful.

  2. Great post, Bonnie.
    I take notes on almost any sermon/lecture/devotion I hear. It's so valuable being able to go back over it later and remember everything you'd forget otherwise.
    I used to take bullet point notes, but it got annoying when the speaker turned to a new topic and I'd write down notes for that, but then returned to an earlier topic and you didn't have any space left for notes under that header! So now I'm moving more into making a mindmap. That way you can switch between topics without having to repeat topic headings, and the finished product has a nice visual effect.

    1. Thanks Philip! That's really interesting about the mindmap. I'd be interested in seeing the sort of things you do and the kind of mind map you're talking about.


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