Scribbling with Purpose: Taking notes that make sense

by Anonymous
Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

Before the Interview or Event

Be prepared. Carry an extra pen and extra notebook, so you don't run out of paper or ink. If covering a fire or flood or an event where you might be rained on, be sure to take a pencil. Your notebook might get wet and the ink will run. Felt-tip pens are especially risky if your notebook might get wet.

Be comfortable. Joe Brennan of the Omaha World-Herald advises: "This may seem pretty elementary, but get comfortable taking notes. Find the right pen or pencil. I started out using a ballpoint pen, then found that a felt pen was a much easier writing device for me. And figure out if the traditional reporter's notebook works for you, or maybe it's a legal pad or some other type of notebook. I knew a reporter who used spiral notebooks exclusively. Another used traditional writing paper -- the kind you'd use to write a letter. Find whatever works for you."

Take a camera. If a photographer is not accompanying you, you might want to take a camera to shoot some pictures that may help you later in describing the setting or characters.

Review previous notes. Before an interview, review your notes of previous interviews with this character as well as notes of other interviews for this story or dealing with this issue.

Plan questions. Before an interview, plan questions you need to ask or topics you need to cover. Don't refer to the checklist frequently. It's more important for the interview to flow smoothly than to ask every question. Steve Jordon of the Omaha World-Herald advises: "One little trick is to write the topics you want to discuss on the back page of the note pad in advance. Then you can take notes on the front and, as the interview winds down, flip to the back and make sure you didn't forget anything." Collect documents. If you're covering an event, get a program or agenda beforehand. If the situation permits, try to locate the main people before the event starts and ask them if their names are spelled correctly in the program.

Start taking notes early. As you arrive at an event or scene, take notes that might be relevant: Setting description, weather, time.

During the Interview or Event

Get the names right. First things first: At any interview or event, get the names spelled correctly and doublecheck them. Ask the character to spell her name for you, however common the spelling (if it seems like a stupid question, make a self-deprecating joke or a reassuring comment about your dedication to accuracy). Write the name clearly in your notebook as spelled, then read it back to the character as you've written it. Or ask the character to write her name in the notebook for you. Then read it back to her to make sure you can read her handwriting. Then ask for a business card. In addition to ensuring accuracy, this redundant exercise underscores to the character that she's talking for the record and that you're taking notes of what she says and planning to print her name. If you're covering an event rather than an interview, get a program or agenda beforehand. Then try to locate the main people and ask them if their names are spelled correctly in the program. If someone you don't know speaks or does something during the event, try to get to him as quickly as possible and get his name. If that is not possible, ask someone who would know. Then try to run the person down by phone to verify. Your notebook should have each name spelled right, verified by the character. And if possible you should have at least one printed item with the name also on it.

Get contact information. Either after you get the name or at the end of the interview, ask the source for contact information: home, work and cell phone numbers and e-mail address. Again, repeat these back to the character to make sure your notes are accurate.

Don't write everything down. You are not a court reporter, trying to transcribe every word of an interview or event. You're a newspaper reporter, seeking to capture the important and interesting essence of the interview or event. Start making your judgments about what's interesting or important as you take notes. Don't waste energy or paper taking notes on things that you know aren't important or interesting enough for the story. Wasted notes waste more time later as you’re looking through your notes for important information or strong quotes.

Distinguish between information and quotes. When you're gathering information, you must get numbers, names and spellings correct. But the speaker's exact words aren't important, because information-bearing quotes usually aren't strong quotes. Concentrate on getting the facts correct, rather than the words with which the speaker delivered them.

Concentrate on the strong quotes. When someone says something that conveys strong emotion or opinion, or when you hear some revealing dialogue, take verbatim notes. Echo the speaker in your mind as you write, committing the statement(s) to memory, so your memory will have the words as your hand catches up.

Slow the speaker down. If the speaker is giving information, slow her down by asking for details or sources. How do you know that? Are you sure? How's that spelled? Is that an approximation or the exact amount? Do you have some documentation? Jordon advises, “I don't hesitate to ask someone to pause for a second while you write down a quote verbatim. People appreciate efforts to be accurate.”

Echo, echo, echo. Slow the speaker down and get confirmation for your notes by echoing the speaker, especially about important facts: "You said 15 million, right, one-five million, with an M?"

Rephrase. Maybe the character said something important, but it followed a powerful quote you were still scribbling down and you're not sure you got the second quote. Repeat what you thought you heard back to the character: “Let me make sure I understand this correctly. Did you say ...?” This gives you confirmation of the information and buys you time to take the notes. And maybe he will elaborate or say it stronger.

Ask throwaway questions. When you start falling behind, ask a “throwaway” question about general background that you already have or personal information you don't care much about. This gives you a chance to catch up on your notes before you forget the important or interesting things the character just said.

Develop a shorthand. Each story or beat will present abbreviations you can use to streamline note-taking, such as initials of people or organizations. You also can develop abbreviations and contractions of common words, perhaps omitting vowels or using a single letter with a prefix or suffix.

Ask for documentation. Ask the character for the documents, photographs, videos and other items that tell more about her and what she is telling you. Go through them with her and take notes. Ask her if you can borrow or copy them.

Take notes on the setting. Write down details about the character's home or office or about the room where the event takes place. If it's outside, take note of the weather. Write a paragraph or two about the setting if you have time. Ask the character about items you notice in the home or office.

Note your questions. With a word or two and a question mark, note what questions you asked.

Identify speakers. If you're interviewing multiple characters at once or covering an event with multiple speakers, come up with a code to keep the speakers clear in your notes. Initials work, but beware of speakers with the same initials. If you have multiple speakers at an event and don't have names, write physical descriptions and come up with initials based on them: B for the man in the blue shirt; T for the tall woman, etc. Then get the ID's straight as quickly as possible after the event.

Take notes on senses. Don't write just what you hear. Note what you see and smell, even what you feel and taste if those senses help tell the story.

Note the emotions. If the character raises his voice or starts to cry, write briefly what prompted the emotion and how the character reacted. Note your own emotions, too, and emotions of spectators. What was the most emotional moment of the event? How did people show the emotions?

Note what's off the record. If the character wants to go off the record in some fashion, whether speaking for publication but not for attribution, or entirely off the record, either stop taking notes, or note in large letters in your notebook, OTR, NFA or some other code that will be clear to you. If you think the character is telling you something later that's back on the record, ask if you're back on the record and write clearly in your notebook when you're back on the record. Ask and note the reason for going off the record. Either at that interview or later, use the notes to try to get some of the material back on the record: “I'd really like to use this, but I can't use it without your name. Is it OK to put this one statement on the record? OK, how about this one?” And so on.

Look up from your notebook. As important as your notes are, your story is in front of you, not in your notebook. Look up and don't just listen and write.

After the Interview or Event

Review your notes. Immediately after the event or interview, review your notes. Do this even before you get back to the newsroom, when you're in your car or in the lobby of the building where the event took place. Where your scribbling is nearly illegible, write the words out neatly while they're still fresh in your mind. Fill out the partial quotes while you still remember them. Identify points to check with other sources. If a particular passage or a possible lead came to you during the interview, write it down immediately. Brennan advises: “As often as practical, type notes into the computer. It's then easy to move a great quote, or a reasonably well composed graf, into your text as you write.”

Outline your notes. Before you write, go through your notes and “outline” them, highlighting the good quotes or the important points. Mark related information with the same letter or code so you start to organize the material scattered through your notes. Brennan advises: “Take time to review your notes and do an outline. I usually tried a 1-2-3 approach: What's the beginning, middle and end of this story? Sometimes my ‘outline’ might only be three or four words.”

Write immediately. Even if you're not ready to write the full story, write what you have so far. This makes the best use of your notes by moving as quickly as possible from them to an actual story.

Ask, if you're not sure. If you're writing and you can't make out something in your notes that you think was important, call the character back. You can say, “I thought this was what you said, but I just wanted to be sure.” She may confirm, correct or elaborate. And she might tell you a couple things she thought of after the interview, stimulated in thought or memory by your questions.

Label and date your notebook. Avoid the frustration of flipping through a stack of notebooks looking for that great quote you think you remember from six months ago. To tape or not to tape

Journalists are divided on this issue. I generally side with the not-to-tape crowd. Too often tape recorders result in sloppy note-taking, untimely disasters and lots of time wasted listening to and transcribing tapes. Use a tape recorder now and then to test the accuracy of your note-taking. If you aren't getting important information or quotes accurately, then use tapes.

Joe Brennan advises: “Don't rely too much on tape recorders. They can protect you against someone who might later claim he was misquoted, but don't just turn on the machine and kick back. Continue to take written notes. One time I didn't do that, the machine went haywire and I lost an entire interview. I had to sheepishly call back the source and do the interview over. If you don't take good written notes, you also have to burn a lot of time transcribing the tape. That type of long transcription should be only for a Q-A story.”

Tapes are helpful in these situations:

1. Interviews that you know could be contentious. Use of the tape recorder might head off claims that you misquoted the character.

2. If your online edition uses audio clips.

3. Interviews with a character you know to be a fast talker.

4. When lengthy dialogue or a Q & A format will be important. Few reporters can take accurate verbatim notes that long.

5. If you are inexperienced at taking notes and know your notes are not very good, a tape recorder can help while you are gaining experience.

If you use a tape recorder:

1. Take notes as if you weren't recording, because sometime the recorder will fail, and at the worst possible time.

2. Make sure you have plenty of tapes and fresh batteries.

3. Choose a quiet setting. Background noise in a restaurant or at a ballgame or political rally will drown out the quote you're looking for on the tape.

4. Ask if the character minds you recording. Sometimes a recorder makes a character uneasy. Say that the recorder helps ensure your accuracy.

5. Reset the counter to 0 before you start recording. Check the counter now and then, writing the count in your notebook. Be sure to write down the count especially after a key quote that you might want to use. That way you can find quotes quickly.

6. Label your tapes.

Resources to help with note-taking