Why I’m an old-fashioned pen-and-paper girl at heart

I’m slightly late to the party, so you may have already seen the debate prompted by Craig Taylor’s recent blog post; if not, take a look.

Craig was shocked at a recent event when some people expressed discomfort at him taking notes on his iPad.

Perhaps surprisingly for someone in my kind of role, I’m a pen-and-paper girl at heart: I love my Kindle but buy my very favourite books in paperback; I take great joy in browsing the beautiful stationery in Paperchase; and, yes, 99% of the time I take notes the old-fashioned way.

I’ve been thinking about this recently – partly prompted by Craig’s post and partly because the early days of a new job, for me, involve taking copious notes – and I’m wondering whether this preference is connected to my tendency to reflection and my need for order.

I’m learning Greek at the moment and during class I take notes in a little reporter’s notebook with a black biro. But each week, as well as doing my (necessarily handwritten) homework, I also write up my class notes in my ‘best’ A4 notebook. Having the time and space (mental and physical) to reflect on the lesson allows me to make associations and get things straight and consolidated in my mind. I also use a range of coloured pens when writing the notes up, highlighting key things (like verb endings or new sounds). As a result, my ‘final’ notes are clear and accurate, and structured in a way that will make sense to me when I look back at them. I did the same thing when I was at university – I’d take fairly scrappy notes in lectures or supervisions, and I’d write them up later so I had something as useful as possible to refer to when it came to revision time.

At work I’m the same. I have my ‘rough’ notebook for phone messages, to-do reminders and notes from meetings. Then I have my ‘good’ notebook where I write the important stuff that I need to remember, refer back to or make sense of – consolidated minutes from meetings, key messages from webinars or presentations, and so on. By keeping the short-term or rough stuff separate, I keep my notebook and my mind as uncluttered as possible. There’s obviously a bit of time required to do this, but I think it’s time well spent as it’s part of my reflection process.

So I do think my need for clarity and order, coupled with my preference for time and space to think about things before committing them to permanent record, explains why I tend to produce ‘final’ versions of any important notes I take.

But that doesn’t address why I take the first round of notes on paper rather than on a mobile device like Craig and many others. For me, some of it is down to speed. I touch type, so can transcribe or paraphrase quickly via a keyboard, but what I can’t do quickly is correct things or jump around in a document. On paper, if someone says something that seems to link to something mentioned ten minutes earlier, I can draw an arrow or add an asterisk without slowing myself down. On a device, that would (for me) take longer, and I’d inevitably miss something useful or lose my train of thought.

A second reason is that when I take rough notes (when listening to a presentation, reading a document or brainstorming, for instance), I use my own shorthand. It’s not particularly consistent and it’s probably largely nonsensical to others, but it works for me. If I use the same abbreviations and symbols on a device, spellchecker jumps in and auto-corrects things, meaning I won’t be able to make sense of my own notes when I review them. (I know, I could turn spellchecker off, but then I’d forget to turn it back on and it wouldn’t be there when I needed it…)

So for me, paper-based notes are my preference, and I can’t see that changing any time soon. But in thinking about all of this, two important things have occurred to me.

Firstly, this is entirely a question of personal choice and I have absolutely no objection to people taking e-notes. Yes, I would prefer they try not to bash too loudly at the keyboard (just as I’d prefer others don’t click their pens incessantly or slurp their tea too dramatically). Yes, I think it’s nice if they can look away from the screen to make eye contact with the speaker from time to time (just as I think you should if you’re scribbling notes on paper). These things are just common courtesy, whatever equipment you’re using. Likewise, it’s common courtesy to respect other people’s choices and preferences – as I’ve said, I have no issue whatsoever with people taking notes on an iPad or laptop, and in return I’d like to think I can stick to my trusty pen and paper without being branded a behind-the-times luddite.

Secondly, there is also a question about sharing here, which Craig draws attention to by ending his post with a challenge to the people who took paper-based notes to share them like he has shared his online mindmap. I don’t think sharing is obligatory – certainly not widespread online sharing – and it’s definitely not always the primary purpose of taking notes. But personally I do want to be able to share what I learn and find interesting, largely because my community has shared so much with me and I want to reciprocate. So I am going to challenge myself to consider how to do this more consistently. I won’t be changing the first stage of my process – the rough handwritten notes – or the reflection time, which I need to ensure the stuff I share is useful and relevant and coherent. But I will look at ways to change how I approach the second stage. Instead of just re-writing my notes in a way that works for me, I’m going to explore other, e-enabled, options that will allow me to easily share my polished notes with my wider network: mindmaps, blog posts, Google docs and so on.

I can’t promise I won’t still print them out and keep them in my folder of useful things, though!

Image:  Arvin Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

13 thoughts on “Why I’m an old-fashioned pen-and-paper girl at heart

  1. Neil Spurgeon

    Fascinating Steph. I too use a Kindle, brilliant for the train and to carry the many resources for academic study or research into a complex or large subject, but always take notes wherever I am, using old fashioned pencil and paper. Indeed my Kindle ‘lives’ within a leather folder with a notepad and pen as it’s major components. However, I then almost always type up a report from my hand written notes which I share via my Moodle site with others who might be interested in whatever I have learned/discovered.

    I don’t actually personally find the use of tablets and iPhones distracting at conferences and seminars but then I was at sea for many years where you have to learn to ‘switch off’ to massively more complex and noisy distractions when studying, so I may be a bit ‘special’ in this respect

    1. Stephanie Dedhar Post author

      Thanks for dropping by Neil. I haven’t yet used my Kindle for any kind of work- or academic-related reading, although may give it a try sometime if only to test out the highlight/notes type functionality I think it has (unless I’ve just made that up!). I think your last comment is interesting – I suppose we all have different tolerance levels in terms of what background noise or distractions we can cope with before it interferes with our own experience. People using iPhones or tablets or laptops at conferences doesn’t bother me, but perhaps growing up in a family of four children (three of them girls) means I’m pretty adept at tuning out background noise!

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  3. kategraham23

    Great post Stephanie – I’m exactly the same as you! I take my trusty Moleskine notebook everywhere I go for note taking. I also have my own crazy, made up shorthand and also end up drawing arrows all over the page to connect certain points and join up my thinking.

    One useful thing I do these days is refer back to the Twitterstream after an event, even if it’s just my own tweets as often I’ve tweeted certain points that I won’t have written down. Other people taking notes on their devices doesn’t bother me at all. I do sometimes worry if I’m tweeting that a speaker thinks I’m not paying attention when I really am!

    I really agree with your sharing point though and I’ve decided I’m going to have a play with a tool like Evernote and see how I get on with it. Maybe we can compare (online?) notes?!

    1. Stephanie Dedhar Post author

      Everywhere I turn these days people are pulling out or recommending Moleskine notebooks – maybe it’s time I treated myself to one too! I also try to refer back to Twitter streams, although I have had a tendency recently to leave it too long and inevitably often don’t get around to it. But it’s a valid point: I do tweet at conferences so it’s likely there are some things missing from my handwritten notes at corresponding points – I hadn’t really thought of that before. Anyway, perhaps we should both make a concerted effort and spur each other on in our attempt to increase our e-sharing – I’ll let you know how I get on!

  4. Nick Simons (@saffronnic)

    I’m as much a gadget freak as the next guy (or gal, though usually guy) but I think your ‘making eye contact’ point is crucial. My phone has a perfectly good app for note taking but it’s useless if I have to stare at the keyboard when I’m supposed to be in a conversation with one or more people. So it’s pen and paper for me too.

    PS Eye contact is less of an issue for note taking at a presentation (especially if I’m at the back of the room).

    1. Stephanie Dedhar Post author

      Yes, I have to confess that I’d probably find it slightly more uncomfortable if I was in a small group or one-on-one discussion and the other person was looking at a keyboard or phone rather than at me. The same kind of feeling as you get if you’re on a video call but only one of you has a webcam… I still wouldn’t object to it, but would hope they might make more effort to look up and make eye contact than they might in a larger presentation.

  5. Kim George (@KimSGeorge)

    Hi Stephanie, I’m very similar to you – I’m forever taking pen and paper notes and throughout the day or week as I tick things off, I re-write my lists and notes as a way of clearing my head. I find it very satisfying!

    I’m sure if I had an iPad, I would try note-taking on it but I suspect I wouldn’t be as fast on the keyboard and it would frustrate me that my rough notes are in a format (typed) that I personally associate with ‘best’. Having said that, I’m reading a non-fiction book on my Kindle at the moment and I’m itching to take notes on it…does anyone know of a note-taking app for the Kindle?Another way I take and keep notes is with ‘stickies’ – a desktop note app.

    I find it really useful to have my more permanent notes ‘stuck’ right in front of me on my computer screen all day long!

  6. Neil Smith

    I like your thinking. I like taking paper notes too, but being a techie I wanted to justify an iPad. So I have found a way to do just that. I have always taken paper notes in meetings so I can scribble and draw pictures to explain various ideas and also gather important information. So even though I still take traditional notes I also photograph it into an DocScan iPad app. It allows me to have the freedom to be creative on traditional paper but enjoy the order of filing it on the iPad. It also means that everything I have every written, drawn and scribbled gets saved to one storage device that I keep with me at all time. Maybe I will give you a demo on Monday.


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