A Beginner’s Guide for Journalists: Taking Notes

Taking notes is one of journalism’s most obvious and yet most under-rated skills. Here are some tips to making the most of that interview…

 My grandmother was a Pitman’s shorthand teacher. Both my mother and her sister could do Pitman’s at the drop of a hat. I tried to learn it (and still have my grandmother’s precious textbooks) but somehow it never took hold.

I think I lacked patience. (No shit, Sherlock, members of my family would say).

And then I was a trainee journalist (called a cadet in those faraway days) and being taught another system of shorthand by a very fierce woman. I remember neither the name of the teacher nor the name of the shorthand system. (Cadet journalists do a lot of partying).

That second kind of shorthand also did not take hold.

And yet I managed to do five years as a general reporter, taking notes and getting things right.

Taking notes:

Step one is developing your own system

Thinking back on it, I wish I’d persevered with the shorthand. But I hadn’t done that, so this is what I did instead:

1.     Intense listening – I learned to zone out distractions and listen really hard to what the person was saying (either from a podium or in an interview).

2.     I wrote down the important stuff that the person was saying, as they said it.

3.     I retained a bunch of important symbols from the shorthand and used them all the time – a symbol for the word “meeting” for instance.

4.     As I listened and wrote, I was on the lookout for the “angle” or angles – and I marked those with a big star as soon as I heard them.

5.     When I got back to the office, as soon as I could, I wrote the story while I could still hear the person’s voice in my mind. I started that process by looking in my notebook for the parts which I had marked with a star, and then deciding on how to start my story.

And that system works for me to this day.

Step two is using the tools available to you

When I started out as a reporter, what we had was a trusty reporter’s notebook, a pen and a telephone. I knew reporters who used recorders to tape interviews and phone calls but it didn’t work for me because the business of listening to the playback and finding the crucial parts of the interview seemed incredibly time-consuming and (also) boring.

But when I do interviews these days, I do record them (and see the note at the bottom of the article about ethical considerations). They are so often done as video calls that recording is easy to do.

I then take that recording and use a web-based transcription tool to get a transcript.

I don’t pay for such an app yet but by using the free options in various web-based transcription offerings I’ve been able to get by. The trick here: I use up all the free offerings in one plan, and then move on to another service. So far, the one I think would be worth paying for is Otter.ai, which has proved the most adept at working with non-standard English accents.

I haven’t yet tried this next step, but in future I’ll be seeing if I can get an AI tool to summarise the main points of the transcipt, and then use that as an extra layer of remembering what was said. ChatGPT has limitations in terms of the length of a text you can enter, but I will be experimenting with this a lot.

Step 3: talking of ChatGPT, I asked it for some hints and tips on notetaking and these are useful (rewritten by me):

Be prepared: Carry a notebook, pens, and perhaps even a voice recorder or smartphone for audio notes. Make sure your devices are fully charged and easily accessible.

Date and attribute: Always date your notes and attribute the information to specific sources (I underline the person’s name and title as I take them down).

Follow-up questions: As you take notes, be sure to note down any follow-up questions that arise.

Step 4: court reporting

Cathy Stagg, a former Independent Media colleague, posted some really helpful tips for court reporters on LinkedIn. With her permission, here they are:

  • I left lines between my notes in one colour, then filled in missing words from memory in another so contemporaneous notes were distinct from what was added later.
  • Clear dates including whether evidence was before or after lunch.
  • Lots of specific abbreviations: pp/nd = postponed without date.

She ends: “I’m a compulsive note taker when dealing with the authorities,: date & time of conversation, person concerned, their title, what was agreed, date for follow-up if necessary.”

A note on the ethics of recording

If you are going to record an interview, you must get the interviewee’s permission, preferably at the start of the recording. And offer to send them the recording or the transcript.


Research skills: Five ways to assess and use reliable sources

Main picture: Yushmita Sidar / Pexels

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