How to Take Notes on The Road

Taking notes


‘To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe. In twenty odd years of travel, I lost only two. One vanished on an Afghan bus. The other was filched by the Brazilian secret police, who, with a certain clairvoyance, imagined that some lines I had written – about the wounds of a Baroque Christ – were a description, in code, of their own work on political prisoners.’ —Bruce Chatwin, Songlines (1987)

a/ Notebooks. Every travel writer has a favourite. Bruce Chatwin, in Songlines, writes about trying to find his favourite notebook, the vrai moleskine, from a Paris papeterie. There was only one family supplier, and while trying to order 100, he found the manufacturer had died. (Some bright spark then spotted an excellent opportunity to resurrect the ‘moleskine’-style notebook as a brand.) There are dozens to choose from, and while the Moleskine is based on descriptions of the one used by Bruce Chatwin and Picasso, they are still excellent. We also use notebooks from Baron Fig, Sorta, Field Notes, Ciak and Rhodia among others.  You’ll find over time what works best for you. Also consider whether you want to start a new notebook for each trip, in which case one with fewer pages such as Field Notes may be best. Organising notebooks back at home is also essential; as we say, the contents will contribute a fair bit of money, so you don’t want to lose it among the books in your office either.  

 My preference is for notebooks that:
– Fit into a back pocket
– Are very durable
– Have a pocket for business cards on the back page
– Have a very secure strap to hold in a pen
– Are lined

b/ Writing tools. Some people are as pernickety about writing implements as the notebook. Whether you fall into ‘stolen from a hotel’ pen or a Pilot G2 Retractable Premium Gel Ink Roller Ball Pen, it is about being prepared. I favour mechanical pencils but usually resort to whatever I have handy.  

c/ Structure of note-taking. It’s one thing to take notes and transcribe interviews in a notebook, and it’s another to make sense of them at a later date. Over time, a structure will appear, but it’s worth organising a notebook from the beginning. First, location and date need to be marked. And then comes a bit of creativity. We’ve seen some notebooks with a hugely elaborate system of symbols. For example, a triangle denotes a good line, and a square is an observation. A circle is something particularly noteworthy. It’s necessary to pull out the something that is key, so star it when you write down something you think will be very relevant. If I’m writing adventure articles I tend to use two symbols to distinguish between a route description and a personal impression.

In an ideal world, the notebook would be transcribed in the evening. Once I have the day’s thoughts on a computer (Google Docs or Pages backed up on Box), I’ll strike through the page so I know I can ignore it later.  

It’s particularly important to transcribe dialogue if you’re using written notes. But to reiterate, notebooks are not just for dialogue, they are for recording all your observations, sketches, structures, vignettes, action.

d/ On the phone. There is no substitution for a notebook and pen, but the smartphone has a place. On these little computers you can take notes, photographs, video; record interviews, as well as send emails, WhatsApp… oh and make phone calls. I use Evernote for all my notes because I can embed photos and audio in the ‘notebook’. A brilliant and free tool. Increasingly, I take a small Bluetooth keyboard with me so I can write full articles on my iPhone.    

e/ Dictaphone/recording voice. Some people swear by them; others see no need. We fall in the middle. It’s unlikely we’d use a dictaphone outside an interview situation (see below); you won’t find us walking down the road, nose above a black device saying: ‘Note to self…’.  As radio and podcasting become a more significant part of our work, however, we’ll be carrying a recording device. A Zoom H1 Handy Recorder is affordable, very light and podcast quality. I use the Zoom H4n Pro Handy Recorder. And let’s not forget smartphones that have some excellent voice-recording apps.  

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