Tips for developing note-taking skills (plus definition)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 22 November 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Note-taking is a useful skill that people use throughout school, university and work. It requires significant discipline and lots of practice to perfect your note-taking abilities and better determine what information to include in your notes. Learning some note-taking tips can help you improve this attribute and utilise it in your profession. In this article, we discuss what note-taking skills are and outline tips for developing your note-taking abilities.

What are note-taking skills?

Note-taking skills are the attributes that help you concisely record crucial information so you can recall it later. Several professions require good note-taking abilities, including interviewers, journalists, transcribers, crime scene investigators and researchers. Note-taking abilities allow you to listen to information while recording the key points, which requires excellent multitasking.

Related: How to become a journalist

Tips for developing your note-taking abilities

Below are some tips you can use to develop your note-taking:

1. Prepare beforehand

Make sure you prepare before leaving for your interview, meeting, class or any other situation that requires you to take notes. To do this, read all the pre-assigned materials, such as meeting agendas or interview questions. Additionally, ensure you're familiar with the topic so you know what to expect. Completing this preparation helps reduce your stress levels and makes you feel more confident, which may improve your ability to take accurate notes.

It's also beneficial to prepare any materials you may need, such as pencils, notebooks, pens, sticky notes, highlighters and your laptop. Additionally, create a list of what you hope to gain from the situation to guide your note-taking. These notes form the first part of your note-taking document, ensuring you remain on track when writing down key information.

Related: Meeting minutes vs. notes: definitions and examples

2. Determine the vital information

Note-taking involves creating a summary of an event's critical information and questions rather than recording a verbatim transcript. With this in mind, try to identify the key things that are happening, as opposed to focusing on granular details, and record these in your notes. You can practise your ability to determine crucial information by reading a novel or watching a TV series and making notes so you can explain to someone else what's happening. For instance, you may want to focus on the characters and setting, alongside any obstacles the characters face and what they do to overcome them.

3. Eliminate distractions

Removing distractions is another useful way of improving your note-taking abilities, as concentration is vital for taking fast and accurate notes. Consider turning off your phone and disabling any alerts that may come through your laptop. Also, close any unrelated applications or resources on your computer that may distract you. If you're in a group environment, ensure you sit next to someone who isn't likely to talk or distract you throughout the presentation or meeting.

4. Structure your notes

Use headings, subheadings and numbered lists to organise your notes. Headings allow you to separate information into topic areas so you can find information more quickly when you want to review it at a later date. To help you distinguish between major and minor points you may want to consider using a numbering system. This allows you to quickly identify which information to look at first when revisiting your notes.

Related: How to study effectively (with steps, benefits and tips)

5. Write phrases rather than full sentences

To improve your note-taking abilities, try writing phrases instead of full sentences. Ensure you only record the keywords that are necessary to understand the main points. This means avoiding writing down filler words, such as 'a' and 'the'. When you do this, you reduce your chances of falling behind and forgetting to record the most prominent information.

6. Forget spelling and grammar

It's normal to make spelling and grammatical errors when taking notes due to the fast-paced nature of this discipline. To enhance your note-taking attributes, avoid correcting these mistakes during the note-taking process as you may forget to record something. As long as you can understand the word or sentence, spelling and grammar are irrelevant when taking notes.

Related: What are grammar errors? With 12 common mistakes to look for

7. Go digital

Consider using your laptop to take notes instead of writing with a pen and paper. Going digital allows you to type notes faster, making it easier for those who are new to note-taking. Using a laptop also allows you to edit and add to your notes later, which might be challenging if you're writing your notes by hand and you don't leave space to make these changes on your notepad. If you have pre-assigned materials on your laptop, you can also add notes directly to the document, which can help keep your notes organised.

Related: How to manage digital projects efficiently in 11 steps

8. Improve your listening and reading skills

Improving your listening skills ensures you pay attention to others while they speak and interpret what they're saying. By taking the time to listen more closely to others, you improve your chances of recording all the key things they mention during the event. Moreover, good reading skills allow you to process a text, understand its meaning and integrate it with your existing knowledge. These skills are vital if you're taking notes from a written argument rather than a person.

Related: How to improve your active listening skills

9. Enhance your handwriting

When taking notes by hand, ensure your handwriting is readable so you can easily consult your notes at a later date. Your handwriting is likely to worsen during long writing stints as your hand tires, so try to practise writing quickly while maintaining legibility to prevent this. Also, if you decide to use a computer to take your notes, ensure you use a legible font.

10. Use abbreviations

Consider using symbols and abbreviations for words, phrases or names you frequently use while note-taking. Abbreviations help increase your note-taking speed so you can follow what the speaker is saying more easily. When using abbreviations, use them consistently so you remember what they mean. To help with this, consider creating a list of common abbreviations that you can refer to when needed. Some useful abbreviations to consider include:

  • p for page

  • pp for pages

  • e.g for for example

  • i.e for that is

  • info for information

  • q for question

11. Write in your own words

To effectively take notes from a written source, try to write what you read in your own words. This helps improve your ability to recall the information you've recorded. To do this, summarise and paraphrase everything except any critical information that requires exact wording, such as key quotes or figures.

12. Use concept maps and diagrams

Consider supplementing your notes with concept maps and diagrams to better record information. Drawing diagrams or pictures can help you understand concepts that might be challenging to quickly record in your notes. For instance, you may draw a pie chart to represent the different factors regarding a speaker's decision and their relative strengths. You can then add more in-depth explanations later.

Concept maps are diagrams that allow you to depict suggested relationships between various concepts. To create one, begin in the middle of the page with a central idea and add further points or ideas in the form of branches. You can then add branches to previous branches if there's a correlation. Additionally, use words and arrows to show the links between the various parts of the map. Furthermore, consider colour coding the diagram to demonstrate the links between the different points and grouped information.

13. Leave spaces for missing information

If you're taking notes by hand and you miss information, leave some space and continue writing. This allows you to find out this information and fill in the gaps later. Doing this means you can add more information without causing a mess and reducing your notes' legibility.

14. Code your notes

To take more effective notes, consider using colours and symbols for better structure and emphasis. For instance, you may use colours to demonstrate different themes and approaches, highlight major sections and underline main points and areas that require elaboration. Using colour is also helpful when linking ideas or information by topic.

In terms of symbols, consider using circles or stars to identify key information and differentiate between definitions, examples or general background information. Additionally, you may want to create your own code and include it at the top of the page. These processes often require time and concentration, so try to add colours and symbols after you've finished taking notes.

15. Be consistent

When taking notes, ensure you pace yourself and gather information consistently throughout the presentation, meeting or talk. Some people may wait for the summary at the end of a talk before they begin taking summative notes. This approach may affect the quality of your notes and relies on your memory to add more details at a later date.

Related: How to write meeting notes: essential steps

16. Revise your notes

After writing your notes, read over them shortly afterwards. When doing this, consider writing them again more neatly or in a different order to improve their comprehension. For instance, if you plan on sharing them with others, rewriting them with a more coherent structure and in complete sentences can make it easier for others to understand them. Moreover, revising your notes helps you retain this information for longer.

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