Confession: I don’t take notes

Here’s a fact about me and my writing process that I have long hidden from teachers and peers: I don’t take notes. Ever.

I remember way back in sixth grade when my shame first came to light. In my school district, you attended K-5 at one elementary school (and how I wanted to stay there forever), then there was a separate school for sixth grade, a junior high school for seventh and eighth, and the high school. Why the sixth grade gets its own building has never been perfectly clear to me; I suppose it helps keep the junior high kids from beating on the sixth graders, just as separation keeps the high schoolers from giving the junior high kids the beatings they so thoroughly deserve. (I found high school to be, all for all, a lovely experience, but junior high was the pit of despair.) In any event, in sixth grade they were forever telling us that things had changed and that school was becoming a different animal. One of the major aspects of that, they stressed, was taking notes.

The note taking was very, very dear to their hearts. Everyone was required to have a three ring binder with separators for each class. They’d check to see that we had our binders incessantly. Some teachers physically checked our notes, which was problematic for me: I hated taking the notes. It felt artificial and forced, largely because it was. That would have been fine if I actually got anything out of the notes. But instead, they actively got in the way of my learning. The inevitable result would be that, as I worked as a busy little stenographer, I wouldn’t be mentally present for the actual lesson. I would be so intent on getting everything the teacher was saying and writing on the board that I would fail to actually understand. I’m someone who has pretty good recall, and particularly when I have actually made the mental connections that an instructor is asking me to. For me, that’s always been a far more reliable way to learn than to try to piece together what the point was from notes after the fact.

This dynamic has remained with me ever since– through high school, undergrad, my MA, and now in my PhD. Luckily, at the grad school level, no one has been giving me a hard time about it. But I still do feel a bit alienated in that my learning style is so different from many of those around me. My peers generate an incredible amount of notes, whether in informal jotting and personal shorthand or in formal systems like outlining or mind mapping. I’m glad it works for them; it just doesn’t work for me. There’s also an aesthetic element to this, at least when it comes to books. Whenever I borrow a book from a colleague, they’re inevitably marked up with highlighting, marginalia, and notes. It hurts my soul to see books so defaced! (Even though I recognize the perfect legitimacy and personal utility of this for others.) And I have a special distaste for those who mark up library books in this way. Again, if a passage or insight found in a book is worthwhile to me, it will either imprint on my brain, along with a general idea of where that part is found, or it won’t.

That extends to the production of texts. I have attempted to use outlines and similar tools in composition, but it just doesn’t work. The way that I write is… I write. My composing style is as idiosyncratic as anyone else’s, but it all happens internal to the document. I can’t plan a document outside of starting to write it, and that’s true of a 250 word blog post or a 30 page academic article. (Generally, I write out various ideas with some idea of where they have to go in the finished product and arrange them accordingly, and I usually work from the middle out.) This means that a lot of productivity software is useless to me. I have Scrivener, and I use it sometimes simply for the ease with which I can access PDFs and use them to split screen as a I write. But mostly, it’s just Microsoft Word, which I am one of the only human beings alive to genuinely like, apparently.

My suspicion is that this no-note-taking aspect of my persona as a writer is nature, not nurture. I certainly feel like an alien when I observe my peers and their note taking. If nothing else, it doesn’t stop me from being prolific. I write 10,000-12,000 words in a typical week, between my blogging, academic work, and personal writing, with weeks of 15,000 or more words not uncommon. As for quality, others will have to judge.

2 Comments

  1. This describes my proclivities almost exactly — both the notes and the inability to outline.

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