Learned #8: Annotated

Take Note(s)


Welcome to Learned, a resource for all of us who are trying to learn how to make sense of what we’re learning. We’ve got links, we’ve got commentary, we’ve got a couple of pretty pictures. Let’s get to it.

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

This week, we’re learning how to take notes.

Taking notes is hard. Let me restate that: Taking effective, useful notes is hard. When I was in high school, my history teacher, Mr. Garland (who was, hands down, one of my favorite teachers) gave us notes to copy in class. He would lecture about the topic of the day while we busily copied the outline from the transparency to our notebooks. It was time consuming, hard, and (sorry, Mr. G) not the best way of taking notes.

Unfortunately, it took me a long time to find a better way. And, now that I’m in school again (Go Team Leicester...uh, what’s the mascot again?) I wanted to make sure I had a methodology for taking notes that would be effective, practical, and, most important, using skills I already had.

Back in high school, when I was struggling to take effective notes, I was told to make up symbols or abbreviations like using “w/“ and “w/o” for “with” and “without” respectively. (Not unlike a lot of more-recent advice.) And then I got pointed towards shorthand, which I found interesting, almost like a form of code.

But true shorthand, like the Pitman or Gregg methods, is an alternate form of writing - it uses different shapes for the letters of the alphabet with their own rules form combining letters, abbreviating words, and omitting punctuation - and it requires study and dedication.

And, as a high school student, I could barely be bothered to take notes, much less learn an alternative method of writing to do so.

Fast forward twenty-five years or so. I suppose I could learn a form of shorthand, but...why? I do everything on the computer these days, mainly because I can type faster than I can write (even with shortcuts) and once written, typed text is much, much easier to read than my penmanship.

Exhibit A for the Defense: My recent hand-written notes on John Anderson’s Active Control of Thought model for a class I’m taking. If you can figure out what my notes say, do me a favor and let me know?

I realized that I already had the perfect note-taking tool system in the form of a mark-up language* called Markdown.

I love Markdown. It’s basically a system of formatting a document while you type that is baked into a lot of writing and note-taking apps. Apps I already have and use everyday like Bear and Day One. In other words, it’s very, very easy to create lists, line breaks, lengthy quotes, and hyperlinks with only a few keystrokes while typing my notes as I normally would.

Instead of having to go back and re-write my notes from shorthand into normal text, or instead of having to try to decipher my own hand-writing, I have a system where I can format on the fly, as I’m writing down new information.

But, I only knew the basics. As I said, I use Bear and Day One a lot. Bear is where all my notes go and a lot of my rough-drafting is done. And Day One is where I keep my private journals, records, and everything else. Both use Markdown to provide neatly-formatted, easily-read entries, and I wasn’t using the tech in either app enough to be able to take notes in real time.

Not to mention that there are some things Markdown just doesn’t do. It’s not a form of shorthand, after all, so there is no capacity for abbreviating words or otherwise compressing lengthy pieces of information into smaller chunks. For that, I would have to delve into the world of macros and text-expanders, but that’s a different article.

I decided that I would need to suss out my other favorite form of notes - the cheat sheet - to make sure I had all the bells and whistles locked down. I found a couple of good ones, like this one on GitHub and this one from Wikipedia. Which means I can now get started on the project I’ve been avoiding all afternoon: watching a video lecture and taking some notes.



How do you take notes? Do you prefer paper and pen or a laptop and mouse? Do you record your notes? Publish them? Write them up and then never look at them again? Got any advice?

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*The term Markup Language comes from print publishing, where an editor will mark-up documents with specific symbols that tell the writer what to revise or format differently. Thus, in programming, a markup language tells the computer how to display the text correctly for the reader.

What We’re Reading:

Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal

by Alexandra Johnson

Leaving a Trace is an oddity in my collection of books. I don’t normally care for books that purport to tell you how to do something; I prefer books that are one person’s story or example of how they did something.

But this book was recommended to me at a time when I was struggling to turn a decade’s worth of old journal entries into something more. Although I decided to keep that project private, reading the book and doing the exercises contained therein helped me figure out how to write better for myself.

I, like a lot of writers, I think, get too wrapped up in trying to figure out how something is going to sound to the audience - is it going to make sense? Is it going to evoke the correct emotion? Is it going to engage them enough to want to finish (and then read the next) book? And so on.

But, Ms. Johnson’s book taught me how to think about the things I wanted to remember and what kind of stories about myself I want to read someday. The book taught me how to find the things that were important to me so that my journal entries were more than, “I went to the store. I bought milk.”

If you’re looking to start, or resume, keeping a journal of any kind, this is a valuable book to keep in your toolbox.


I'm Joel.  I've got a website.  Another website.  And a twitter.  And an instagram, too.  Sometimes, even a byline.

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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Photo by Simson Petrol on Unsplash

Today’s post was all about taking notes on the computer, but there are still lots of reasons why you should write on paper.

Writer Patrick McLean argues that the critical part of his brain gets distracted by his penmanship, leaving him free to write without judgement. Author Jenny Bravo agrees.

Lifehacker suggests that writing is better for learning new information - like vocabulary words - because by concentrating on how to write it down, you are in fact focussing on the new information. It also forces you to slow down, again aiding in concentration. The Guardian concurs.

But what to write? Bullet-journaling is a popular form of daily meditation and focus for many people. By doing their organizing offline, in a journal, they can be creative, free of constraint, and other people’s delineators.

Similarly, the commonplace book seems to be making something of a resurgence. Similar to a hand-made, individual almanac, the purpose of a commonplace book is whatever you want it to be.

Neither of these are new ideas: The Chinese call it a “biji” and the Italians a “zibaldone.” Not to mention journal, logbook, travelogue, and the good old diary.

Following Up:

Back in Issue 4, I talked about learning to draw. Or, more accurately, about wanting to learn to draw better. This week, I came across this post on Lifehacker, wherein cartoonist for The New Yorker, Jason Adam Katzenstein, walks Nick Douglas through some drawing exercises.

Katzenstein advises Douglas to draw with his whole arm rather than his wrist, a technique which seems to level-up Douglas’s skill in the space of an afternoon. I’ve applied it to my own drawings and seen a similar improvement. Who would have thought?

Random Fact:

Photo by Sebastian Molinares on Unsplash

Sloths extremely slow digestion means that they do not get fat. By the time they’re ready to poop, every possible fat has been broken down by their bodies. Ah, envy, thy name is Sloth.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy, learn something.