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How Better Note Taking Can Improve Your Travel Writing

by C Noah Pelletier Jun 26, 2013
In this new series, writing coach Noah Pelletier lifts the curtain on his process and work with students in the MatadorU Travel Writing course.

I have this recurring dream. It goes like this: I’m walking through a flat, green park when out of the woods comes a pack of seedy-looking youths. As they approach me, it’s obvious they’re up to no good.

    1. “Whaddya got?” one of them says.

I say, “I’ve got a little cash.”

“Gimme that,” the one says, “…and the notebook.”

Reaching into my pocket, I pull out a twenty, unfold the bill so it’s flat, and hold it straight out in front of me — then let go. The money drifts down like a leaf, and I am flat-footed running down the trail, notebook in hand, before it hits the ground.

A few things about this scenario jump out at me. First, the habit of carrying a notebook is so ingrained that I literally do it in my sleep. Next is the notion that ideas recorded in my notebook are too valuable to surrender. On a more flippant note, I’m proud of how witty my character responds in the face of adversity. Under normal circumstances, pointing out what is or isn’t witty is a no-no, but in the spirit of confession, I’m placing my writer tricks on the table for display.

* * *
This article began as a few sentences jotted into a notebook. Once a week, I spend two hours walking with pen and pad in the Nordpark, a large park across the street from my home in Düsseldorf. This is “my place,” as they say, and here I collect ideas on writing which I share with MatadorU travel writing students. I come here expecting to do a good deal of writerly purging.

The other day, for instance, I was walking the perimeter of a large grass sports field. There was a pickup soccer game across the way, and I made a connection: If I’m not a writing teacher, maybe I’m a writing coach. I was hung up on what to tell people. I knew a lot of teachers, most of which had masters, and I wasn’t comfortable telling them, “Hey, I’m a teacher too. It’s that great?” But a coach was something else. Coaches were respected and sporty.

Thinking like a coach, I decided the lessons in MatadorU weren’t so different from the rules of soccer. Now, I’m no expert in soccer, but I know that if you swat the ball with your hand (assuming you’re not the goalie) someone’s going to call you out. “Hey, hold it!” they’ll say. “You can’t do that.” If you don’t know the rules, you’ll think this person’s being unfair.

My duty as a travel writing coach, I think, is to help students take the lessons they’ve learned — what they should already know — and apply them to real life.

If you’re a writer wanting to get published, it might help to think of Matador Network as a game. (You can substitute Matador for any publication, but since we’re here…) To become a player in this game, knowing the rules is a start, but just as you can’t get good at soccer by simply watching it, writers must practice writing the same way athletes run drills at practice.

I know of no better practice for emerging writers — or any writer for that matter — than note taking. But are you taking notes effectively? How do you know?

7 tips for better note taking

Habit – If you haven’t developed the habit of carrying a notepad or journal with you and writing in it every day, your note taking skills are probably not up to par. As mentioned above, set aside time each week dedicated to practicing taking notes.

What to write – In the beginning, note taking is about exploring our basic observational instincts: People on the street. A colorful flower. Anything that catches our eye. But as we develop into a critical note taker, we go a step further, recording details and then asking, “Why did that grab my attention?” Once this “why” becomes clear, the “what” also starts to become apparent. Because what we focus on is a reflection of us.

Review – Once you’ve made a habit of taking notes, it’s important to go back and review what you’ve written. I review my notes once a week (start Monday, review Sunday).

Analyze – After reviewing what you wrote, jot down your thoughts. Was it really like that? Was it worse? Was it better? Do you notice any patterns? Any exaggerations or distortions? Hold yourself to the truth. Exaggeration is an immature attempt to make up for a lack of self-worth.

The ‘junk drawer’ effect – You probably have a drawer in your house full of random yet valuable items, aka a junk drawer. Write enough and your notebook will become a junk drawer of ideas. This creates problems. You’ll remember a passage from months back, which is perfect for a story you’re working on, but after flipping through page after page, alas, the passage is nowhere to be found.

Go pro – A pro is organized. After reviewing your notes each week, you might transcribe and arrange them by category. A great example of this is in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up. Sections from his notebook are arranged under headings like “anecdotes,” “conversations and things overheard,” “feelings and emotions (without girls),” “descriptions of girls,” “jingles and songs,” “nonsense and stray phrases,” and so on.

Tie your identity to note taking – I attended a wine festival over the weekend and met a guy — let’s call him Jim. Jim had flown over from the States to visit Cesar, a mutual friend. We’d just been introduced when Cesar turned to Jim and said, “Watch what you say to this guy! He’ll pull out his little notepad and put you in one of his stories.” Jim seemed confused. He turned to me. I was preparing to offer a rebuttal, but when I opened my mouth, no sounds came out.

How do you take notes? Have a question about note taking or any other aspect of travel writing you want to ask the writing coach? Find him in the comments below, and on Twitter with the hashtag #noahsnotes.

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