Writing By Hand Is Good For You

I can take notes faster with my laptop, they tell me.  I can write down everything you say.  I can transfer it onto a Quizlet. I can spellcheck.  Taking notes by hand is slow!

Yep.  I know.  You’re one hundred percent correct about all of those things.  And they add up to exactly why I don’t want you to take notes on your laptop (or even worse, take a picture of the board I spent the last twenty minutes filling with notes).

Pictured: my relationship to your laptop.

While I would love to believe that every word that comes out of my mouth echoes with brilliant life-altering wisdom and is worth preserving for posterity, the fact is that I, like all your favorite teachers, say a lot of garbled nonsense.  It’s part of the game. I go off on tangents. I remember something I wanted to tell you, but forgot to put in my notes. I repeat myself without meaning to. If it was a particularly rough night of grading, I might even forget which class you are and, by extension, which book you’re reading.  And you, my loyal little students, will obediently write down whatever I just said about The Faerie Queene without question, even though your class is reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and you’ve never heard of The Faerie Queene before now.

As we’ve discussed previously here at DATW, note-taking is a form of writing, and writing should take time.  That’s because clear writing comes from clear thinking, and clear thinking takes time.

Imagine that you have been given the task of analyzing the lyrics to a song.  A very fast song. Even better, a very fast song in a foreign language. Here, give this one a listen.  You might even be familiar with it.  (It starts at timestamp 3:19.) Try writing down what you think you hear.  What are you able to pick out?

After one listen, you’ve probably at least got “Figaro!”  If you do, you already know the central thrust of the song: it’s Figaro, the Barber of Seville, bragging about how great he is.

After several listens, you can probably pick out at least some of the following phrases, even if you weren’t sure how to spell them:

  • “Una la volta, per carità!” (One at a time, for heaven’s sake!)
  • “Figaro qua, Figaro là, Figaro su, Figaro giù.”  (Figaro here, Figaro there, Figaro up, Figaro down)
  • “Sono il factotum della città!” or at least “della città” (I am the city’s jack of all trades!)

There were a lot of other words in there (and way more if you go back and listen to the full aria), but if you got those couple of phrases?  You got it. Figaro is the go-to man for this city, and everyone wants him to everywhere all the time. That’s it. That’s what you really need to know.

How do you know you got the most important points?  Repetition and emphasis. You heard the words that got repeated several times and you heard the words the baritone hit with especially clear enunciation.  These are the same signals a teacher uses to let a student know it’s really time to write something down.

Now, if you could piece all of that together from an operatic baritone singing in Italian – and if you couldn’t, don’t worry, it comes with practice – there’s no reason you can’t figure out what the truly important parts of what your teacher says are.  Listen for repetition and emphasis. Write down, by hand, in your best handwriting, anything that fits those descriptions. Also anything she writes on the board. That’s probably important.

Later on, when you go back over your notes, think about what you wrote down.  Try to fill in some of the gaps yourself. Look at it alongside whatever you are reading, and look for how it connects and applies.  The first time you make one of those connections all by yourself, it feels amazing. You’ll feel like you can teach yourself. Eventually, you will be able to teach yourself.  That’s the point. That’s why taking good notes is an art form.

Treat it like an art form. Practice it. Take pride in it. Develop a style and take pride in that, too. It will instantly become more fun, and your notes will become the envy of your less artistic peers.

So no, dear student, don’t try to catch every single word I say.  You won’t learn anything you can use that way. Listen like it’s music, and write only what resonates with you.  You’ll remember the melody that way, and soon, you’ll be singing your own song.


AN IMPORTANT CAVEAT: Some of my students, and probably some of yours, have accommodation plans that entitle them to use of their laptops in class. I defer to psychologists on the medical necessity of such accommodations. My blog’s only concern is improving your writing, and for that purpose and that purpose only, I stand by what I have written.

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