Michael Bernstein: The 5 Ws of note-taking

Michael Bernstein is a lead software design engineer in the Windows Division. Over the past seven years, he has worked on Tablet PC programs, the Windows Vista Battery Meter, Windows Mobility Center, and Microsoft handwriting recognition technology. When he's not writing code, he's working in the garden, cooking over an open flame, reading philosophy … and taking notes.

Taking notes on a Tablet PC should be as easy as falling off a log. What could be easier? I've got a pen, I've got a flat surface, and the program even looks like binder paper! Software doesn't get any more intuitive than this.

At least, that's what I thought when I first got started with the Tablet PC, but I soon learned that there is much more to it. I have been a developer on the Tablet PC team for the past five years, and even now, I'm still learning how to take really effective notes. There's a world of difference between scribbling a few thoughts and recording notes that are really useful when you actually need them. Here are five questions to figure out if you are a true scribe or a wannabe.

Who's going to read your notes?

Before you set pen to paper (or ePaper), you've got to know who your audience is. I used to think this was simple: my notes are for me, right? Well, it's not so simple. Maybe I'm taking notes in a history lecture, so that I can read them at the end of the semester when I'm cramming for the final. These notes will never be typed up, but they do need to be legible and complete enough for me to make sense of them in three months. Perhaps I'm taking minutes in a business meeting, which I'll need to send out in typed form afterwards. This time, if I write really neatly, the handwriting recognizer save me some typing, so there's a good incentive to be clear. Sometimes, I find that I take notes just to help me listen better, and then throw them away afterwards. Using digital paper for this is ideal — your local trees salute you — and you don't have to be neat at all. Know who you're writing for.

Where are you taking notes?

Nothing says rude like hunching over a laptop and typing away in the middle of a conversation. "Oh, sure, he says he's taking notes, but I know about that Instant Messenger program he's got running. Besides, the clacking's getting on my nerves." Switch to a pen on a Tablet PC, and suddenly you're a model of attentiveness, peace, and posture. Your location and the people around you can make a big impact on note-taking. Small venues really lend themselves to working in ink, so that you can take notes and still be a part of the discussion. On the other hand, if you're working on a document in the middle of the airport, go ahead and type. You can't possibly be louder than the 24-hour news. Know where you're writing.

What are you writing about?

A picture is worth a thousand words, even when you're taking notes. Some kinds of notes can be taken down equally well with a pen or a keyboard, like a grocery list or an outline for your memoirs. Other notes are much more natural as drawings: a draft organizational chart, a sketch of your family tree, or the layout for your dream kitchen. As much as I like ink, I have to admit that there are even times when typing is superior, like when you are trying to keep up with your mile-a-minute psychology lecturer. Don't be afraid to switch in the middle if you've picked the wrong mode: many Tablet PCs are easy to convert between slate and laptop forms, and most note-taking software supports both ink and text entry. Know what you're writing.

When are you going to type these up?

This is a trick question, my friends. Five years' experience of digital note-taking has shown me that I hardly ever need to type up my notes. One of the Tablet PC mottos is "Think in Ink": Notes are usually better left as ink than converted to text. With meeting notes, lecture notes, outline notes, to-do lists, ink works just fine for all of them. If you do need to type them up, however, I suggest that you wait until you are all done with the note-taking session. Trying to convert ink to text while you are still taking notes will break your flow, so you might as well put it off until later. In a similar vein, don't use the TabletPC Input Panel (TIP) or another ink-entry utility to take notes; it will force you to convert every line of ink to text as you go, and trust me, and you won't be willing to let its mistakes pass without correcting them. Just take your notes in pure ink. Once you are ready to convert them, use the function in your note-taking software called "Convert Handwriting to Text" (OneNote, Journal) or something of the sort. Once you have the recognizer's draft, you can correct it; this is a perfect time to use the TIP or the keyboard. As usual, using the right tool for the right job at the right time makes everything go more smoothly. Know when you need typed text and when you don't.

Why are you still reading this?

Hopefully I've given you a few things to think about. Asking yourself a few questions up front about who your audience is, where you are writing, what your content will be, and when (if ever) you need to type your notes will make you a happier and more productive scribe. Next time, I'll go into more detail on what makes Microsoft OneNote and Tablet PCs a great combination. Until then, go take some notes!