Tips from a Writing Pro

How should you take notes when researching a book or novel?

Jonathan Baldie

Jonathan Baldie

Apr 21, 2020 — 3 mins read
Photo by <a href="" target="_blank">David Travis</a> on <a href="" target="_blank">Unsplash</a>

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

For me, note-taking is one of the most fun parts of writing books. It combines reading, analysis, organisation, and composition. While not all writers plan their work, the most successful ones use planning and note-taking extensively.

In this article, I'd like to show you my method for note-taking, in the hopes that it will help you do the same for your writing work, whether you're predominantly a fiction or nonfiction writer. I expect you to become an expert note-taker!

But first, I think it's important to explain why we take notes. Almost every successful writer I have come across does some form of planning or research before they start drafting. They rarely jump headfirst into any project.

I spend months reading books, watching documentaries, and taking notes because they help me to clarify my thoughts on the topic I want to write about. If I neglect to do this, I might find myself in a dead-end with no way out.

Planning and note-taking allow me to analyse what I've learned on a topic, organise my notes into a viable plan for a book, and build an outline. It's like the bones for the skeleton of my book, and that's why it's so fundamental.

My approach to note-taking

  1. I usually have a long list of books in my TBR (to-be-read pile), and at any given time you can find me reading one of them. As I'm reading on my Kindle account or in Apple Books, I'm using the highlight feature judiciously.
  2. The books I read aren't always on the same topic, but I generally stay on certain themes. For instance, I may be on a streak of reading books on the writing craft, or on history. This can sometimes spur new ideas.
  3. If I am focused on a certain topic for one of my book ideas, I will have an outline document somewhere on my computer and iPhone so it's always accessible. Any relevant notes get copied into this document.
  4. The time I spend on note-taking can vary from days to weeks to months, but I prefer to err on the side of safety. I don't want to write useless rubbish, after all. I like spending long amounts of time thinking about a topic.
  5. If you're a fiction writer, then note-taking can serve a dual purpose: first, for understanding what you're writing about, particularly where background knowledge is essential, and second for your novel's outline.
  6. I use a few different types of software for taking notes: Slack, Ulysses, Trello, iAWriter, and Apple Notes. It doesn't matter which software you use, as long as you find it easy and effective to work with. It's your choice.
  7. When I have taken enough notes and filled up enough of my outline, only then do I consider starting the draft. By this point I am so excited and so full of energy, the drafting stage is an incredibly fun and productive time.

I hope that this guide has helped you to clarify your thoughts on note-taking. It is not rocket science, but it is something you should take seriously. Everything out there is material you can use for your next book, so make use of it!

note-taking outlining planning

Please check out The 24 Laws of Storytelling, my book that explores the principles that make some books and movies great and explains why others fail. By reading my book, you’ll gain the same strategies used by master storytellers such as Stephen King, Christopher Nolan, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and many more. Pick up your copy today.

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