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Tracking your notes: Margin shorthand

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BY TOM WATSON
As a writer who has edited copy for a living, both my own and the work of others, I know the value of using proofreaders’ marks to indicate changes to the text. Such notations provide a concise, efficient way to re-work a piece. I employ a similar concept when referencing pages of notes to help me build a story as well as develop or solidify the angle or slant of an article as it evolves into a publishable piece.
A bulk of my freelance writing involves frequent contributions to established columns or pages for websites and magazines. I have standardized my own style to be compatible with the format of these outlets, as the format usually doesn’t vary from issue to issue. My personal system works well with notes I’ve made from any information source. It is especially effective when used in conjunction with phone interviews.
Typically, I already have background information and rely on the interview for updates and personalized insights not found elsewhere. Having never learned formal shorthand, or even developed my own style that I could read once I hung up the phone, I started using simple abbreviations or even simply capital letters in the margin to mark each block of notes taken during the interview.
Every writer should be familiar with the five W’s of journalism. Those what, when, where’s, etc., are the nuts and bolts used to build a story. As I go through and re-write my notes for clarity, each snippet that offers information on one of those components gets a “Why” or “Who” beside it in the margin. Likewise, a historical tidbit or the need/availability of a photo is also marked — with simply an “H” or “P” in the margin. Basically, each segment of text in my notes, no matter how small or fragmented, is qualified as one component or another. When I go back through the pages I can focus on one component and get a sense of what I have and how that information can best be presented, alone or in conjunction with others.
If those W’s are the nuts and bolts of a story, a good quote is the lock washer of an article! It can add personal emphasis to a string of facts and other necessary information. And as important as it is to make sure you get everything down verbatim, it’s equally vital to get the source right, too. Even though I know who I will need to speak with and have their name and title on file before the interview begins, I always verify the spelling and the position of interviewees and write this information at the top of the note page. I give each a numerical reference so I can simply write that number down — in the margin — as each quote is recorded.
While this method is barely Journalism 101 stuff, it does work effectively for me. Another benefit of this method is that it helps me determine the best direction to take a story within the latitudes of the publication’s style or format. I try to add these margin notes as I am interviewing but rarely does the pace of the conversation slow down to match my speed of legible writing. Afterwards I can go back and quickly scan that left-hand column and see which categories seem to dominate the information. This has advantages as well. A piece with several history references might offer a unique perspective for a lead-in. An abundance of “who’s,” for example, might steer the emphasis of the piece towards the personnel behind a topic. Too few references may mean I need to seek more information to round out the piece.
A blessing and a curse of this method are tracking what you already used as well as what you still have to consider. I simply cross out those snippets of information as they are incorporated into the article. Seldom is everything used but at least every notation is considered. A problem can arise when there are so many components that you might overlook a key fact. Repeated scanning and double-checking down those margin notes can help. I often use a red marker to check off margin pieces I’ve already used. Sometimes those pages end up looking like a butcher’s apron.
Margin notes serve a purpose beyond categorizing information segments; they offer a skeletal glimpse of where the story might be taken. It may be seat-of-the-pants journalism in its crudest form, but it’s simple, direct and helps me put together a well-rounded article. You can’t ask for more than that. ♦
—A member since 1988, Tom Watson is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in Alaska, tourism, outdoor destinations and product reviews. He is also a guidebook author. Contact him at tom@tomwatsonwrites.com.
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