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How to Take Field Notes When Traveling

How to take field notes when traveling — If I want to be able to gather enough information to write about in this travel column — a.k.a. blog — daily, I know that I need to take good field note throughout the day, everyday. To do this, a good note taking strategy is needed. This [...]

How to take field notes when traveling —

If I want to be able to gather enough information to write about in this travel column — a.k.a. blog — daily, I know that I need to take good field note throughout the day, everyday.

To do this, a good note taking strategy is needed. This travel tip shows my strategy — I am not sure if it is good, but it works.

Taking notes in Petra

Taking notes in Petra

Taking notes are easy to do in private circumstances — like when riding on a bus, sitting in a park, or alone in a hotel room. In these circumstances, I just whip out the little note pad that I always keep in either the back pocket of my pants or breast pocket of my shirt, and take my notes.

This does not need any sort of explanation: I get an idea, a thought, or remember something that I may want to write about, and I jot down a mnemonic aid. Straight forward, simple.

The most difficult part of this type of note taken is finding the impetus to take out the notebook and write. When I first began writing this travelogue, I thought that I could remember a lot of details without recording them.  I thought that my crystal clear thoughts in the present would remain as such later on when I wanted to write them into a story.

I thought wrong.

I found that even the most vivid of thoughts can easily disappear in the mists of time. All too often I have jumped onto my computer and forgotten what it was I really wanted to write about earlier in the day.

So I take notes. I take notes on even the most simple of conversations, events, or ideas. If I even consider writing about something for a mere glimmer of a moment, I take out the notebook and write it up.

Sometimes I feel like a robot.

Taking notes in a comfortable, open setting does not require any special strategy — as you just take out your notebook and write away — but taking notes IN THE MOMENT an event is occurring is much more difficult.

It is a challenge to write notes as you are talking to someone. Believe me, it feels odd to write down someone’s words as you are having a conversation with them. But it is necessary to do so in order to take good notes. If I blunder about while taking these notes, it is going to weird out the person I am talking to.

I have weirded out many people by recording their words.

The trick, I have found, to taking good IN THE MOMENT notes is to do them so obviously and with such confidence that it seems normal. If you can take notes and make it seem as normal as white rice, you will rarely weird out anyone, and you will have free reign to record whatever you want, when you want to.

Taking travel notes is much like a good photographer taking pictures of people. If you watch a good photographer in action, you will see them taking pictures, but their actions will not seem conspicuous or obtuse. You will not often notice a good photographer working because they are often able to take their photos so naturally that it just seems like a normal part of the ebb and flow of existence. An experienced photographer has this sheen of invisibility about them which comes from being transparently up front and confident about what they are doing.

How do photographers get good photos? They act natural and don’t make a big deal of their work. They just do it — business as usual.

Excerpt from Daniel Kalder’s Strange Telescopes:

“Suddenly Dmitri was right in there, photographing the curious mother/ son relationship. He got a good picture of Vadim’s mum placing a loving hand on her son’s cheek as she encouraged him to take his medicine. Miraculously, neither of them seemed to notice that this six-foot-plus bearded giant was zipping around them, snapping the intimate scene. It was a remarkable talent of his, this ability to somehow vanish, as he stood right in front of you sticking a camera lens up your nose.”

The same goes with taking field notes while in conversation. I have found that if I take them naturally and confidently, nobody will question me — I will become as transparent as a good photographer.

Like photography, part of recording conversations comes from not making a big deal of what you are doing. To do this, you must maintain eye contact and be able to write notes without looking at your pencil or paper. You will never see a good photographer messing around with the settings on their camera when they are shooting, nor will you see a photographer looking AT their camera, as the camera as a device they see through, rather than look at.

I have found that if I break eye contact while taking notes– even for a moment — and look at my notebook, the person I am talking to will follow your gaze. The moment will then be broken and a duality would be created between the moment and its recording.

. . . and you may weird out the person you are speaking with, just as a photographer would if he treated his camera as some suspicious, abstract device.

“What are you writing,” I have often been asked when my note taking procedure was a little less polished.

If you maintain eye contact with the person you are talking to, you can essentially lock in their attention and show that you are actively in the conversation. You can do anything with your hands if you are 100% active in the conversation. In this way, taking a note will become as natural as taking a drink of water.

When in a conversation in which I may want to jot down some notes, I keep my notebook and my pencil in my hands or on the table in front of me — completely obvious and in plain view. I never look at it. If I get caught looking at my notes, I have already made them unnatural, abnormal, something to gawk at and question. It is not normal behavior to take notes in casual conversation, but I can make it seem normal by acting as if what I am doing is a not big deal. If I write notes as if it is my job to do so — it is my job — then I will do them naturally. . . like a good photographer.

—————–

I have good conversational recall — I have worked very hard to cultivate it. I am not near Truman Capote’s much toted 95% recall, but I have the impression that I can usually remember 70% of conversations that I make an asserted attempt to remember. If I take a few mnemonic notes, I am confident that I can collect close to 90% of the pertinent information from a story as it was initially spoken.

I have often wondered how travel writers remember the dialogue that they record, and have been occasionally prone to thinking that they just make it all up. But I have found that it is very possible to train yourself to be able to reconstruct full conversations from a few sketchy notes.

Coming up with a good note taking strategy is part of the WORK of travel writing.  It has taken me years of hard effort to cultivate the ability to reproduce spoken conversation in writing, and I am nowhere close to being as efficient and accurate as I would like to be. To assist my memory, I know that I must take notes. Below is how I handle my note taking equipment.

Travel Writing Gear

Travel Writing Gear

Travel Writing Gear

This is the equipment that I use to take field notes. It is not flattering, and it all probably costs under $2. My note taking rig is made up of a cheap pocket sized notebook, a larger medium sized yellow pad of paper, and a whole bunch of mini pencils (that can be taken from various sources for free).

Note taking strategy:

I keep the spiral notebook in the rear pocket of my pants or breast pocket of my shirt. When I am in a comfortable situation that I can take notes in easily, I just remove the notebook and write. I use the bottoms of the pages as markers of where I am and the date so that I can keep it organized. So if I am in Egypt, I will write this at the bottom of each page that I write notes on from this country. In this way, I can just flip to the Egypt pages and read my notes.

Fold paper into a small rectangle

Fold paper into a small rectangle

For circumstances that require more clandestine or quicker note taking methods, I rip out a piece of paper and fold it up into a neat little rectangle. I make sure that the paper is folded enough times to be able to write on it within the palm of my hand, but not so much that there is a lack of space to write on.

Roll paper around mini pencil

Roll paper around mini pencil

I then roll the paper up around my mini pencil . . .

Keep paper and pencil in your pocket

Keep paper and pencil in your pocket

. . . and then store it in the small pocket of my jeans.

In this way, I can whip out the paper and pencil, take a quick note using the palm of my hand as a writing surface, and then shoot it back into my pocket very quickly. I always know where my paper and pencil are because they are wrapped together and kept in a location where they are difficult to misplace and always in close range of my hands.

After a day of note taking, I return to my computer and write everything up verbatim in word pad, along with my location and date. I do not know if I will ever use many of the notes that I take, but I have them read for potential use.

“I take notes all day long wherever I am. I can be seen with a mini pencil stuck behind an ear and a pad of paper in my back pocket at all times. I write down events, experiences, thoughts, dialogue, mnemonic jottings. I often do not intend to do anything in particular with most of these notes — and most of the time I don’t — but having them means that I have them for potential use.

A traveler’s notes are like intersections on a path: you will not take every intersection that you come upon, but by stopping for a moment and looking to where it leads often provides a broader impression of where you are going.

Notes have the tendency of sticking themselves together like the pages of a porno mag. One set of notes combine with another, which is beefed up through memory before being combine with more notes. You can never know the context that a random jotting could eventually end up in.” -Buffer for Travelogue

Cultivating a good note taking strategy is difficult. I am still practicing every day. But I know that good notes lead to better writing. The more notes I have, the more Paths these stories can take.

Read more travel tips

Filed under: Blogging, Travel Tips, Travel Writing

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3422 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

10 comments… add one

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  • Tyler July 13, 2009, 12:51 pm

    Wade,

    Two things…

    Are you sure about the eye contact thing? I would think that maintaining eye contact with a person in a conversation while taking notes without looking would seem kind of unnatural and creepy. From what I’ve experienced, most people are oblivious to eye contact anyway. They’re eyes are usually darting about the room as they speak and they really aren’t paying attention to whom they’re speaking.

    Also, have you hear about a note taking and word processing program called Scrivener? Supposedly it’s designed specifically for journalists and authors. It might be irrelevant since neither you or I have Apples, but it might be worth your while to at least have a look.

    http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.html

    And here’s a good review of it that I found as well…
    http://scriptapart.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/scriveners-overview-the-best-crafting-tool-i-found-so-far/

    See ya,
    Tyler

    Link Reply
    • admin July 15, 2009, 5:29 pm

      Yeah, I could just be a creepy sort of fellow haha. Naw, it is all about acting natural. If you do this, then you can take notes or just about anything else without seeming too far out of place haha. Well . . .perhaps.

      I will have to check out if there is a Windows version of this note taking program. Sounds pretty good.

      Good travels to you, man,

      Wade

      Link Reply
  • Samuel Peterson July 15, 2009, 11:16 am

    Your give the tips & tricks that are very useful for travel writers, your blog is very nice & all the post are very interesting.

    Link Reply
  • Bob L July 18, 2009, 10:37 am

    Hmmmm, as usual I will put in my 1.5 cents worth.

    For paper, for me, nothing can beat standard sized paper, folded in half, then again and again until you have a piece of paper that fits nicely in a back or shirt pocket. Folding it makes it stiffer, and you can write the short way or the long way, whichever you like. And the paper can usually be gotten for free, with some advertisement or something on the back. If you really want it stiff for writing, put in a credit card type of thing in the folds.

    As for eye contact while writing, I agree with Wade, that it is important. Eye contact is a great tool, one that I have always wanted to learn to use properly. In my opinion: Intense eye contact can weird people out. Too little eye contact makes you look like you are not interested, or nervous. But the right amount, at the right time can draw in a subject (or intimidate them if that is what you want). The real experts can manipulate a situation to suit their desired results. Every situation is different….

    Bob L

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    • admin July 18, 2009, 7:40 pm

      Yes, it is my impression that using eye contact is a true art form, that can really be utilized if some attention was given to it.

      I have been trying to pay attention to which points in conversations — and in what conversations — I maintain and use eye contact. I have been interested to find that in casual conversation, where I act “as me,” I very rarely make strong eye contact. Though if I am interviewing someone, or listening intently to what they are saying, or am trying to get some information out of someone, I use eye contact as a way of delivering questions or of requesting more information. There is a beat and a rhythm to interviews, and eye contact can be used to keep the beat going, to escalate or deescalate the direction of the conversation.

      A lot of feeling and emotion are transferred through eye contact. It is my impression that humans best attribute is perhaps feeling rather than thinking. When I interview someone, I wish for them to feel as if they are in the spotlight and are performing a magnificent show . . . and that I am their completely devoted fan. Eye contact and active listening goes a long way towards trying to achieve this.

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  • Pierre August 4, 2011, 11:35 am

    Very interesting article, thanks Wade ! I think it might help me a lot ! The process I used in Iceland wasn’t good, I noticed it when I get home and read my notes. 70% was not interesting… But such things can’t be perfect at the first try, I think !

    And remember that you should never, NEVER nod or say “hum hum” when you’re listening to an Icelandic… Same thing for the little hit when you hug someone back there … !

    The more I’m visiting your site, the more I find interesting things… !
    Keep going ! :]

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard August 5, 2011, 9:21 am

      Hello Pierre,

      Here are some additional tips I’ve learned since publishing this page:

      1. I always record conversation, no matter how banal and insignificant it seems. Very few conversations are empty in the travel context, and most can be shown to show some aspect of a culture and a place. Even if I have no immediate plan for using a particular conversation, I still record and archive it for later reference. Conversation shows personal experience, and this is an optimal backup when writing about a topic. Conversation is also sometimes difficult to remember, so recording is necessary.

      2. Don’t record scenes and settings long hand. Look for a few quintessential aspects of a place and setting and just jot short notes. It is amazing how readily an entire scene can com back to you with only short mnemonic notation.

      3. Record your ideas, opinions, thoughts, status updates, as even though at the time it seems as if you will remember them forever these are some of the easiest memories to lose. If you have an opinion on something, put in in the notebook; if you feel a certain way, record it.

      4. Make lists of topics to write about. This is essential, as it is so easy to forget what it is that you even want to make into stories.

      I should have showed you my notebooks, I have such an insane system at this point is is almost ridiculous. Also, as you have noticed, I only use those little folded up pieces of paper in situations where I can’t carry a notebook (when I published this entry I was working on a farm and couldn’t be caught scribbling in a notebook). When not in these situations I keep a cheap stationary store notebook folded up in my back pocket.

      Keep up with the note taking, it is well worth it.

      Link Reply
  • Sergio Rodríguez November 5, 2013, 8:26 pm

    Really nice article, very interesting the way you take notes. It seems prety difficult to me to take notes while I am doing stuff, enjoying myself.

    Got to try harder!

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