Problem Solved: Note-Taking While Surfing Amazon

What do you do when you’re surfing Amazon and you want to keep records of your valuable findings, especially when you follow the serendipitous trail from topic to topic that is so typical of the Amazon “research” experience? You know how it is—you start off in single-minded search of a specific title and before long you’re cavorting through an endless array of tantalizing titles, completely unrelated to your immediate objectives, but somehow pertinent to other interests and projects.

Here’s a simple, low-tech solution that I use:

  1. Orient a few sheets of legal size paper (8 1/2″ x 14″) horizontally and fold them in half from left to right. The resulting dimensions are 5 1/2 inches along the top and bottom edges and 8 1/2 inches along the sides. You now have four “pages” on each sheet to write on. This should be ample space for any single note-taking session.
  2. On one sheet, with the folded edge on the left, write in capital letters a brief title (one to three words) for the first note you’re taking. This label should reflect the kind of note you’re taking, which will depend on the occasion for taking notes. In this example, you’re surfing pages on Amazon for books of interest. You’re guided to some degree by a definite purpose, but you’re also letting yourself trip along new pathways. Your first note, let’s say, is to be a list of titles on a related topic or theme. Or maybe it pertains to a project you have in progress. You write the theme or the name of the project in capital letters at the top and to the left.
  3. Write the date of your note-taking in the top right-hand corner of the sheet. This will be useful for arching and retrieval. [See below.]
  4. Use bullet points for each entry on your notes page. In our example, many of these entries will be titles of books found on Amazon, so you’ll be creating a bulleted list of titles. Suppose you’re looking for sources on SCIENCE AWARENESS. You come across a couple of promising titles. You scroll down to the Amazon section titled “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought,” where other titles are listed horizontally across the page, often with a navigation button for scrolling through several “pages” of items in this category. Since you’re looking for titles related to your theme, you work your way across the list and note as a separate bulleted item on your first notes page anything that you may want to pursue later. As you scroll across, however, you encounter an unlikely entry for a book of poems. It looks interesting. What do you do? At this point, create a new notes sheet like the first folded sheet and enter the title POETRY, then create a bulleted entry for the book of poems. At some point, if things go contrary to plan, you’ll click on one of these titles for more information, and you’ll be presented with additional titles that other customers have bought. This can go on endlessly. Your curiosity about the poetry book has take you to its main page, where, for some reason, you see a title about writing memoirs which, for some reason, interests you. Now you create a third notes sheet with an appropriate title, WRITING or WRITING: MEMOIR. (Note the utility of colons to punctuate designations for your notes pages). By a similarly haphazard process, you’re dazzled by yet another title, one about BOOKS & READING. And so it goes.
  5. Meanwhile, you find that you can’t resist peeking “Inside the Book” now and then. This is a great, but potentially hazardous, feature on Amazon. For a title on CARTOGRAPHY, a subject that came up in that serendipitous way so characteristic of Amazon surfing, you dip into the sample pages and start reading. Now your note-taking follows a different trajectory. You begin making a list of QUOTATIONS, each one with its own bullet point and the author’s name, book title, and page number. After the quotation and source information, you add in [brackets] a brief label for the quotation. Or something about the organization of a page is striking to you and you think it might be useful for one of your own writing projects. So you create a new notes sheet (same as before) and give it a label. This label will be the WORKING TITLE of your project. On the first page you draw in outline form a template that resembles the page layout in the book on cartography that you’re examining.
  6. As you collect notes sheets, take care to write the page number on each of the four “pages” of the sheet. Because the sheet is folded and you may collect a dozen or more of these sheets during a single note-taking session, you may have trouble—as you turn the pages—remembering the topic or theme of a particular notes sheet. In that case, write the label for that sheet at the top of each page. Continue making your bulleted list as before.
  7. During almost all of my own note-taking sessions, I end up creating a sheet for QUOTATIONS and one for PHRASES that eventually go into a database I keep for that sort of thing. This is useful in my writing, teaching, and public speaking.
  8. As note sheets accumulate, stack them in alphabetical order according to the labels you’ve given them. As you make entries you’ll be adding notes to one themed sheet at one moment, then another note to another themed sheet, then returning to a previous sheet, hopscotching around as topics intersect. Having your sheets in order will make it easy to find a particular one that is to receive a new entry at a later time in the session.

Some questions answered:

  1. “What counts as a note-taking session?” Because I date my notes, I consider any note-taking I do on a given day to be a single “session.” Sometimes this will be one stint of 90 minutes. Sometimes it will be 30 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes during lunch, another 45 minutes in the late afternoon, and so on. I simply add newly themed sheets and bulleted notes to existing sheets with the same date, picking up the process where I left off earlier in the day.
  2. “What should I do with the notes after each session?” At the end of the day, I have several options for filing my notes. Everything depends on time and timeliness. If one sheet of notes will be useful for a current project (during my next writing session for a book or article, for example), I’ll file that sheet where it will be ready to hand as soon as I’m back to work on that project. If a note sheet relates to a topic I’m researching, I archive that sheet in a folder designated and labeled for that project. For all of my note-taking, I generally think in term of projects and topics, so I have project files and topical files. My project-management protocol includes scanning some hard copy notes into files on my computer or directly into project management databases I use (for example, in Scrivener and in OmniOutliner Pro). So some notes will be archived in long-term files and others for near-term use, either as hard copies or in electronic format.
  3. “What’s so special about legal size paper?” This is a matter of preference. Feel free to use standard 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper if you prefer. I find the legal size, folded the way I do, provides ideal dimensions and page proportions for my handwriting and aesthetic sensibilities. I keep a sheaf of un-ruled, white, legal-size paper close by my desk just for this purpose. I can stash a few folded sheets in a large envelop if I’m traveling and plan to work. [Note: If you’re traveling and running low on paper, just tear the sheets in half along the folded line and label them individually by theme or project. This still leaves you with two sides to write on, which may be sufficient in a pinch when your sessions are short anyway.]
  4. “What are some alternatives (besides software) to using the folded legal-size sheets?” You can use smaller (or larger) sheets of paper. You can go as small as you like. But you need room for writing and for taking sufficient notes without thickening the stack of pages too greatly. Index cards provide another option. But 3″ x 5″ cards are too small, in my judgment. The 5″ x 8″ cards accommodate more note-taking, but in their typical orientation (long edges at the top and bottom, short edges on the sides) they just aren’t proportioned to my liking. One solution would be to write notes in two columns; another would be to turn the card into vertical (or “portrait”) position and take notes down the length, instead of across the width, of the card. The proportions of the writing space are key. I don’t care for anything too wide since it often results in wasted space on the right-hand side. Another option is some kind of notebook. See next point.
  5. “Why not use a Moleskine?” For paper notebook purposes, my favorite is the Moleskine. I use Moleskines for all sorts of note-taking. They are especially useful for writing lengthy notes on a single topic, first drafts of portions of essays, note-taking during a lecture, or outlining for a writing or speaking topic. I’ve written other posts about the uses of Moleskines. The size I use measures approximately 7 1/2″ x 10″. This is only a little larger than a folded sheet of legal size paper. So I can insert my legal paper note sheets into my Moleskines as need. The Moleskines have just the right amount of paper firmly stitched together between stiff covers to last during most of my travels. And all the pages are kept together. They have one drawback: because the pages are bound together, a miscellany of writings (characteristic of a chapbook) must be indexed for each Moleskine if entries are to be found when they’re most useful at a later time. Loose pages, like the ones described in this post, can be filed immediately into labeled folders. [Note: You could follow the same procedure with pages in a Moleskine, reserving each sheet (on both sides) for a single theme, topic, or project, then tear the sheets out for archiving according to their respective purposes. But this sort of defeats the purpose of having an attractive—and comparatively costly—bound notebook like a Moleskine. Nevertheless, to each his own!]
  6. “Why not just enter your notes electronically in the first place?” This is fine when it’s convenient. But it’s not always convenient. If you depend exclusively on your computer or iPad for note-taking, a great deal of valuable material will slip through your hands, never to be retrieved again. Also, it’s easier to move quickly from note sheet to note sheet on different topics for different projects if you have them in alphabetical order in a stack as you make entries back and forth.
  7. “Are there good software options that can be adapted to this same method?” Yes. For example, I use Scrivener to manage writing projects. Each Scrivener file is dedicated to a unique project. In a single file I can manage “folders” and “documents” (more or less the way playlists are organized in iTunes). So I can create a folder for “Dated Notes” and then add to that folder individual documents labeled with the date for notes taken on that date. So, following the scheme I’ve described in this post, I would open the “Dated Notes” folder in my Scrivener file for a specific project and create a document within that folder that is labeled with the current date. I would then enter my bulleted notes in that document. There are all sorts of advantages to using Scrivener for this sort of thing. But the same thing could be done with OmniOutliner Pro or some other similar software package. (I stay away from standard word processors, like MS Word and Pages, for this sort of thing. They aren’t effective project management tools, and word processing is handled very neatly in Scrivener.) I could write a separate post about how to use Scrivener for note-taking across projects during a single session of writing or note-taking. But the basic idea is simple: just keep each relevant Scrivener project open while doing your work, each with its own dated note-taking document open, and switch between files with simple keyboard strokes as you make entries. You replicate nearly exactly the process described in this post, but in electronic files instead of on paper.
  8. “What are the special virtues of using paper?” The chief virtue with real paper is that you can usually get your hands on some no matter where you happen to be. I like the physical process of writing by hand. I remember things better because they have a physical location that I associate with the notes I take (like being able to recall where a line of text appeared in a book I’ve read). And for some of us, “out of sight is out of mind,” and researchers can’t afford to be out of their minds!
  9. “What if I need more sheets for the same topic?” This seldom happens in my experience, but the solution is simple: add a sheet with the same designation and place it inside the first notes sheet on that topic.
  10. “Does this hack for note-taking while on Amazon have other applications?” Yes! The simple method I’ve described can be adapted for use anytime you find yourself pin-balling off of different topics. You may brainstorming, watching TV, or “listening” to your spouse recount the day’s events. Ideas for sundry projects are flooding your mind. This might be your solution. You get an idea for one project, then something else on another. Just note them down on separate sheets, properly labeled and titled. You’re watching your favorite sitcom and a character finally says something that is actually funny, useful, and memorable. Except that you probably won’t remember it, so it probably won’t be useful. Give it a label and write it down on one of those folded sheets of paper that you always have handy. Your spouse is re-gailing you with the woes of the day, or ticking off a long list of things to keep your weekend busy. As you think about more important things and write them down, the usual glazed look will be gone and you’ll appear to be taking her so seriously that you’re actually taking notes! Yes, the possibilities (and concomitant advantages) are endless. I use the technique to manage my daily and weekly To Do lists. It isn’t the only tool I use, but for especially complex stretches of time, I take a single folded sheet and put activity labels (“Errands,” “Calls,” “Home Projects,” “Computer Tasks,” “Email,” “Writing,” “Motorcycle Trip”) on each page, then note individual things that need doing. Because the categories are unrelated, I have one per page; that way I can have as many folded sheets as necessary and simply insert sheets between the pages of other sheets in random order. I tick items off for each category as they’re completed. I often plan my week that way.
  11. “Why do you write about these things?” I write about them because I’m interested in solving problems with organization and getting things done. I write about them because I then have a record of methods I’ve found useful and I can return to this record to fine-tune the technique and remind myself how it works (yes, I’m that old). I write about them to be of help to other anal-retentive researchers. And I write about them hoping that if you have something to contribute on the topic you’ll leave a comment that will be helpful to me and other readers!

Additional Resources:

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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