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Feb 7, 2022

Are You An Inveterate Note-Taker?

…And did we spell “inveterate” correctly?

By Ed Goldman

The only person I’ve ever worked with who takes notes in as seemingly scattered a manner as I do is the painter and graphic designer Michael Dunlavey. In the many years we collaborated on projects, each of us received numerous inquiries about the way we jot down what people are telling us.

Michael’s notes always looked more elegant than mine, which you might expect from someone whose firm designed more than 500 logos in its 30+ years. Using all capital letters, Michael made each one flow from the previous one, as though he’d been doing warp-speed calligraphy.

Edgy Cartoon


My notes, on the other hand, seem to have no internal connectiveness, from the standpoint of either penmanship or context. Rather than use the standard “reporter’s notebook”—a thin, vertical pad on which you can squeeze about two dozen words if you tend to write large, as I usually do—I fold in thirds a few pieces of 8.5×11″ copy paper, usually including the interviewee’s résumé, and start scribbling, going back and forth from mini-page to mini-page, in no particular order.

The reason I do this is because it forces me to look at every word I’ve written down when I get to my computer to write the actual story. Since my stories rarely unfold in a linear fashion—which would be like this: “He walked into the restaurant, sat down and ordered coffee. Then I asked him about his murder conviction”—I see no reason why my notes should. 

I’ve been a copious note taker since elementary school—though back then, I was more likely to be drawing a caricature of the teacher than writing down the year Hannibal crossed the Alps with those hapless elephants. 

Yes, it may stretch credibility to discover I studied the Second Punic War in fourth grade but I was in a special program called Less Gifted, which I believe is French for The Gifted. In other news, wouldn’t “Those Hapless Elephants” be a cool name for a children’s book about either the great Carthaginian general’s achievements or what’s left of the Republican Party? Discuss.

Occasionally, my note-taking “technique” (and I use the word dubiously) unsettles the person I’m interviewing. Someone will try to glance at my sheet of scrawls and say one of the following: (1) How can you possibly read that? (2) Are you writing down what I say in Hebrew? (3) You misspelled my surname.

Answers: (1) No damn idea. (2) No, that’d be from right to left, not left to right. (3) Only in my notes. I’m sure it’s spelled correctly on your résumé, which I’ll use as my main reference—even while suspecting you didn’t really get nominated for a Nobel Peace prize for heading up the Rotary pancake breakfast last year. (All-important/benefit-of-the-doubt follow-up question: Could it have been the year before?)

One woman I was interviewing over lunch was extremely bothered when she noticed I was using my left hand to hold my fork and eat while I kept taking notes with the pen in my right hand. It actually seemed to freak her out, even when I told her “I’m somewhat ambidextrous.” I think she thought it meant I practiced something that had been outlawed in several southern states.

During the years I taught part-time—at Cal State University’s Long Beach, Fullerton and Sacramento campuses, and city colleges in Long Beach and Sacramento—I used to tell my students that whether they ever used the notes they took when I “lectured” (another word I use dubiously), it made me feel good to see that they were writing something down. 

But my larger point was that when they went off into the big cold world someday and sought out sit-downs with potential mentors, the mentors would be similarly flattered to see that these young men and women were taking notes on the wisdom and experience being shared. Even if what they were really doing was drawing pictures of elephants.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).