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Even in an age of digital voice recorders, a reporter's notebook and pen are still necessary tools for print and online journalists. Voice recorders are great for capturing every quote accurately, but transcribing interviews from them can often take too long, especially when you're on a tight deadline. (Read more about voice recorders vs. notebooks here.)
Still, many beginning reporters complain that with a notepad and pen they can never take down everything a source says in an interview, and they worry about writing fast enough in order to get quotes exactly right. So here are five tips for taking good notes.
1. Be Thorough - But Not Stenographic
You always want to take the most thorough notes possible. But remember, you're not a stenographer. You don't have to take down absolutely everything a source says. Keep in mind that you're probably not going to use everything they say in your story. So don't worry if you miss a few things here and there.
2. Jot Down the 'Good' Quotes
Watch an experienced reporter doing an interview, and you'll probably notice that she isn't constantly scribbling notes. That's because seasoned reporters learn to listen for the “good quotes” - the ones they're likely to use - and not worry about the rest. The more interviews you do, the better you'll get at writing down the best quotes, and at filtering out the rest.
3. Be Accurate - But Don't Sweat Every Word
You always want to be as accurate as possible when taking notes. But don't worry if you miss a “the,” “and,” “but” or “also” here and there. No one expects you to get every quote exactly right, word-for-word, especially when you're on a tight deadline, doing interviews at the scene of a breaking news event.
It IS important to be accurate get the meaning of what someone says. So if they say, “I hate the new law,” you certainly don't want to quote them as saying they love it.
Also, when writing your story, don't be afraid to paraphrase (put in your own words) something a source says if you're not sure you got the quote exactly right.
4. Repeat That, Please
If an interview subject talks fast or if you think you misheard something they said, don't be afraid to ask them to repeat it. This can also be a good rule of thumb if a source says something especially provocative or controversial. “Let me get this straight - are you saying that… ” is something reporters are often heard to say during interviews.
Asking a source to repeat something is also a good idea if you're not sure you understand what they've said, or if they've said something in a really jargony, overly complicated way.
For instance, if a police officer tells you a suspect "made egress from the domicile and was apprehended following a foot chase," ask him to put that into plain English, which will probably be something to the effect of, "the suspect ran out of the house. We ran after him and caught him." That's a better quote for your story and one that's easier to take down in your notes.
5. Highlight the Good Stuff
Once the interview is done, go back over your notes and use a checkmark to highlight the main points and quotes that you're most likely to use. Do this right after the interview when your notes are still fresh.