The complete guide to taking notes without a laptop

All hail the lack of laptops.
All hail the lack of laptops.
Image: AP Photo/Don Heupel
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In the US, educators are fond of introducing computers early in a child’s education. But by the time that child gets to college, her professors often can’t stand the sight of computers in their classrooms. Laptops are viewed more as a distraction than a learning tool, so much so that many professors ban them altogether, forcing students to return to handwriting notes in class.

For those students who find themselves subject to the no-laptop rule, here are some tips from universities and fantasy novel author RJ Blain, who hand-writes her 300 to 500-page novels. Blain, who spends three to eight hours each day writing, tells Quartz that the process of handwriting helps her think more critically and better develop her stories.

Brush off your handwriting skills

Remember kindergarten and first grade, when you learned how to hold a pencil? Well, that training is going to come in handy for a 50-minute lecture. If you don’t hold the pen correctly, your hand and arm may hurt. The trick is the grip—you should be holding the pen lightly, between your thumb and index finger, with your middle finger as a rest. If you’re gripping the pen so hard that your knuckles are white, it’s not good and you won’t last long.

Organize your notes

Writing is almost always slower than typing, so you won’t be able to get everything that the professor says, and you won’t be able to “Control F” what you’re looking for when studying. Formatting your notes as an outline similar to that of Microsoft Word or another note-taking app can help, with topic headings and bullet points, suggests the Dartmouth College guide for taking lecture notes. This allows plenty of white space for you to go back and add details, questions, etc.

Get a stress ball

Typing doesn’t build the hand and finger strength necessary to hand-write for long periods, Blain points out. Squeezing a stress ball can help with that. So can stretching out your writing hand to avoid arm injuries. An 80,000 word hand-writing binge last November landed Blain at a physical therapist for an elbow injury, because she hadn’t stretched out her arms or taken enough breaks.

Lefties: invest in a felt-tipped pen

Right-handed people have a privilege that they don’t necessarily recognize—because English is written from left to right, the pen follows the hand. Left-handed writers drag their arm across the paper behind the pen, which can smudge the writing and spread ink on their forearms. But that can be avoided with felt-tipped pens, Blain suggests.

Pay attention to signal words

You can’t write everything down when taking notes by hand, unless your professor is speaking extremely slowly. But that can be a good thing, as it requires you to listen and decide what’s important. When figuring out what to write down, words like “first, second, third” and “most importantly” should be a trigger, according to the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

Develop your own shorthand and keep a legend

There are systems of shorthand that compress letters and words to make writing by hand extremely quick, but they can be difficult to decipher and review when you’re studying later, as the Dartmouth College note taking guide points out. Instead, use abbreviations, like “GW” for “George Washington,” or other common concepts that come up in lecture, Blain says. The first time you use the abbreviation, write out what it stands for in the margin or on the top of the page. That way, it’s easier to figure out later what you’re reading, rather than having to comb your notes for an explanation.

Drop the “e”

This is an easy form of shorthand that will still allow you to easily read your notes when reviewing, Blain says. The letter “e” is the most common in the English language, so it could save you a good amount of time to not use it. Don’t worry, you won’t miss it much—bcaus th contxt and surrounding lttrs will hlp you undrstand th txt.

Write in cursive

If you do find yourself needing to write quickly, consider taking notes in cursive. Blain fills up a page with printed writing in 15 to 22 minutes, but it only takes her 10 minutes using cursive. That’s because cursive doesn’t require lifting your hand or as many strokes as print. The letter ”s,” for example, takes three movements but only two in cursive. (An added bonus: cursive has been shown to improve brain development.)

After you graduate, continue on the path of self improvement with Quartz’s complete guide to taking notes effectively at work.