Wednesday, 17 December 2014

handwriting, keyboards and effective notetaking

This morning I tweeted a link to a Guardian weekly article on the merits of handwriting versus keyboards for writing. Coincidentally I’ve just bought myself a fountain pen - my first for what must be close to forty years.

The pen is nothing special, just a twelve dollar Lamy with a steel nib, but it writes nicely on good quality paper, and more importantly my handwriting approaches legibility.

In the previous forty years I’ve used a mixture of quality rollerball pens such as Uniball and Edding fineline felt tips which have allowed me to handwrite - scribble really - notes quickly, but at the expense of legibility. I’ve never got on with cheap ball points or cheap paper - it’s why I still use a pencil for scratchpad work.

I’ve tried other things - handwriting recognition on a palm pilot was a notable failure of the early naughties, although the device was in many other ways a superb tool - so much so that I bought an external keyboard and used it for many years to take notes in meetings and seminars. I still have my old palm pilot, keyboard and docking cradle, and I used to promise myself that someday I would get jPilot configured on one of my linux machines and start using my Palmpilot again.

Realistically of course, that ship has sailed.

I have however continued to experiment. One of the most successful experiments was to use a no name Android tablet with a keyboard as a notetaker.

Type the notes in a semi structured form using a tool such a TextEdit, and email them to myself, clean them up and during the cleanup process reformat them as markdown (or wiki style syntax for wikidot), generate a pdf and put them straight into evernote, or indeed circulate the pdf as meeting minutes.

Very powerful, but flawed. Battery life was one issue, startup time was another, as was network dependence. All of them could be lived with and worked with.

I also found the seven inch keyboard a little tight for typing, hence my resurrecting my old Eee seven inch notebook. Doing this addressed the keyboard issue, and using Retext as a native markdown editor sped up matters but in fact I’ve usually ended up typing sets of oneline notes into abiword and converting them with pandoc to markdown or saving direct as a pdf to evernote.

But in all of this I’ve found a problem. Notetaking at best is an active exercise where you listen to what is being said, write down interesting things, draw arrows, reflect a little, write down questions and thoughts, link blobs together.

What I end up with is more a sort of mindmap. Especially when rather than a structured presentation it’s an ad hoc ‘draw on the wall’ session, or indeed a coffeeshop discussion.

Hence the fountain pen. Legible notes in a note book, scan them, send them to evernote, add comments, photographs of a whiteboard, all these things.

At the same time there’s definitely a role for taking notes straight into a computing device of some sort, especially in well structured seminars and presos. I guess my problem is that I havn’t yet found my ideal device - something fast enough, light enough and with decent enough battery life.

Until then it’s probably my old eee, or no name tablet, with a pen and notebook as backup …

Written with StackEdit.

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