Note-taking is an essential skill for travel writers, travel journalists, and travel bloggers to master. Relying on memory is not always ideal, and is especially hazardous for travel writers whose minds are caught up in the whirlwind of sensory overload while on the road. Moreover, time can embellish our memories with falsehoods or erase them altogether.
It is important to take notes while your experiences and memories are fresh. The notes you take are the raw data, the details, the fleeting sensations, and the unfiltered thoughts. They are like rough gemstones that have the potential to shine after some extra attention, development, and polish when you flesh out your work.
This article discusses three tools travel writers, travel journalists, and travel bloggers can use to take notes while on the road.
The classic way for travel writers to take notes is using pen and paper. I like to carry a small notebook with me whenever I leave the house. In fact, I have one in my pocket right now.
But just because you have a notebook with you doesn’t mean you should take comprehensive and exhaustive notes about every. single. thing. In fact, it would be hard to. Taking good field notes is a skill that requires the note-taker to be selective about what to record and efficient in the manner of recording. What I mean is, consider taking notes only on the most important information and in the quickest way possible.
In his book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux offers some insight into his note-taking practice. In one scene, a young Indian boy named Murugam wearing a school uniform approaches Theroux, asks him questions, and demands his ballpoint pen when he sees what Theroux had written in his notebook: Boy. Uniform. Murugam. Theroux sketches the details of his experiences just enough to remember them later.
As I mentioned earlier, the notes you take on the road will need to be refined and polished. A common practice among travel writers is to unpack and flesh out those raw notes at the end of the day. Theroux also mentions writing up his notes at night, which is perhaps why he can get away with sparse notes taken in the moment.
Developing and expounding on the notes while they are still fresh is good practice, and writing about them in another larger notebook or on a device serves as a backup in case you lose one. Plus, it helps with a more honest and accurate reportage.
If you don’t already own one, purchase a small notebook for your field notes and a larger, more durable notebook for expounding if you’re not using a mobile device or a computer.
It doesn’t matter which brand you pick, but pick a notebook that is small, lightweight, and that you can comfortably carry with you. The brands of notebooks I recommend are Apica (cheap, softcover, excellent paper), Field Notes (pocket-sized, softcover, durable), Leuchtturm (hardcover, back pocket, good paper), Moleskine (hardcover, back pocket, good paper), and Rhodia (hardcover, back pocket, great paper).
The man who helped propel the Moleskine journal into a household brand was none other than travel writer Bruce Chatwin. In his book The Songlines, Chatwin feared losing his beloved Moleskine: “To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe.”
More people today worry less about losing their journals than about losing their mobile devices, which itself might not be catastrophic if you’re taking notes on a mobile device with automatic cloud backups.
Mobile devices have revolutionized the practice of note-taking, in part due to the features that apps like Evernote and iOS Notes have. They give the note-taker the ability to capture audio, video, and photo alongside typed notes and precise location information.
One of the greatest advantages of mobile note-taking is, of course, automatic cloud backups. So losing a notebook or a device becomes less of an issue. But there are drawbacks.
That said, using your mobile device to take notes means you’ll be stuck to your mobile devices even more. And the distractions and notifications might pull you away from your work.
Some travel journalists that I’ve spoken to use apps like Instagram to share and archive videos, which they return to later to recall their experiences when writing. And some travel bloggers use the WordPress app and type notes directly into a draft post, which they save as a draft and edit later.
Whichever note-taking app you use, they can be helpful. But (call us traditionalists), we think there is something special about hand-written notes. And some studies suggest that taking notes by hand has benefits like helping with memory.
Believe it or not, many travel writers still use voice recorders, also known as dictaphones. They once relied on microcassette tapes, but now they record on flash media like micro SD cards and can record in lossless FLAC and MP3 formats.
Their audio microphones have gotten better and smaller too, with some models like the Olympus LS-P4 boasting three or more microphones to record in stereo.
Audio recording isn’t for everyone, but I’m willing to bet that you can speak many more words in 10 minutes than you can type. But, unless you’re using speech-to-text software like Otter, transcribing your notes is an additional step.
Like text-based notes, voice memo notes will need to be fleshed out, unpacked, refined, and edited. But voice memos and voice recorders are a great way to get a lot of material quickly. Of course, you get the added benefit of actually being able to record the sounds of the space in which you travel and hear, in your own voice, unspoken emotional cues.
While many smartphones have respectable audio recording apps, consider shelling out the cash on a good device if audio quality is important to you.
Note-taking tips for travel writers
- Always indicate the date and location in your written, typed, or audio notes
- Flesh out your notes at the end of each day
- Note all the five senses
- Note your inner world: feelings, thoughts, etc.
- Note dialogue; pay attention to what people say and how they say it
- Write fast and short
- If someone gives you a recommendation, let them write it down in your notebook if you trust they won’t run away with it
- Record the sounds of a place if you own an audio recorder; it can help you return to an earlier state of mind while writing
Whichever method you use, it is important to reflect on and unpack the raw notes as soon as possible. Take a moment or two out of your day, before bed or breakfast, and flesh out your notes. This will help you become more honest and productive as a writer.
How do you prefer to take notes while traveling? Let us know in the comments below!