"The Line"

Cornell Notes format: simple genius. Sometimes, have a simple blank (or lined) sheet of paper can be a little daunting, especially if on...

Cornell Notes format: simple genius.
Sometimes, have a simple blank (or lined) sheet of paper can be a little daunting, especially if one is trying to keep relatively tidy and organized notes.  One would like to have a bit more guidance on a page, yet maintain enough flexibility to accommodate pretty much any situation.

“The line” is a productivity concept that partitions a page into (at least) two regions - one for principal text, and the other for marginalia.  It has many incarnations, but the point of it is the same: to recognize that text notes are linear but your thinking very probably isn’t.

It’s really easy to set up: just draw a vertical line down the page about a quarter of the way across it.  This creates a large margin able to hold notes and annotations. I've found this used in several places including Circa “annotation” format and Cornell Notes.

In the Cornell Notes method, one divides a page into four sections simply by drawing three lines. The four partitions allow one to collect notes in vivo and then process them in two stages, each stage using a slightly different cognitive function. Circa notebooks are also well known for their wide margins, which can be used for annotations and marginalia.  (Circa doesn’t quite give the same importance to the top and bottom sections as Cornell Notes does.)

No matter what the geometry of the lines, the underlying principle is the same.  When you’re taking notes, you’re in absorption mode; you’re a sponge, drawing in as much information as quickly and coherently as you can.  But just being a sponge isn’t enough; you need to think critically about the material you’ve written down.  The problem is, you can’t switch between absorption mode and critical thinking mode easily or quickly.  The human brain just isn’t built for rapidly changing its focus of attention.  No matter what anyone else tells you, remember: multitasking doesn’t work.

On the other hand, you want notes that you can return to in the future and use as a memory aid to quickly refresh your knowledge about a subject (say, for an exam).  This means that your notes must capture both the raw information and your critical analysis of it.

The obvious solution is to leave some space for critical analysis when you’re in sponge mode, and then come back later to fill in the critical analysis bits.

Hence, The Line (or lines).  By physically dividing the page into different areas for each thinking mode, you’re making sure you can attend to each type of thinking (absorption, analysis, etc) without having to worry about arranging stuff on the page (which itself would be a kind of “multitasking” distraction).

How big should the page areas be that you create by drawing The Line?  It depends on your writing style, on how big you write, on how big the sheet of paper is, even on the page orientation.
For instance, in my pocket notebook, I leave about one cm on the left and 1/2 centimetre on the right.  I write very, very small.  In my A5 notebook, I tend to write in landscape mode and leave at least 1/4 the page width for marginalia.  (Actually, I do something even “weirder” in my A5 - but we’ll leave that for another day.)  Sometimes, depending on the nature of the notes, I’ll use only the central part of the page and leave at least a couple of centimetres on both the left and right for marginalia (this is often because I end up with more marginalia than notes).

When should you add marginalia?  My rule is this: as soon as possible!  You want to do the critical thinking as soon as possible after having taken the notes, while the material is still fresh in your mind.  You might even be able to jot down some annotations while taking notes, but you shouldn't if you risk losing your place in the lecture (or whatever event you're taking notes about). Depending on which note-taking method you’re using, there may be specific rules in that method to guide you. But I advise against blindly following rules that don’t feel right.  By all means, try following the rules, and not just half-heartedly but seriously and diligently, for at least a few weeks; but if you find it just isn’t working then don’t worry - change it up to suit your particular skills and preferences.

Clearly, how exactly to use The Line is a personal thing, and your mileage will vary.  If you’re new to this technique, you should take a little time (say, 30 minutes) once a month to look back through your notes and how you took them, and what worked and what didn’t work.  Consider whether you need to tweak your method then, and try that tweak over the following month. Note that this has nothing to do what you took notes about, but rather how you took those notes; it's thinking at a meta level about your note-taking practices.

Remember, the only good note-taking method is the one that helps you learn, remember, and refresh your memory downstream.

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The Trouble with Normal...: "The Line"
"The Line"
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The Trouble with Normal...
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