A diary entry with writing that goes down the page vertically

Note-takers: our obsession with facts, figures and lists

Are you a methodical note-taker or do you cut corners? Find out how key figures in history have recorded their findings and experiences, and the shortcuts to note-taking that have emerged.

Writing does something rather amazing. It takes our thoughts out of the fragile tissue of our bodies and gives them another kind of life – a life that can potentially last longer than the biological structures that originally contained them. This can help us remember things, but it can also help other people remember things. The simple way to say this is that writing can make our words outlive us.

Once our thoughts are on paper, we can hold a mirror up to them in ways we cannot do when they just exist in our heads. We can literally turn them around and restructure them (as chaotic as they may have been in our heads), and observe things that we might otherwise never have noticed.

Recording facts and figures and keeping lists are some of the oldest functions that writing has had. Recently this has been enhanced by technology: we can make complex links between lists, automatically total up quantities, or write complex algorithms to manipulate strings of data. Using electronic means, we can also collect, store and analyse quantities of information that would have been unimaginable in the past.

Note-taking can be carried out with different degrees of care. The legibility reflects the pressures affecting the writer, their skills and the group they are writing for.

Methodical note-taking

Methodical notetaking is suited to professional environments where the results are to be shared, for example, meeting minutes.

But there is also an element of method in historically-significant personal manuscripts. Sir Walter Raleigh’s (1552–1618) notes, eventually published in his History of the World in 1614, were written while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. They were copied out in a clear hand and include carefully drawn maps. There is a sense that this was a manuscript book in its own right, whether or not it would ever see publication.

Sir Walter Raleigh's Notebook for his History of the World

Sir Walter Raleigh's Notebook for his History of the World

The fifth poem in the Cynthia series, ‘Now we have present made’, is written here in Raleigh’s handwriting on the final page of a notebook he used while imprisoned in the Tower of London.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

There is a similar care for legibility in a diary written by the Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin of Bone (ruled 1775–1812), recording events significant to his dynasty. The pages are carefully arranged and record political events, marriages, religious ceremonies, births and deaths. The diary is written in Arabic and Bugis scripts.

Sultan of Bone's diary

A diary entry with some of the text running vertically down the page

The King’s notes, made in the Bugis script, often rotated at right angles, creating a labyrinth of text and turning important historical data into beautifully decorative patterns.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s handwritten record of his compositions, beginning in 1784 and continuing until the year of his death in 1791, is also carefully planned; essentially it is a list. 

Each page contains five works in chronological order. On the left-hand page he noted the title, the instruments to be used and other details. On the other side of the page he ruled five sets of musical staves and here he wrote out the first few bars of each piece. Clearly he wanted a complete list of his compositions to survive. This is useful today because some of the pieces are lost. If they were ever found, this list could help us identify them.

Mozart's thematic catalogue

Two pages from Mozart's thematic catalogue with the works listed on the left and the music on the right

This thematic catalogue kept by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lists the works that he composed from 1784 until just before his death in 1791

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Even after the invention of printing, handwriting remained essential for first-hand reporting from the frontiers of science and exploration. Alexander Fleming’s (1881–
1955) notebooks of his research into penicillin are representative of many scientists’ notebooks, including those of Leonardo da Vinci, who recorded his dissections of the human body and other observations.

Leonardo da Vinci's notebook

Study for an underwater breathing apparatus, f.24v

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), painter, sculptor, architect and engineer, kept notes and drawings of his studies, ideas and inventions.

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The journal of explorer Captain Scott tells of his gruelling experiences from his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. His final written words, written in pencil from inside his snowbound tent, are dated 29 March 1912. The ‘but’ on line 2 shows how the contact between the paper comes and goes; he was clearly finding it difficult to control his writing.

Angularities (see ‘are’ in line 3) and changes of scale indicate stiff fingers, and the initial p in ‘people’ in the last line is reminiscent of an intake of breath.

Captain Scott's diary, volume 3

The last entry in Captain Scott's Diary f.39

Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) and his four companions reached the South Pole on 7 January 1912, just one month after their rival Norwegian party, led by Roald Amundsen.

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Shortcuts to note-taking

Strategies for coping with some of the inevitable pressures of time can involve using cursive (joined-up) handwriting, abbreviations, and shorthand.

Shorthand writing was popular in the British Isles in the 17th century. Thomas Shelton’s (1600/01–c.1650) Tachygraphy, the Most Exact and Compendious Method of Short and Swift Writing was first published in London in 1626, and ran to numerous editions.

Early shorthand

A chart showing Latin letters with their shorthand equivalent

This page shows the key to Thomas Shelton's ‘short-writing’ system.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Tachygraphy means ‘speedy writing’ in Greek. Shelton’s system included abbreviated letterforms together with simple lines and curves. It was used by Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and Samuel Pepys (1633–1703).

In the 19th century Isaac Pitman (1813–1897) developed a new system of abbreviated marks that could be joined and written cursively. Vowels were added as small signs at different positions along the stems of consonants; there were also many signs for whole words. 

This system has proved to be useful to secretaries, the police and journalists. It differentiated some marks through the application of pressure on the pen, reflecting the penmanship of that time. The fastest transcription rate recorded is 350 words a minute.

Inevitably, mechanics were brought to bear on the problem, and a number of stenographic devices became common in workplaces and the court system. Today voice recognition software has launched a new era in the transcription of spoken language.

But recording speech is merely the tip of the iceberg. The vast quantity of information that can be represented, stored and transported in digital form is changing our lives. It affects many aspects, from medical science (think of the use of computing power that lies behind the success of the Human Genome Project) to our bookkeeping habits (e.g. using apps to record expenses as you go along for calculating your tax return).

The power of lists and notes has been enhanced by our ability to link and manipulate them and to do so on a scale and at a speed never seen before.

  • Ewan Clayton
  • Ewan is Professor in Design at the University of Sunderland and external advisor to the British Library's 2019 exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark. He is a core faculty member of the Royal School of Drawing and is a calligrapher.