Mastering Field Notes

28 November 2023

I’m writing about field notes today: What are they? And why do we take them?

I will cover the tools of the trade, what to document in field notes, and my techniques on streamlining the note-taking process to capture tons of valuable information using my Apple Notes shortcut.

Here is a video of me discussing everything I’ve written below:

What are field notes?

Field notes are written or recorded observations collected by writers, researchers, or anyone else doing fieldwork like anthropologists, ecologists, geologists, ethnographers, and journalists. Think of them as data — qualitative data.

Field notes can be written descriptions, sketches, photographs, audio recordings, or anything else that helps us document and preserve information.

They are basically the raw data and information we collect to help us analyze, interpret, and write.

Tools and gear

Everyone is different. You don’t need all the tools and tech that I use. Your use case and situation might be different.

This is what I use:

I can fit all of these things in my small messenger bag, with room to spare for other things like a powerbank and a water bottle.

What to document in a field note

What you document in a field note depends on what you’re working on, but here are some considerations.

  1. Always capture specific location data and date/time information. Where are you exactly? What day and time is it? What is the weather like? Here is my free Apple Shortcut for the Notes App that will help you capture all of this with the press of a button.
  2. Describe what you’re experiencing in a specific and factual way. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What’s around you. Try to be as objective, factual, specific, and detailed as possible.
  3. Always be descriptive and specific. Describe specific information. Show, don’t tell. For example, don’t tell us that something is cozy, but show us it is cozy by describing specific details that contribute to coziness.
  4. If your work involves people, describe what they are doing and saying in a specific and factual way. Take down names, verbatim quotes, and behavioral quirks. Try to document as objectively as possible.
  5. Describe your feelings. What does it feel like to be in a place? Do you feel happiness? Fear? Anger? Peace? What are your reflections, impressions, speculations, and hunches? This is the subjective stuff. And it is important.
  6. Record audio of ambient noise and interviews with permission.

When do I take field notes?

I’m always taking notes and journaling, but I’m not always taking field notes. Which is to say, I see a field note as a specific type of note, and an essential part of my project-based creative process.

Field notes are not part of my daily note-taking or journaling practice.

I usually get into “field-note mode” when I am working on major creative projects or assignments. When I’m working on research projects or when I’m off on my solo travels, I take field notes. About the things I’m experiencing, the things people say, and my reflections and impressions.

Why do I take field notes?

I see field notes as an essential part of my work. They help me work. They are the work. They’re a major part of the creative process.

The way that I take field notes gives me a massive body of information to work with. When I come home from working on a project, I have tens of thousands of words of notes. I have audio documents. I have photographic evidence. I have this massive body of data to work with and use.

Field notes are the unpolished gemstones, the raw material that will later get shaped into a final form.

I have a bad memory, and field notes also help me remember details. This helps me with accuracy — it helps me approach a level of truth and honesty in my work.

So, for me, my note-taking method is as much a productivity hack as it is a memory aid.

It is about creating a record of the world and an artifact of my experience in it.

For me, taking notes and staying present are synonymous. It is about observation, and acknowledging what I’m actually seeing and experiencing. And the way I do this is embedded in my process, which I’ll discuss now.

My field note method

This is my method of taking a metric shit ton of high-quality notes.

I take notes both digitally and on paper, but at different stages. Let me explain.

When I do fieldwork, I notice that I draw a lot of attention on myself when I take notes in my small notebook. People get curious and ask quesions like What are you writing? Are you a journalist? But thumbing or talking into a phone doesn’t draw any attention. And when I realized that I could take thousands of words of notes by talking my notes into my smartphone, I was sold on dictation.

So, I made a Shortcut — a kind of program for my iPhone.

When I tap on my Shortcut button on my iPhone, it automatically creates a new note, opens it up, and pastes specific gps location data into the note. Then, it places the cursor below the data, and I’m ready to either type my notes or — better yet — talk them.

Voice-to-text has been a game changer for me. I can speak faster than I can type. And speaking frees my hands and my eyes to do other things. I can look around and speak about what I’m observing. It even works with the microphones in earbuds and airpods — people just think you’re talking to someone on the phone.

Sometimes, I take a voice memo if there is some sound I want to preserve. And I have a shortcut for that too. When it tap it, It creates a new voice memo With the date, time, and location data in its title and begins recording.

Anyway, at night, I clean up my digital notes, unpack them, and reflect on them in my big notebook. Slowly in longhand, I discuss in narrative form the key stories and points from the day into my physical notebook.

This is critical. I make sure to do some longhand unpacking, reflecting, and commenting at the end of each and every day.

My Apple Shortcut

Here is the download link for my Apple Shortcut.

If you found this shortcut useful or valuable, please consider supporting my work through my membership program ARTIFACT INT’L or by purchasing a print or book from my shop.