Making field notes    
A guide for expedition members

Handout of guidelines for making field notes.

Reasons for Making Notes

1. To Enhance Memory

You probably won’t remember the facts and details you need to write well if you don’t jot things down immediately. The usual process of making field notes is to do jottings as things are happening, and then to write up more complete notes as soon as possible, preferably later the same day.

2. To Focus Attention

Making notes is a way of focusing our limited attention. It’s a form of self-management.

Writing field notes can help you see things, hear things, think things, feel things, and understand things that would never occur without focused attention. Your notebook becomes part of your mind, increasing your capacity to notice, remember, organize, reflect, and create.

3. To Record Experience

Documenting experiences of both inner and outer worlds is a basic step of all the arts and sciences, the raw material of human progress. Converting experience to symbolic representation is the basis of all the disciplines. Though one reason for making field notes is to prepare you to create more finished products later, the notes themselves can become important historical documents.

What To Write

Observations: Late season snowstorm, hundreds of trees damaged, trees already leafed out, weight of the snow broke limbs, virtually every street

Select details that will most vividly capture the scene or event
Capture verbatim dialogue when possible (also paraphrase and summarize)

Note the physical setting, describe the space, record noises, jot down colors, list equipment, record movements in the scene, write down numbers

Note the speaker’s tones, gestures, facial expressions, emotions, and reactions

Run a “sensory check” from time to time. What information are you receiving from each of your five senses? What do you see? Give details of color, shape, size, and number. What sounds are occurring? Give details of loudness, frequency, and tone. What smells are present? Can you taste anything? What can your skin detect? Coolness? Moistness? Breezes?

Feelings: Mildly depressing to see yet more snow this late in the year

You might feel disgusted, exhilarated, discouraged, rejected, happy, bored, saddened, etc. The person who documents something is an important part of history, and how the person felt should be recorded.

Ideas: [People have been worried about the ongoing drought. They were saved from this problem by a different problem: the worst storm damage in decades.]

Think of these as memos to yourself–ideas that you the observer are providing to you the writer, who will use all these notes to find a main theme and communicate it to a larger audience.

Questions: [What is record latest date for snow in this location?]

Reminders to find other resources that are mentioned: people or articles

Reminders to ask a different source about a topic that needs more investigation

Questions about background information for a telling detail

2004 Michael L Umphrey | Permalink