Taking notes

Warning: the below gets wonky! It's the way the Yes Men have used collaborative writing tools to keep track of projects, but there are many other ways to do so. The goal of your notes is to end up with something that anyone working on the project can understand and plug their work into. We think a good recipe for taking (and then using) notes is roughly as follows.

Warning: This can be quite an intensive, exhausting process. It’s an iterative process; especially after the initial brainstorm, the note-taker/organizer has to continuously update the files, change files to directories, etc., repeatedly. Whoever’s taking this on should get plenty of sleep the night before. It’s also recommended to have a certain level of OCD.

For the initial brainstorm itself:

  • Create a doc in a shared directory—a directory that everyone in the brainstorm has access to. Name the doc something that communicates what it's about, like "a.m. brainstorm notes, april 4, 2011, john." If there's more than one notetaker, either use two different files, or both monitor the same file and take turns adding notes and fleshing out each other's notes.
  • Jot down every idea that comes to mind in the brainstorm. Catch everything! Even stupid ideas should be noted, perhaps with a little symbol or note to indicate that they're stupid. Similarly, you might want to emphasize the best ideas, perhaps by putting them in bold or underlining them as you go along.
  • As the brainstorm progresses and a plan begins to be fleshed out, try to note where ideas go, what part of the plan they refer to, etc. You can move ideas around, and put them into different parts of your document depending on how they fit in, but making quick notes in parentheses is just as good. (You can restructure later, after the brainstorm session is over.)

When you start phasing from brainstorming into working through a particular idea, rigorously organize the notes. (This can be done by someone other than the person/people who took the original notes, or by the same person/people. This person of course needs to have been present at the brainstorm.) Post-brainstorm note-organizing (i.e. project management) hints:

  • Split off major chunks into separate files or folders. For example, if your project involves a website and a street action, make a separate folder for each. Then, in the website folder, make a separate document for each page that you know of—in those docs, collaborators will be able to flesh out text and design ideas. In the street-action folder, either put everything into one big file separated by headings (see below) or separate each heading section into a separate file - for example, "costuming needs," "filming needs," "enrolling participants," etc.
    • Example: Suppose you have a file—say, “ProjectMordor - Video News Release”—that you’ve been taking lots of notes in, and now you want to turn it into a directory instead, so that you can have separate files for each aspect: script-writing, prop-assembling, shot-getting, etc. You can do this by creating a directory with a similar name (e.g. “ProjectMordor - VNR”), moving the text file into it and renaming it to “ProjectMordor - VNR overview,” and then splitting off parts as needed (e.g. to “ProjectMordor - VNR script,” “ProjectMordor - VNR shot list,” etc.).
  • Within individual files, use "headings" liberally. Your document might end up containing, say, five sections at heading level two, one of which contains three subheadings at heading level three. (That's just an example, of course - any combo is feasible.) In some tools, this will enable you to generate a table of contents at the top of the file.
  • Make sure everyone involved is aware of the evolving directory structure and how it all works, and knows where to plug in new work. One good way to do this is to keep the notes on the screen as you go along; this also has the advantage of keeping everyone focused, so long as the notes are fairly clear.
    • You (or someone else) may occasionally want to use a whiteboard to take more graphic notes—e.g. to make a little diagram of the parts of the project; strategies can get quite complicated, and sometimes only a drawing will adequately do. If you do use a whiteboard and evolve a strategy there, make sure to transfer the concepts back into the notes afterwards! You can also just snap a picture of the whiteboard and upload it to the shared folder.
  • If necessary, add “stub” (blank) files or directories for people to add their notes to, to make it easier for them.
  • If necessary, meticulously go through every single line of the notes file(s) to make sure everything is transferred into the new organized notes. If you do NOT transfer a note from the notes files into the new documents, note that in the notes file - cross it out or italicize and make a note to that effect - e.g. "this idea was rejected."

When people add something important to the notes or produce some element of the plan, they should notify everyone in the group. If you've divided into subgroups to tackle separate aspects of the project, then just notify everyone in the relevant subgroup, unless you think it could be inspiring to folks in other subgroups as well.

As people write new versions of documents meant for production (press releases, webpages, etc.), it's often good to save off old versions so that you can look back or even go back to an old version if you go astray. (This happens all the time.) Ways to do this include:

  • create a subfolder called "archive" and save old versions named, for example, "press release v. 20110405b" - then keep working on the current version, whatever it's called - for example "press release current version"
  • other people prefer working in new files each time - when saving off a new version, calling it "press release v. 20110405b" or just "press release v. 6" and working on it in the directory. (Andy doesn't like doing it that way, but that's just him.)
  • because saving off an old version is a bit complicated, you might just want to:
    • copy the text you're about to modify to the clipboard,
    • then paste it at the bottom of the doc, into a new section entitled, for example, "press release v. 20110405b"
    • to avoid confusion you might also want to change the font of the copied archived section to gray so it's clear it's not current text to be worked on.

Note: when splitting off into small groups, each group will need its own note-taker. as for the organization of the notes—putting notes into its own folder, etc., and organize the notes as above—you will wish to do that only at the point - probably the end of the day or days - when the final projects have been determined and steps are ready to be taken forward to making the project happen.

If you want to get good, try the relay race below!