Note-Taking Pt. 2: My Solution

In part one of this series, I arranged some criteria by which to judge any note-taking system. Some may disagree, but they are only MY preferences as well as what I noticed many respectable scholars doing.

The quick-and-dirty of it is that I want my note-taking system to be simple, searchable, and retrievable . . . forever. 

How long?!?!?!

How long?!?!?!

After much toil and asking around, my current solution to this conundrum is (drum roll): subjects and tags.


By subjects I mean arranging your notes by subject-headings. You can do this no matter which program you use. Arranging by subject solves the issue of having a million documents in a folder. It also keeps everything on that given subject in ONE place so you can search it later. For example, let's say you are taking in-depth notes on a book. Do you make a separate file for that book? If that's the case, are you going to make a separate file every time you read a book? How will you retrieve this information (read: search this information)?  

So, for any given program, this would look like creating files (or notes) with the "subject" as your title. (e.g., "New Testament," "Greek Grammar," "Systematic Theology," etc). You can be as general or as specific as you want. If you read the post by Dr. Craig Keener last week, then you know that he used to file index cards by scripture. I emailed him to ask what he does now, and "subjects" is it! I have also heard of other successful authors using a similar system. A "subject" exists on your machine as a single document. After you create your document, you just place every piece of information you read—along with its source—inside this document. And yes, after a few years this document will be hundreds—maybe thousands—of pages long, which leads to the next part of my solution. 


Don't act like you don't know what a tag is! 

#yes #you #do

#yes #you #do

"Hashtags" are not a new concept. A tag is simply metadata by which you can collate information quickly. So, click a hashtag on a social media platform and you instantly get every piece of information (post) attached to that tag, even though they are from disparate sources (people).

Ten years from now, your subject-document will have thousands of pages of notes in it. How do you recall information? Tag it! Writing a paper on verbal aspect? Just go to your "Greek Grammar" document and search for whatever tag you put that information under (e.g., #verbalaspect, #perfectaspect, etc.). Here is the part that is really going to blow your mind. You don't need a fancy software that has a tagging feature; you can just manually tag things


In a simple Word Processor like Microsoft Word, you would write a word or two after the sentence/paragraph/block of notes. Take the tags you use and put them in a list somewhere so as to make sure you are using the same tags every time. When you want to retrieve information, just type the name of the tag in Word's search bar (Command+F for Macs; Control+F for PCs).

But let's be honest, auto-tags (the program keeping track of your tags for you) would be nice, huh? The good news is that a whole new genre of note-taking apps is emerging. Many of these apps have specific tagging features. To my knowledge, the most popular ones are Ulysses, Bear, and Evernote. I personally use Bear because, quite honestly, it's the easiest one, and this simple Mississippi-boy likes easy. So, I'll just give you a quick look at how I do this.

Enter Bear

In all its glory . . .

In all its glory . . .

Evernote and Ulysses contain too many features for my liking. If I had access to these features, I probably would never use 95% of them. Bear is good at one thing: note-taking. As such, it's free from clutter and confusing functions. Additionally, bear is FREE! There is a subscription option which allows you to sync up with your iPhone at only $15 per-year (I happily subscribe). Even without the subscription, though, most of the functionality is there. A subscription-based program will usually be the desirable one due to the incentive it puts on the app designers to keep improving. If the updates stop, the designers stop getting paid.

Here is a screenshot of my Bear app:

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 11.05.23 AM.png

Notice a few things:

  1. Bear does NOT have folders. You will notice on the far left that the app's hierarchy is tags. This way, if you have a piece of information that applies to two different subjects, it doesn't matter which note you put it in as long as you tag it correctly.
  2. The second column contains my "subjects"; i.e., my documents. I personally have one note for each book of the Bible, as well as the various subjects pertinent to my research and interests.
  3. The third column is where you actually take notes. In the picture above, no actual tags are shown; I will demonstrate the tagging features below. In this specific case, each verse gets a bullet and then notes for that verse go underneath. You will even notice that I dragged in some pictures of Qumran variants with Bear's simple drag-and-drop feature.

Now for the tagging features:

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 11.16.39 AM.png


  1. The tags are in grey. To type a tag, you just press the "#" key like you would on any social media platform.
  2. Bear also nests tags. You can see on the second bullet that I have two "sub-tags" (qumran and lxx) under the parent tag #textcrit. If you scroll to the picture above and look at the column with the list of tags, you can see that bear will even arrange your nested tags underneath the appropriate parent tags.
  3. Finally, notice how I began to type "#te" and the auto-tag feature popped up. This feature will display even if you begin typing a tag that is nested. This way, if you are not sure whether or not you have used a tag before, you can just try it out and bear will recall it for you.


Bear has a few other neat features as well but, as stated above, you could get by with any Word Processor. I hope this has been helpful. Please email us if you have any questions! 

Quick Writing Tip

One of our Writing Experts, Dr. Marcus Leman, told me the following may be "one of the most helpful pieces of writing advice [he] ever received:"

“Give your essay the three-part feel of completion, of beginning, middle, and end. Many a beginner’s essay has no structure and leaves no impression. It is all chaotic middle. It has no beginning; it just starts. It has no end; it just stops, burned out at two in the morning.” [Sheridan Baker, The Longman Practical Stylist (New York: Pearson Education, 2006), 27.]

Dr. Leman continues: 

"Every paragraph, every unit, every essay needs a beginning, middle, and end. Time invested in these slices of your essay will produce the greatest returns. Come learn more at our Writing Center workshop—"Structure and Style"—Thursday, February 15, 2018 at 2:00pm in Crismon Hall (Boyce Library)"


Note-Taking Pt. 1: What To Look for in a Note-Taking System

I have put much thought into refining my note-taking system. In the last blog post, I mentioned emailing, among other scholars, Dr. Craig S. Kenner of Asbury theological seminary about the way he/ they take notes. Although note-taking sounds intuitive, graduate-level research is a completely different game. For most students up through college, note-taking involves being able to recall information, in one class, for one exam in the not-so-distant future. Taking and subsequently retrieving notes is a little more straight-forward in this scenario—just find a notebook or a word document, jot the notes down, take the test, throw them away.

Crushed it...

Crushed it...

But, what happens when you want the notes to be comprehensive, easily searchable, and retrievable . . . forever. Go to the "productivity" section in the iTunes App store—that's what happens. A chaotic explosion of high-tech confusion. Struggling with this, I thought, "there has got to be a simpler way." 

To be sure, everyone will differ on what will be optimal for them. All I can do here is tell you what I was looking for in a note-taking system:

  • Future-proof: When talking about productivity apps, you will often encounter some form of this word. I'm not sure about the exact definition, so I'll tell you what I mean by it. An iPhone is NOT future-proof. Every few iOS updates, your phone slows down, eventually comes to a grinding halt, and then you have to buy a new one. With note-taking, you need a system that will not be rendered obsolete by new technology. Or, at least, a system which can transfer your notes to the given technology.
  • Simplicity: I'm low-tech. I hate having to update stuff. I hate having 10-gazillion writing apps. I don't want to invest an entire afternoon learning an app's organization features; if the product has a seminar, it's too complicated. I don't want the interface of whatever I use to look like a bomb went off on the page. I don't want seventeen different apps that have third-party plug-ins, compatible with each other, and automated this and that. I want ONE, maybe two, apps where I can write my notes and leave them be.
  • Retrievability: What good are detailed notes if you can't easily find what you are looking for 1, 5, 10, or 20 years from now? The other side to the retrievability coin is, when searching your notes, getting from the terms inside your head to the actual words you used when you typed the notes
  • Organization: Here's a question—let's say you're taking notes on a book you're reading; where do the notes go? Do you make a new document for the book? Do you put the notes in a document titled with the subject matter under which you consider the book? Do you take notes by author? The trick here is having enough division within your hierarchy to be able to take notes on any subject, book, or article you want, but not so much division that you get lost in a sea of documents that you cannot search.

 In part 2, I'll walk you through my solution that meets the above criteria based on experience and networking, as well as offer some tools to help. Sneak preview: Subjects and Tags

Writing and Note-Taking Strategies

SBTS community. So sorry for not posting lately. We hope to get more quality information to you on a regular basis.

Dr. Craig S. Keener of Asbury Theological Seminary recently wrote an excellent little blurb about his pre-writing process. He includes a brief statement about some of his old note-taking strategies as well. I will copy and paste the post below, followed by some of my own thoughts and comments. Here is the link to the original article—

Strategies and Reasons for Writing

By Craig S. Keener


Younger seminary professors sometimes ask me about my experiences as a writer. Many have trouble finding time to write, a situation for which I have sympathy. For the first four years of my teaching career, I was teaching an average of ten courses a year, many of them new courses and some of them outside my discipline. But when I was not teaching, preparing, ministering, worshiping, or attending meetings, I made research and writing my default setting. Because it was part of my mission to serve the church, I squeezed out every available moment to do it. That, of course, meant no television, but I had long before gotten used to that, and it proved a useful habit to cultivate. (Being single at the time also helped, but I do much prefer
being married!)

Logistics of writing

What helped me most was how much work I had done in advance. Even as an undergraduate, I started taking careful notes on everything valuable that I read, then filing each piece of information according to the Scripture passage(s) it would help me understand. This was before the days of computers, so I ended up with 100,000 index cards of information (and a sore hand). 

Whatever stage of career you are in, it is important to take good notes and organize the information so you can find it when you need it. Otherwise, you may find yourself vaguely recalling some relevant information but not recalling where you found it. That is when research becomes, sadly, “re-search.” Keep track of your information so you do not need to waste time looking for it twice.

At least for me, it is simpler to write in stages rather than all at once. If you are writing something that is information-based, you can organize most of your information and ideas before you begin writing. That makes writing much easier.


The stage of writing the rough draft is the most tedious—at least for me. It requires the greatest level of uninterrupted concentration. But once you have something down on paper, most of the most difficult work is done.

After this “pre-writing,” you can do your rewriting. Because I spend too much time in front of the computer, I personally prefer to do this stage in hard copy. After I print out my rough draft, I mark it up. Editing the work gives you the opportunity to view it as a whole. Leaving some time between writing and editing also helps you read it almost like someone who has never read it before—when what you meant is no longer obvious unless you have communicated it clearly.

If your rough draft does not already provide lead-ins for each section, now is the time to add them. By starting each section with a sentence or two summarizing what you will cover in that section, you will make your flow of thought much clearer for your readers. (Lead-in sentences also make many paragraphs clearer.)

Motivation for writing

Seminaries and divinity schools are professional schools, combining academic rigor with the training of servants for the church. Seminary professors thus have both academic and popular constituencies; we may write for either or both audiences.

What is most important is to write what the Lord gives you a passion for—something that you feel can make a difference (hopefully not only for tenure). Often I write with scholarly concerns (e.g., my four-volume Acts commentary); sometimes I have also addressed questions about the sources’ reliability left over from my preconversion atheism. 

The reason I went into scholarship to begin with, however, was to understand and help others understand what the Bible communicated to its first audiences, so some of my earliest works were directly for the church. In particular, I wanted to make available the setting of the New Testament for pastors, seminarians, and other readers in an accessible format. Since no one had written a “Bible background commentary” by the time I finished my doctorate, I resolved to write one.

Unfortunately, I could not find a teaching position for my first year out of my PhD program. I was praying frantically, but soon it became obvious that I would be unemployed that fall! One evening I calculated how much income I needed to live on and gave up in despair; the next day, the publisher called me about my proposed background commentary. They offered me an advance that was, to the dollar, what I had decided the night before I needed to live on! So that year I wrote the draft of the commentary, and the next year I had a teaching position. 

Following the passion God lays on your heart not only provides motivation to write; it also can help us produce what will be useful for others.  

So much great stuff in there! What caught my eye, specifically, was his old note-taking system. When I (Joseph Habib) first read this I wish he included a few words on what he currently does to take notes. Eager to know, I ended up emailing and asking him myself. His answer did not surprise me all that much, as I have asked many successful scholars about their system. To find out, however, you will have to read the next blog post!