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September 05, 2010

Reasons for keeping notes and notebooks

Last week, record-breaking UK yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur gave a round of interviews to radio, TV and print journalists to launch her new book Full Circle.

The interviews were based on MacArthur's revelation she was giving up the sea to focus on environmental issues.

But The Daily Telegraph's feature writer Elizabeth Grice brought another dimension to her article about the 34-year-old; it was a personal touch referring in her story to previous one-to-one meetings Grice had had with the solo yachtswoman.

Grice recalled in her profile on MacArthur last week week, 'At the end of her Vendee Globe triumph in 2001, she took me down into the tiny, unventilated cabin of Kingfisher on a “tour” of the quarters which had been her cell, home, work station and survival-capsule for 94 days. She talked about the meticulous planning that had gone into provisioning her nutshell of a boat...'

The opportunity to recall earlier conversations, pull quotes from a stored-away notebook, gives the journalist's work an added dimension, a certain credibility, and it tells the reader that the journalist is not only familiar with the person they are interviewing but have been trusted to return for another interview.

Last November, (2009) the body of Staff Sgt Olaf Schmid was brought home to the UK from Afghanistan. The bomb disposal expert died defusing an IED (improvised explosive device) which had trapped his squad in an alley the day before he was due to return to his wife and stepson on leave.

That week, The Sunday Times carried a feature His Last Lonely Walk written by journalist Miles Amoore on the front page of its News Review section. 

It was a moving article, particularly because much of the content came from conversations six months before between the charismatic ‘Oz’ Schmid, who had disposed of more than 65 Taliban IEDs,  and the freelance journalist.

S/Sgt Schmid's words had been kept, unused, within the pages of Amoore’s notebook. Those words became hugely relevant after 30-year-old Oz Schmid’s death.

S/Sgt Schmid had struck up a friendship with the journalist Amoore and freelance photographer David Gill when the three met in the British Army’s forward operating base Jackson in Sangin in Helmand Province last summer. They talked about their respective jobs during down time during the Taliban’s brutal bombing campaign Panther’s Claw. The three kept bumping into each other – always lapsing into conversation, many of which ended up in Amoore's notebook. 

That summer, Oz emailed his wife Christina Schmid telling her that he had been photographed by a freelance photographer. She emailed the freelancers asking for copies. Amoore and the photographer Gill were happy to oblige. When S/Sgt Schmid was killed, Christina emailed the freelance pair saying, ‘He died yesterday.’

Amoore talked to Christina about her feelings and the last times she had spoken with her husband. Then he and Gill put together the article about S/Sgt Schmid – a sad but powerful tale of great bravery.

S/Sgt Schmid, of the Royal Logistics Corps, was posthumously awarded the George Cross for bravery in March 2010. He was described as 'the bravest of the brave' by Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff.

At the time of his death S/Sgt Schmid became the face of heroism in Afghanistan. His bravery represented that of all other soldiers there.

But why S/Sgt Schmid? One could argue, it was as much because Amoore had his notebook of conversations which 'humanised' Oz and his fellow soldiers as it was S/Sgt Schmid's unquestionable courage. Had Amoore not had those notes to draw on, his article would not have been so deeply personal or moving.

I am writing this not in praise of Amoore and the quotes of a dead man he was able to put into his article at a time of someone else’s tragedy – though I think that having read the article S/Sgt Schmid's wife could not help but be even more proud of her husband. But I am writing this to show that by writing down those quotes and extra first-hand details of people you meet and interview (even though they may lay dormant for weeks, months or years in your notebook) they may, one day, add so much more to an article.

Amoore's meeting with S/Sgt Schmid is obviously an extreme case.  But because Amoore kept his notes and because he and photographer Gill were supportive to their contact – they were able to produce a powerful and very human article full of quotes and personal details which told of one man’s quiet heroism – a shining light in a terribly black place.

Elizabeth Grice refers to her earlier meeting with Ellen MacArthur to highlight the then and now of the world record holder's life. This added dimension sets Grice's feature apart from the many other articles written about MacArthur's decision to quit the sea. Grice was able to do this because she had kept her notes and her quotes from nine years ago. 

Notes are invaluable for all the reasons above. But they are also invaluable should an interviewee turn to you in the future and question what you have said in your article. On a legal point, all notes, recordings and photographs should be dated and kept in good order for at least one year. They may save you should someone challenge your writing in court. 

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning  starting in October 2010. For details see

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