Of Notepads and Writing Utensils

Conference interpreters are great conversationalists. If you don’t believe me, invite some to your next dinner party and watch them captivate fellow diners with tales of agricultural missions to slaughterhouses and clever solutions to terminological dilemmas (or read this post on In my words, which illustrates my point very effectively).

Interpreting students, being the quick learners that they are, tend to adopt this gripping conversation style quite early on in their studies. Today, I am going to share with readers one of the favourite topics among students around this time of year: the best notepads and writing utensils for consecutive note-taking.

Before I start, let me say that views amongst practitioners are very divided on this highly important matter, and I have no intention to start World War III by coming down on one side or the other of the debate. I will just briefly explain some of the various options out there, and then tell you (without any desire to convince or convert) what sort of notepads and writing utensils I use myself.

The Notepad

When choosing the type of notepad you will use for taking consecutive notes, the first thing you have to select is the size. Most interpreters will go for either an A4 (letter-size) or A5 (half-size) pad. This makes sense: any bigger than A4 and it won’t fit in your bag, and any smaller than A5 and chances are you won’t see your own scribblings (for an explanation of A4 and A5 paper sizes, click here).

But the decisions don’t stop there: you then have to decide if you prefer coil or bound, lined or unlined or graph paper, with a printed side margin or without, hard-backed or floppy, top-flipping or side-flipping, and any other number of other options that are out there (did I miss any?). Online outlets of major office supplies chains such as Office Depot and Staples offer  several models of notepad categorized by different criteria (page size, binding, lines, paper colour…), so the choices, really, are endless.

However, one key factor, the importance of which is not to be underestimated, is the assortment of notepads you are likely to find available at your local store or airport press shop. One doesn’t wish to develop very exotic tastes, only to discover that one is unable to satisfy them, does one? For instance, I don’t know how many top-bound, unlined, coil A4 notepads there are on the market, but if you decide that is what you need (and many students appear to), you had better have a reliable source for obtaining them.

Personally, I try to have an unlined, top-bound, hard-backed A5 notepad in my bag at all times. They’re easy to find in shops, plus they come in handy for writing grocery lists, jotting down ideas for future blog posts, entertaining the kids during restaurant waits … oh, and they are pretty good for taking consec notes, too.

I would actually prefer to have a coil-bound pad, but for some strange reason, the ones I like are hard to come by. The only A5 coil pads I can find in Spain have graph paper, and when forced to choose, I will take unlined pages over coil bindings every time.

But before I start boring even myself with this recount of my notepad preferences, I will move on to the next topic …

The Writing Utensil

Did you notice that so far I have carefully avoided the use of the word “pen”? This is because I don’t wish to alienate those readers who subscribe to one particular school of thought – which boasts a long lineage that probably goes all the way back to Nuremberg – that says that pencils are to be the note-taking instrument of choice for interpreters (I’m surprised that this particular school doesn’t just go straight for the feathered quill + ink pot option). The argument here, apparently, is that pencils flow better across the page than pens. My counterargument is that these pencil-pushing interpreters should probably try a Bic sometime.

As far as pens go, you have your old standby, the ballpoint, which offers the advantage of being available in pretty much any newsstand, so no exoticism issues there. You also have a broad range of felt-tips that tend to find favour among interpreters.

On this note, let me just say that my colleague Mary caused considerable consternation among viewers recently when she filmed her note-taking videos brandishing a broad-tipped black felt pen (“Is that what I’m supposed to be using? Why didn’t anybody say so?”), until she admitted that she had only done this to make her notes more visible on the screen (“phew!”).

My own pens are a ragtag collection of whatever ballpoints I happen to pick up in my travels, most sporting logos of hotels and meeting venues. I don’t think I have actually gone out and purchased a pen in several years. If I were to invest, however, I would be sure to buy one of those click pens with four different-coloured inks, since it is always handy to have several different colours of ink when evaluating students’ note-taking performance (one colour for the original notes, and a different colour for each student’s work). Since most of the pens collecting in the bottom of my bag are blue-ink only, often I find myself having to borrow other-coloured pens from fellow trainers (and yes, the students as well, as I’m sure they’re thinking right now!) in order to make sense of my own notes in class.


As students go about exploring the various note-taking options and determining which pads and pens (there, I’ve said it!) work best for them, I would urge them to keep one thing in mind: flexibility is the key. There will inevitably come the day when you are called upon to do consecutive and there is nothing available for you to take notes with except some sheets of loose leaf and a dull pencil (which has happened to me), or worse, a dinner napkin and some eyeliner (which has not, fortunately). So do take the time to choose carefully which note-taking instruments are the best for you, but then be prepared to work with whatever is available.