Surgeons typically document operative events using dictation services. Dictated reports are frequently incomplete or delayed. Electronic note templates could potentially improve this process. Using a study design of alternating four week blocks, we compared the timeliness and comprehensiveness of operative notes created through the use of electronic templates versus dictation services for five surgical procedures. Templates resulted in dramatically faster times to the presence of a verified operative report in the medical record compared to dictation services (mean 28 v. 22,440 minutes). Templates increased overall compliance with national standards for operative note documentation and avoided transcription costs. Documentation with templates took slightly more time than dictation (mean 6.77 v. 5.96 minutes; P=0.036), not including the additional time necessary to subsequently verify dictated reports. We conclude that electronic note templates can improve the timeliness and comprehensiveness of operative documentation, while decreasing transcription costs and requiring minimal additional effort on the part of surgeons.