Writer’s Toolbox: Evernote

8 min read

Evernote is a powerful note taking and organizational tool. It features a simple and easy to use word processor, but you shouldn’t begin using Evernote with the idea that you’ll craft an entire manuscript using this software. Instead, think of Evernote as a tool for recording and recalling information quickly.

Since all writer’s will have a different process and style for gathering and making sense of information, Evernote will not be for everyone. If you’re the type that needs paper notes piled high into a sort of impenetrable fortress of information on your desk, you will probably find Evernote too concise for you. Or if you already use another piece of software for writing with built in note taking options (such as Scrivener, mentioned in last week’s article), you may find Evernote unnecessary or redundant.

But if you are a writer who spends a lot of prep time and enjoys taking multi-media notes, Evernote is the tool for you.

I personally tried out Evernote a few years ago, when I had a project I knew would demand more research and note taking than actual writing. The application came with numerous online recommendations, and the mobile support helped because it allowed me to take notes without having to fire up my laptop. I used Evernote for that one project and uninstall the software.

At the time, I had one major complaint that pushed me away from using Evernote – the application was tedious, slow, and counter-intuitive. To me, a note taking application should focus on the primary use (note taking) and any other elements (annotating, organizing, sharing) should be secondary. I walked away from Evernote because it was more cumbersome than taking notes by hand and transcribing. Plus I already used Scrivener’s binder organization to keep source material on hand. Evernote, for me, failed on its primary function.

All that changed when I downloaded the app to give it another try a few weeks ago.

As David Pierce noted in a review for Wired magazine, the new Evernote tries to “remove every possible step between you wanting to take a note, and that note appearing in Evernote.” The design aimed for simplicity, and for the most part, achieved that aim.

Let’s look at a few of the useful ways the new Evernote can help you maintain good writing habits, stay organized, and get your manuscript finished.

Simplicity

Evernote is meant to be a catch all for your notes, and it does so in a way very conscious of what a “note” is in modern terms. Today a note can be anything from a piece of text, to an image, to a video, to an audio file, and includes any imaginable combination of all of these. Information is multi-media, and Evernote is a tool for capturing and organizing all this data.

The design stresses simplicity. There are notebooks (a collection of notes) and there are notes. Each note can be home to a variety of media, and can easily be edited and annotated as necessary to add information to an existing note. Here’s a quick look at the home layout (using a Macbook and the Evernote App).

Let’s break down the Evernote main screen. On the far left is the navigation. Shortcuts are preset by users. So you can see I’ve added Blog Content here so I can quickly find notes I’ve stored in this notebook. It takes a bit of getting used to, but if you zoom in, you’ll see the icon to the left of the text indicating Blog Content is a notebook. Looking below the Shortcuts, you’ll see Recent Notes (notice here the icon is different), showing the five most recently edited notes. Below that we have the individual content, with Notes, Notebooks, Tags, Atlas, and Trash.

Focus for now on the Tags section. You can add tags to individual notes, making them easily searchable through the Tags section. Some tags can be assigned automatically as well. For example, if you use the Web Clipper add on (we’ll talk more about that later) it is tagged as such. You can then sort through anything you’ve clipped from the web without having to look through individual notes or notebooks.

The Notebooks tab is useful too, allowing you to see your notebooks based on the titles you assign, and then dig deeper to see the individual notes. The layout may remind you of Microsoft Outlook, the popular email aggregator. The reason it seems would be that this layout works quite well. Moving from left to right, we focus in on the content. The sidebar on the far left serves as a macro view of your content, focusing in to more options one layer to the right.

The middle layer will display notes within a notebook, and allow you to easily switch between notes as need. It’s also worth noting that the layout works in tabs (you can just see the “add a new tab” button on the upper right). So multiple notes can be opened and you can swap between them as easily as viewing multiple tabs on your browser.

Past all these layers of versatility and organization, we come to the far right pane (the largest one in the above image) – the note pane. Here’s where the magic happens.

The note pane includes a basic word processor, with some options for font, sizing, and the expected modifiers like bold, italics, and underline. Bullet and numbered lists can be added easily as well (and are simple to nest in the same way MS Word handles this action). Justification in the standard form is present too, most useful for centering important or divider text.

One little feature I really like for the text options in the note pane is the Check Box. You can make a to-do list and check the completed tasks as you move through them. As a visual way to assign yourself tasks, the Check Box is awesome, yet simple. You’ll after a short time working in Evernote that “awesome yet simple” is basically their motto.

Finally, the text options provide a camera function for adding images and a file attachment tool. Text and images can be pasted or drag and dropped into the note, but for a larger file, or something purely supplementary, having the option to attach keeps the Evernote pane clean and easier to work in, without sacrificing access to the content as needed.

All this is just the tip of the iceberg. The simple, clean layout makes note taking with Evernote easy. The basic uses – organizing individual notes, primarily text based, within notebooks, with tags to facilitate searching – highlights a much improved piece of software, capable of providing much needed organization. Now let’s look at some of the more potent features Evernote includes to help amp up your productivity and solidify themselves as a premiere note taking program.

Utility

Evernote goes beyond the basics of note taking with some handy utility functions. For a fiction writer, you might find the regular note taking tools more than enough. Here are the key utility functions of Evernote I found.

  1. Reminders – The best element  for someone in the trenches of writing a manuscript is the Reminder function. Make a task list, include the needed information to achieve your goals for each task, and set reminders. Now you’ll be prompted when it’s time to write, or when something is over due, or when you want an email to remind you to come back to a specific note. Another tool that, on the surface, seems very simple. But the elegant implementation makes the reminders non-intrusive and directs you back to Evernote, making note taking and note review more and more of a habit.
  2. Annotation – For a more heavily researched piece, the annotation options are tremendous. You can type up notes, then generate an annotated PDF, which can easily be passed off for review, printed out so you have the information at hand while writing, or even saved within Evernote as an attachment or new note altogether. Annotation is a pretty specific tool, and probably won’t be applicable for many writers, but having the option is nice and may be crucial for some to facilitate working on projects with multiple contributors.
    Note: The annotation feature is only accessible through paid versions of Evernote. The free to use version offers a 30 day trial for paid features.
  3. Tags – I mentioned tagging earlier. Each note has the option to add tags – keywords and phrases – you can use to locate the content as needed. For the most part, I’ve been organizing notes within notebooks, making it relatively easy to find notes. But I’ve also been taking a minute here and there to tag those notes. If you need on the fly note taking, adding tags might not be for you. But if you think you’ll be coming back to these notes later. Weeks, months, maybe even years later, adding tags is a wise move. By tagging my notes now, I can come back to locate something through a keyword search, even if I’ve long since forgotten the context the note was in, or the notebook I saved it into.

Beyond the built in tools like reminders and tags, Evernote offers utility through their own App Center.

Visiting their suite of apps, all designed specifically to function with Evernote, can be overwhelming. There is a wide range of tools to add to your Evernote experience, including bundles to help guide you to specific tools you might need for business, productivity, or photography, for example.

With my limited time to experiment with Evernote, I decided to try a couple of pretty basic ones: PopClip and Postbox (both Mac specific apps).

  1. PopClip is an expanded “right click” tool, with all the standard copy/cut/paste options for highlighted or selected text, adding expanded choices, including a direct to Evernote link. This I found very useful for grabbing quotes from an article without fully breaking the flow reading. Aside from that, I didn’t find it especially useful, but the ability to remove intermediary steps is one of Evernote’s overall goals. To that end, the PopClip app and Evernote extension do cut out some clicking and moving around. In the end, I don’t know if I will continue to use the PopClip app, but for writers working on heavily research based content, it may be worth a try.
  2. Postbox is a simple email application that ports emails directly into Evernote. Essentially serving the same function as PopClip, Postbox removes the need to copy and paste email content into Evernote, and sends it directly with the click of a button. Again, we see Evernote’s tools working to remove steps for users. I didn’t find this app very useful, though for a writer receiving feedback via email, it certainly could prove important.
  3. The last thing I will mention about Evernote in regards to utility is the web extension Web Clipper. This tool places an Evernote button (the little elephant head icon) on your browser, and gives you the ability to “clip” the page your on into a Evernote note. This includes cutting a screenshot (either full screen or a mouse dragged rectangle), select specific text, or pull in the entire webpage. This tool is quite useful for compiling data found online and adding to existing notes. In particular, clipping an image to add to a note serves a variety of purposes and is something I find myself doing with Mac’s built in clipping tool anyway. Again, Evernote is finding ways to cut down on the steps and get your information over to Evernote.

Versatility

Alright, thus far in my experience with Evernote I’ve really enjoyed using it as a better-then-average note taking tool and data compiler. I can just dump information and content (text, images, video, emails, etc. etc.) into Evernote, and so long as I’m aiming it at the right notebooks, it ends up in the right place with only the minimum organizing after the fact.

On top of the handiness of the note taking, and the utility offered while minimizing the work put into grabbing notes, Evernote uses cloud technology to store all your information online. Two benefits of this will jump out to the writer in all of us: 1) no worries about losing data due to a computer malfunction; and 2) wireless syncing with other devices.

The latter is perhaps my favorite part of Evernote, and one of the reasons I tested the software originally. In terms of working on a project, the mobility is incredibly helpful. I take notes on my phone multiple times a day, often times noting interesting material to read later or jotting down an idea before it escapes. The ability to seamlessly move from mobile note taking to utilizing those notes on my laptop or PC is invaluable. And because its cloud based, I could even log in on a completely different machine if need be.

Evernote features easy sharing too (there’s a “Share” button right on the upper corner of each note). This is handy as it provides easy collaboration, something many authors need during the editing and revising process.

Conclusions

Evernote’s stated goal – to remove steps between acquiring, recording, and later accessing information – are clear in their design choices. For this reason alone I can find numerous ways Evernote can be useful to writers. To tie this up, here are my top uses for Evernote as a writer:

  1. Simple note taking in a clean layout
  2. Mobile sync with Cloud storage
  3. Easy to organize and access
  4. Free to use (with some feature limitations)

In my opinion, if you find you need a dedicated note-taking tool to organize your writing and thoughts, Evernote is a versatile option with all the necessary tools, and enough add on applications that work in harmony with Evernote to facilitate most needs.

 

 

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8 Comments

  1. Evernote is pretty cool. I use it to record nice sentences (structures) and words in order to improve my writing.

  2. I am a heavy Evernote user and find it extremely useful. I frequently forward emails to my Evernote, and use the web clipper extensively. I use my Apple Pencil for manual note-taking using Penultimate, which automatically synchs with Evernote. I also use an Everlast Rocket notebook and send notes straight to Evernote. My *only* complaint is that the Evernote app for iPad needs some attention… hopefully they will pay attention to that soon.

  3. Such a great article, I’ve just been using notebook. I will definitely switch to Evernote.

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    Good information i am going to try this i have use my notes but this looks helpful

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