Writers Who Travel: Evernote, Scrivener & an e-Reader

I’ve been writing full-time for four and half years.  Slowly, I’ve created a system but it wasn’t until this past year when it finally all clicked in place.  I’m so loving my new set up, that I’m telling everyone about it (I’ve already written about this for my blogging course and to anyone who would listen on my personal Facebook page).  I’m a total convert.  Excuse me while I gush.

So, a little background.  This year, I’m researching a book and it involves not just my travels, but interviews and original research as well.  I’m collecting all these different pieces of information and I’ll eventually sort and organize everything into a cohesive narrative (or at least that’s the hope).

So I need a solution that would store all of my notes, let me tag or import web pages, research studies or full pdfs, plus allow me to store audio files from interviews, and images from the field (useful for capturing things like a sign in Mandarin, when I want to remember the exact characters for later).  We’re talking about 500 tagged articles and studies alone, never mind my personal notes, images and any interviews.  A Word doc just isn’t going to cut it.  I’m traveling so printing is completely unrealistic (and I already have an entire suitcase full of print materials for this project, like my moleskins, hard to find books, movies and transcripts that I’m carrying around with me).

In comes Evernote.  I’ve been using it over a year now, and I love it.  Loooove it.  If you’re a writer, this will make your life better.  Beyond being able to collect, tag and keyword all these disparate digital sources of information, here are some ways it makes your life better:

1.  You can set each project as a different “notebook” so you have discrete collections.

2.  You can install the Evernote plugin to your web browser so as you search, you can clip the entire webpage.  If for some reason that site changes or goes away, you still have an exact copy of that content for reference later.

3.  With the browser plugin you can set it to tell you in Google Search, if you have matches in Evernote.  You know when you’re like, “What was that website that told me how to do X?” and then you have to go back through your thought process and try to remember the path you took to get there?  Now, if I’m searching for something that I’ve already clipped, it’s right there, on the top, as a link to my Evernote clip.  Great for forgetful creatives like me.

4.  It’s accessible from any device.  I use it on my Mac, but I can look at everything on my iPhone, my iPad, or from any computer via the web interface.

5.  If I’m offline I can still access all of my web-based research.

6.  I can share “notebooks” with someone else for collaboration.

7.  If you’re writing anything that requires you to show your sources (or to have them available) it’s so convenient.

For research: Evernote all the way.

Then, the second big thing that has changed for me this year is using Scrivener.  This is a harder sell, unless you’re writing long form projects, because there’s one little thing about Scrivener that everyone complains about: You HAVE to do the tutorial.  I mean you can skip it, but then you won’t know all the cool things it does.  Or the flexibility of it.  Or what features you should or shouldn’t use for your own workflow.  It basically allows you to write however you want — from index card style outlines, to straight writing, to prioritizing unfinished sections, to tracking edits and so on.

But, you have to dedicate 2-3 hours to do the tutorial.  I don’t know what to tell you!  The people who have tried it seem to come in two camps:

1. They use it and love it so much that they can’t imagine being a writer without it.

2. They tried it or wanted to use it but didn’t do the tutorial and gave up.

For me, the big thing is being able to do brainstorming with index cards in an interface that allows you to drag cards around but then that content flows into an outline and I’m able to jump into writing or back out to outline at any point.  For me, it changes the planning and writing phases because instead of doing outlines by hand or feeling like I’m doing duplicate work, everything I do to plan for the project is also part of writing it.  It’s awesome.  It makes writing faster.

It also has a distraction-free writing mode that is great if you’re constantly getting pulled away with notifications and other temptations.  It’s just you, a blank page and zero interruptions (and you can set a timer or word count goals, it’s brilliant).

So for writing longer projects Scrivener is amazing.  (Nod to my friend Antony Johnston who has been banging on about it for years now, glad I finally took his advice!)

Then the last big thing is getting a Kindle.  Well, let me say this: the big thing is getting an e-reader because I’m not totally in love with the Kindle.  Why?  Because I keep breaking it.  Granted I am not gentle with my electronics but I’m on my third one in two years and I have spent months with a broken Kindle because I ordered it in Thailand so I can only get a free replacement when I’m in Thailand.  For someone who travels, I can’t see spending nearly as much as the original device to ship it back and forth just because it’s so breakable.

So we got an iPad (3).  Which meant that Cole got an iPad and I haven’t seen it since because the child is obsessed with Angry Birds and knows how to bounce between games, movies and music like a pro (actually last night I said, “Drew how do I turn off this song?” and Cole just reached over and pressed the right button — so basically it’s his iPad for the foreseeable future).

That being said, the Kindle is great for reading, the iPad is too heavy for me to hold up for hours at a time.  I don’t know what the perfect solution is, I suppose I could upgrade to a better version of the Kindle and buy a $50 case for it, but we’ll see.  (I’m too invested ebook-wise to switch to a Nook or any other device).

One thing: I have the international 3G Kindle, which means I can technically get internet for free, anywhere in the world.  It works pretty well for downloading books, but the web interface for surfing is just for truly desperate moments (perhaps as Amazon intended).

I have about 80 books on my Kindle.  I used to travel with about a dozen books, so this has completely cut my collection down.  Now if publishers would just let me highlight and copy quotes from books and send them to Evernote, I might just die from joy.  (Currently the highlight feature is deeply unsatisfying to me).

e-Readers: pick your poison, but get at least one (unless you like balancing your laptop on your face while you read in bed).

What about the good old-fashioned moleskin?  Well, I do still use one.  If I’m out and about taking notes, then obviously, pulling out my laptop isn’t going to work.  I am carrying around a half-dozen of them that I’ve filled up over the last year.  I flip through them as reference, but I think a big part of my process involves writing notes and organizing my thoughts that way, so in a way I feel like I rely on them more because they help me form ideas about what I’m seeing (although as reference they are extremely helpful too).  Beyond that in-field work though, I’ve moved digital as much as possible, so I no longer draft in long hand or write outlines that way.  I resisted doing so for a long time because I like the feeling of writing, but Scrivener has helped in that regard.  I want to be able to take notes and lay them out and look at them.  You can pretty much do that now on your computer.  So while there’s no substitute for the handwritten notes, I’m finding myself doing most of my work digitally and being more productive for it.

That’s it!  By the way, I didn’t get a paid to say these things, although I would accept thank you notes in the form of vintage bottles of wine.

50 Comments

  1. First of all, can I just kiss you in a totally platonic but overly exuberant fashion for using the word ‘discrete’ in the correct way? Seems like everyone else online is using it instead of ‘discreet’ and it drives me mad.

    Anyway.

    I’m also using Scrivener, and I did the tutorial. Gosh, that was a lot of cups of coffee I got through. I’m glad I did, though, because even though I’m not using 99% of the features at the moment, at least at the crucial point when I start musing along the lines of, “oh, I wish I could do such-and-such here …” a little voice from the back of my brain tells me that I know it’s possible because I saw it in the tutorial – I just have to work out how to get there. So, Scrivener and me, we’re not totally best friends yet, but I think we have the potential to be so.

    Re: the Kindle: get the cover. It’s worth it. Don’t get a knock-off version, get the real thing. I have both, and the real thing knocks seven shades of spots off the other. That’s even counting the fact that the knock-off has a light and I’ve got a non-lighted version of the proprietary one. It’s good-looking, it saves the device, and it actually makes reading even better, because you hold it like a real book.

    I tried Evernote a bit half-heartedly a while ago and didn’t get to grips with it, so now use Pocket for research. However, your third point about getting reminders when you search might just have sold it to me. It seems like Evernote has much more to it than Pocket (which is, essentially, just a tagging system), so that’s one for me to give another go. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. I also tried and abandoned Evernote, though I do see myself going back and giving it another go. It does seem like it could be quite helpful if I spend a little time using it more.

    Good to know about Scrivener and it sounds worth looking into. I’m still in the paper & pencil mode, though I have been using a mind mapper called FreeMind that’s been helpful when plotting out ideas in my head in a more visual sense.

  3. I STILL have no idea how you do it all… but thanks for this glimpse inside of your writing world. Might just have to try a few of these things myself.

  4. I agree with your critique of the Kindle, it’s pretty breakable. After thoroughly smashing my first one, I decided to get a case for the next one. I found that you don’t need to spend $50 – just get a cheap one that has memory foam on the inside. I got one by Case Crown that works great and it was $15. I’ve buried that thing at the bottom of my backpack, smashed it, stepped on it (yes, I’m hard on technology, too), and it’s survived without a scratch.

    Here’s one on Amazon – not the same as mine, but you get the idea:
    http://www.amazon.com/CaseCrown-Double-Memory-Pocket-Amazon

  5. Evernote freaking rocks! I’m so much more organized with it. My memory for details sucks big time, so being able to save iPhone photos, notes, journal entries, and best of all, audio recordings into a searchable virtual notebook has been a huge help.

    I also use it to snap pics of business cards & receipts, record flight or itinerary information, book/movie/music recommendations from others, as well as important documents & PDFs. Everything is backed up on the web too.

    Definitely my most used app on my phone/computer.

    • That is brilliant Matthew. I’m going to install it on my husband’s iphone and he can take photos of all the dockets he needs before he loses them.

  6. Thank you for the honest and thoughtful post. For an e-reader, you may want to consider Kobo. The form factor still leaves a bit to be desired, but the software and ease of use (UX) is very good. I own another brand (not Kindle, not Nook) and regret it. And thanks for the Scrivener tip — will definitely give it a try… after doing the tutorial. :-)

  7. I’ll try to keep this brief, but you just hit on so many of my favorite pieces of hardware and software that I *have* to chime in!

    Scrivener – been using this off and on for a few years now. My ebook outlines are in there, and my big never-ending genealogy family history project is too. That one uses the most Scrivener features out of all my projects. A few years back I got quite concerned about genealogy research disappearing off the internet, or moving behind a paywall. I began collecting complete web pages into Scrivener. I even have PDF files over 100MB in there. Probably not the best way to organize, but at least I can find it. Having said that…

    Evernote – I have used this tool rather sporadically over the years, and most of my notebooks were filled with dead or no-longer-important junk. Recently, however, I found a new use for it and it has been making my life a lot easier. It is basically Gmail meets GTD meets Evernote. My inbox is empty, my Evernote is lean and mean and completely organized. And now I really want to incorporate it into my genealogy research. Any way, the system I am using is called The Secret Weapon and it’s completely free – you can check it out here – http://thesecretweapon.org

    iPad – we stopped using our original iPad after we both purchased MacBook Airs but when Dixie’s Air died we eventually decided to replace it with an iPad 3. She is now happily processing and editing photos with iPhoto and doing all her normal surfing, etc. Saved us around $800 or so after you factor in all other costs.

  8. Great post. We’ve been having this exact discussion on LinkedIn. I’ve been using OmmWriter just for its simplicity bbut another writer suggested Scrivener and I’m researching its benefits. Thanks for writing on this topic.

  9. I’ve been using Evernote for all kinds of things for ages now and it really is an incredible way to keep notes. I don’t need Scrivener but have heard from writers that it’s a great tool and heartily recommended.

    And I must say that I love, love, love my Kindle. I have a cheap cover (around £15) which looks great and does the job. You don’t need an expensive one just a padded one! I read far more now than I did before even though I still buy actual books. I just got back from Italy actually where one of the books I read was ‘Travels With Myself and Another’ by Martha Gellhorn. It was a brilliantly inspiring book to read whilst travelling!

    Thank you for the post – I’m very happy to see that I also use 2 out of your 3 recommendations. I’d like to work and travel more (I’m a CV Writer and a Virtual Assistant) so tips on working and travelling would be most appreciated.

  10. Pingback: Writers Who Travel: Evernote, Scrivener & an e-Reader | Everything Scrivener

  11. First of all, that cappucino looks amazing in that opening picture! I have got to check out “Evernote”. Hopefully it will have a great use for me.

  12. John StJohn

    Thanks for your interesting article. It’s always good to see how other people work. I love Scrivener. I’ve used Evernote off and on for a few years. I want to make more use of it because nothing syncs between devices better.

    You might want to check out Evernote Smart Notebook by Moleskine. It’s a way of getting your Moleskine pages into Evernote. I don’t use it, but it looks kind of interesting.

  13. Pingback: What Now? - November 2012

  14. Thank you Christine! No vintage bottle of wine winging its way to Thailand, but we appreciate you mentioning and adopting Scrivener into your workflow.
    Wish I was travelling again…

    All the best,
    David
    Scrivener, Literature & Latte

  15. Pingback: Three ‘Must-Have’ Recommendations for Travel Bloggers | Outdoor Gear and Travel

  16. Larry Wilson

    KINDLE: This device has changed my life! I read more, and now I’ve got the writing bug again. Yes, I broke my first Kindle Keyboard, but the Touch with it’s case is quite durable. I’m not upgrading to Kindle White because Amazon inexplicably removed the audio feature, so no more read the text, music, or audiobooks.

    I nice feature is the ability to send your own document files to your Kindle. It is another way to have them accessible and reading them as an eBook often gives new insight.

    EVERNOTE: I’m a new but enthusiastic user. It has the ability to organize everything, back it up, and make it accessible anywhere on just about any device. Files can be shared. The add-on programs like Skitch and Webclipper add more dimensions. With notebooks, stacks, tags, attributes, links, and powerful search features, everything is accessible. All of my writing projects are being integrated into Evernote.

    One of the best resources for Evernote, especially for the paperless lifestyle is author Jamie Todd Rubin http://www.jamierubin.net/ He also uses Scrivener.

    SCRIVENER: Yes, it is a big full-featured program with a steep learning curve, but it is not that mysterious and there are a lot of helpful resources. I was disappointed because the promo material talked about importing PDF documents. What was never mentioned is that they can ONLY be imported to the research section to be viewed. So, those PDF manuscripts I wanted to work on are useless in Scrivener. I also have been unable to get Scrivener to compile any document into Kindle format or even Epub. So, I haven’t used it yet, but may for longer works where I need its organizational capabilities.

    SUGARSYNC: I mention this as my other indispensable writing tool. It is similar to Dropbox, but starts with 5GB free. Everything I write is instantly backed up and saved, and accessible across all my synchronized devices. No more trying to keep track of the changes to my manuscripts and trying to remember which machine has the latest version. I also use this when working on critiques since I just share the folder and the other person can see the changes in real time. very cool resource.

  17. Great article! Love to see how others do it and take their info to make my system more efficient. Couple questions though – how do you get your Evernote content available offline? Did you purchase the upgrade? And the Kindle 3G really gets you internet for free without paying a monthly fee?

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog!

  18. I use and love all the tools you’ve mentioned, Scrivener in particular. As someone who still loves pen & paper, there’s one other tool others may be not know about:

    Livescribe. A digital pen that transfers hand-written notes and/or audio to PDF and Evernote. I’ve been using one for over a year and couldn’t imagine my life without it.

    http://www.livescribe.com/en-us/

  19. I love Evernote and Moleskin when traveling so I combined them by photographing my old journals! Now I keep the old journals safely in storage but can see all the pages and even search for text in them.

    I used my Cannon PowerShot Elph 300HS on low res mode (actually I paid a local teenager for a day’s work to go through the journals and photograph all the pages in macro close up). I can read the JPGs easily in Evernote and they do come up in searches. (I have the Evernote Pro account that does handwriting OCR). I will say the quality of the search results does depend on the readability of the handwriting but in the cases where the journal contained a printed flier the OCR is very good. If you felt like it you could go from low-res JPGs which are about 50-200 K in size to high-res 2 Mb images. Not sure if that would improve the results for searching. I think using a quality camera over a phone camera does help.

    Also I use Earth Class Mail service to scan all my postal mail – the quality is good for searching in Evernote and I don’t have to spend any of my time doing the letter opening and scanning. They even have an auto download option that will save your scanned PDFs to a directory of your choice on your computer and then have that auto imported by Evernote Tools-Import folders feature. It costs me about $100 per month based on my letter volume but is worth it for me and is 500% more reliable that having a friend do it, which is how I used to handle mail.

    Personally I like to read my mail as it comes to catch important items and download to the import folder, but you could completely automatic this task.

    If you are using Evernote to do GTD then having a scan of a letter than has a todo is very useful because you can just tag it for action and when you get to processing the action the letter is right there. I also use Open Office Draw to fill out any letters that need to be returned and either fax them with myfax.com or send a hard copy with click2mail.com, all without having to leave my laptop!

  20. I’m sure this has probably been pointed out to you by now — if you hadn’t already discovered it yourself — but Apple came to your rescue when it comes to a holdable, e-reading-centric iPad. iPad Mini for the win. :)

    That said, I still won’t give up my Kindle Paperwhite, for one simple reason: battery life. Your mileage may vary.

  21. You may be able to remove notes as well. Use Cole’s iPad and install “Penultimate” from evernote. It gives you all the benefits (maybe better) of paper + pencil + hand writing. And the notes automatically go into Evernote.

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