As promised, here’s the next in my series on software for writers. I received some wonderful feedback from people about Part 1, so thank you to everybody who reached out to me on Facebook or Twitter to share the Scrivener love. I hope you find Part 2 equally useful.
Evernote has a strong following in the business community, particularly among small tech businesses. It’s widely available, with a web application as well as desktop versions for Windows and Mac, and mobile apps for Android, iOS, Blackberry (it’s 2016 – who knew Blackberry was still a thing?), and apparently Amazon Kindle Fire.
I use Evernote at work every day, and I’d be lost without it. Evernote has a free basic plan, and the more advanced plans (with extra features and greater upload capacity) cost $29.99 and $56.99 US per year.
What’s great about Evernote
Evernote has an elephant as its logo for good reason. It’s slogan is remember everything, and those two words capture its essence. Evernote can be your digital brain. It can store just about anything. Audio files, photos, PDFs — you name it. You can use handy browser plugins to clip selected content from the web or snaffle up entire pages. And, of course, notes. All tagged and categorised for later retrieval.
Notes are a kind of enhanced text, but it’s not clear what file format Evernote uses under the hood. It supports common styling — italics, underline, bold and so on — but also has some HTML-like elements. For instance, you can insert horizontal rules in your notes, and the breathtakingly handy checkbox. In fact, the checkbox alone is worth the price of admission. Not only can you use them to create to-do lists, you can search your notebooks for any notes with un-checked boxes, so you never have to worry about missing a task.
You can add reminders (with optional deadlines) to your notes, so Evernote will alert you when something important is coming due. And all of this happens in the same place as your writing. You don’t need a separate task manager app to keep you on track.
Another great thing about Evernote is the cloud syncing. All your notes are accessible to you from anywhere, on any device, so long as you have an internet connection.
The true genius of this is hard to describe. You have an idea while you’re out for coffee with friends and jot down a quick note on your phone. When you get back to your desk it’s there waiting for you. Or if you complete a task while you are on the road, you can tick the checkbox on your iPad and mark it as done.
Individual notes reside in notebooks, and can be merged together or split apart. You can have up to 250 notebooks, and you can also share notebooks with friends or colleagues. Notes in the free basic version are restricted to 25MB, which goes up to 50MB and 200MB in the more advanced plans.
“The checkbox alone is worth the price of admission.”
The last feature I want to mention is the nifty email integration Evernote has. Each user gets an Evernote email address, and emails sent to that address are automatically saved as notes. You can add tags to the subject line to dictate which notebook you want the email to end up in, and which tags you’d like applied to the resulting note. Imagine that. An important email comes in from your editor. Forward it to Evernote, assign it a reminder with a deadline, and you can safely archive the email. Wonderful for those of you who aim for Inbox Zero. (It’s a thing. Trust me.)
What’s not so great.
Evernote is a curious beast in that some of its most useful features also have some of its biggest annoyances. Take the fact that you can use it on pretty much any computer or device. That’s outstanding. But if you do use different versions you can find yourself caught out looking for a shortcut or feature that exists in one version but not another. Simple things like text formatting options that show up in iOS but not the Mac desktop client, or vice versa. Not a huge thing, true. But irritating when it happens.
Another feature that’s a mixed blessing sometimes is the fact that all your notes are stored on Evernote’s servers and only synced to your mobile device as you access them. This is brilliant when you have an internet connection, but less stellar if you live somewhere with patchy mobile coverage. If you have one of the paid plans you can store your notes offline on your mobile devices, but I’ve been caught out on my iPad looking for a note only to find it wasn’t available because I had no internet.
“Evernote is a curious beast in that some of its most useful features also have some of its biggest annoyances.”
Some of the other let-downs with Evernote only really apply if you’re trying to use it as your main writing application. Like the fact that it’s really easy to get things into Evernote, but getting them back out again isn’t as straightforward. You can share notes within Evernote itself, or send a note as an email, or export a pdf version, but there’s no way to convert a series of notes into a single Word document that you can hand over to your beta readers or submit to an editor.
The way Evernote handles notes within notebooks also has its downside. You can sort the notes by date or title, but you can’t order them manually. That makes organising scenes in a novel or sections in a chapter difficult. And you can’t scroll seamlessly through the notes in a notebook, either. You can merge two notes together, but then they become one big note. There’s no easy way to move from the end of one note to the beginning of the next like turning the page between chapters.
Another limitation relates to word counts. Many writers are working to a word limit for an article, or aiming for a certain number of words for a larger manuscript. Evernote will give you the word count for an individual note, but there’s no way to set a goal and receive feedback when you reach it. And you can’t select a group of notes and see their combined word count. Definitely a drawback for long form writing.
Finally, a feature that’s strangely absent: comments. Most pieces of writing software these days give you the option to add comments to your text. This is valuable for collaboration or editing — or even to remind yourself to look up something you’re glossing over in a rapid-fire first draft. It appears Evernote doesn’t hold with such tomfoolery, because comments and annotations aren’t supported at all.
Who is Evernote good for?
- You often juggle competing deadlines
The reminder feature could be your saving grace. Notes with reminders attached sit in their own attention-grabbing section of the interface, and you get an alert or email when a particular note is due.
- You like making lists
If your writing projects have many separate tasks you need to complete, like research or interviews, you may find the checkboxes in Evernote are your new best friends. The satisfaction of ticking boxes as you work your way through a project is not to be underestimated. And you can save your search for un-checked boxes as a favourite, meaning you need never forget to complete a task again.
- You write mostly short-form pieces
If you are a journalist or freelance writer who mainly deals in discrete chunks of work, Evernote’s individual note format may be all you need. You get a word count and basic formatting, and all of your web research is right there for you.
- You don’t mind a bit of copy and paste
Once you’ve finished a piece, you are happy to paste your words into, well, Word. Who needs fancy export options like mobi or ePub? Not you, that’s for sure.
- You are never far from WiFi or 4G
Evernote’s sync is brilliant, but not having persistent notes on your laptop can be a pain. If you live and breathe WiFi, however, this won’t be an issue for you. Sync away!
Looking for more Evernote goodness?
Evernote does a good job at providing resources for users. When you sign up you get a bunch of notes in an introductory notebook that help you explore all that Evernote has to offer. They also have a good getting started page online that will help you jumpstart your Evernote experience. Once you’ve mastered the basics and have a few notebooks under control, you can explore specific topics in greater depth in the Tips & Tutorials section of the Evernote Help & Learning website.
If you prefer a polished video to give you an overview or explain a particular feature, Evernote also have an excellent YouTube channel with dozens of natty clips showcasing Evernote in action.
In Part 3 of this series on software for writers I’ll be rounding out my comparison with an introduction to my current writing app of choice, Ulysses.