For a writer, anything can be material for an article, blog post, research or even a book. But unless you have a superb memory, how can you keep track of all the things you hear or think about during the day? The short answer is that you can't, which means you have to keep notes as you go. Here are ten ways of doing so.
Notebook and pen
This is the bare minimum a writer needs in terms of a toolkit. The humble notebook fits into your pocket or handbag, doesn’t need wi-fi, and never runs out of battery! It’s inexpensive too, although I have to say that I think I write more in really nice (aka expensive) notebooks. My personal favourite is Moleskine, especially the ones with squared paper, but there are plenty of other brands to choose from.
I also find that writing my ideas in a notebook is not only quick, but also my jottings are more imaginative somehow.
See also: 4 reasons to work with pen and paper.
Paper and digital hybrids
The following approaches are a bit pricey, but you’re really paying for saving time, both in getting your notes from a notebook into a computer, and in searching for them at a later date. You are also paying for security: if you back up your notes diligently, then even if your notebook goes missing you will still be able to get hold of your notes.
If an ordinary notebook seems too “old school” for you, or if you don’t want the inconvenience of having to type up your notes into a computer at a later stage, you can have the best of worlds to some extent through these “hybrid” solutions.
Moleskine notebook and pen linked to Evernote
That is, a Moleskine notebook linked to Evernote. Evernote is a note-taking app (see below), and the special Moleskine notebook enables you to digitise your notes. Note the word “special”: it won’t work with any Moleskine notebook, so your choice of colours and styles is quite limited.
You have to take a photo of your pages using the camera in the Evernote app. This creates a digital record of your notes, which you can access online from other devices. The app doesn’t transform your handwriting into text, but it makes them searchable. I have found this incredibly useful, because when I think to myself “I’m sure I went to a talk about X”, I can search the Evernote app and nine times out of ten it will find my notes on the talk straight away.
See also From paper to computer.
A similar application is Livescribe. This is a special pen that you use to write in a special notebook. Again, this transforms your notes into a pdf document, which means that even if you lose your notebook you won’t lose the notes. It doesn’t transform your handwriting into text, though there is an add-on you can acquire for that. I tried it a few years ago but my handwriting proved too challenging!
Usefully, the pen can record too, which is handy if you’re conducting an interview. Why? Because if you can’t understand something you wrote down during the interview, you can tap the pen on the relevant section and it will play back whatever was recorded at that point.
See also From paper to computer.
Moleskine Smart Pen set
My current notebook and pen combination is the Moleskine Smart pen. This makes use of a special pen and notebook. The pen has a camera in it, and the smartphone app can record what is being said as you write. You write in the notebook, and either at the same time or later you transfer the data from the pen to the app. You can then do two things with the digitised notes.
First, you can transcribe them. The transcription isn’t too bad. I’ve found that it’s quicker to run the spellchecker and proofread most documents than it is to just type them out from the beginning, especially for very long documents. It has the unfortunate habit of making each line a paragraph in its own right. Still, this can be easily rectified in Word, and perhaps other word processors, by replacing all the paragraph breaks with a space.
Secondly, you can store the whole notebook as a pdf in the cloud, for example in Google Drive. That means that even if your phone is stolen, you soak your notebook by putting it in bag with a bottle of water whose lid isn’t on properly (I speak from experience) and you lose the pen, at least you will still have your notes.
The only thing I don’t like about the Smart set is that Moleskine doesn’t make an A6 size notebook, that is one that will slip into a purse or pocket. This is a major shortcoming in my opinion, which I hope they will address one of these days.
See also Digital note-taking.
If you don’t like the idea of writing on paper at all — after all, a smartphone is the modern day Swiss army knife — the following apps might appeal to you.
This is a very useful app, which comes in a free version and a premium version. With the free version, I think you can synchronise your notes between only two devices, while the premium version doesn’t impose such a limit. The premium version requires a subscription, but if you use the Moleskine-Evernote combination (see above), the notebook comes with a code which gives you a few months’ free subscription.
So what does it do? It’s a note-taking app that allows you to arrange notebooks and take photos as well as enter text notes. Web browser add-ons enable you to store addresses of useful websites at the click of a mouse. All this makes it a brilliant app, especially if you’re doing research.
This is another all-purpose note-taking app, this time from Microsoft. I haven’t used it much myself, but some people use it pretty much for all their writing and note-storing needs.
This is an easy app to use, and designed with writers in mind. I’ve only used the free version, which I find quite adequate for my needs. In fact, I wrote an article on Jotterpad on my phone during a twenty minute train journey in 2017.
You can upload your files to a cloud service like Dropbox, and/or email them to yourself in the form of text documents.
See also: Review of JotterPad, a writing app.
This is Google’s version of a note-taking app. There are three things in particular that I like. First, there is an option to create a to-do list with checkboxes. Secondly, when you do so and then check something off, a line is drawn through it and it’s relegated to the bottom of the page. Thirdly, there is an option to send your notes to Google Docs, which saves you having to copy and paste. Google docs is a fully-featured word processor, as we’ll see in a moment.
This is a word processor, as stated above, so it has far more features than the average note-taking app. You can install it on your phone, and access it via the web. It’s quite handy because you can start a document at home, say, and carry on working on it while out and about. Or vice-versa, of course: you can use it to record notes while sitting in a café, and then expand those notes into a more fully formed document later on.
Its other claim to fame is that you can collaborate with other people on the same document. You can set up your document to be viewed by anyone who has the link to it online, or even to edit it. If that’s a step too far, you can give people permission to comment on your document, but not change it. So that is halfway between allowing them to view it and allowing them to edit it. You can also download documents as Word or other format files.
OK, this is a small tablet rather than an app, but I thought I’d mention it for completeness. Like most people I think, I originally bought a Kindle so that I could read books, magazines and documents without having to carry a load of paper around. But then I experimented with writing on it, and found that it’s not too bad. Let’s put it this way: it beats lugging a laptop around.
I found two things not quite to my liking though. First, unless you buy one with a large memory or a large memory SD card on which to store the apps, it can be painfully slow. Secondly, Amazon has its own version of Android, so apps that work on your smartphone may not necessarily be available for the Kindle.
Nevertheless, it’s still pretty useful, and I find it easier to work with the Kindle’s keyboard and screen than my phone’s, simply because they’re bigger.
Writing on a phone or tablet without a physical keyboard
If your texting skills are not great, there are better and faster ways to enter text in a note-taking app. The two methods I suggest are either using a swipe keyboard or your phone’s microphone.
I installed a keyboard app called Swype on my Kindle Fire. This enables you to type by dragging your finger from one letter to another. Used in conjunction with the built-in text prediction, this can be quite fast. Unfortunately, Swype is no longer available apparently, but there are alternatives:
Your phone’s keyboard may already have this functionality without the need for any additional apps, so check that out.
Your phone’s microphone
As you can see from the screenshot below, the phone’s keyboard has a microphone symbol in it. (At least, the Android keyboard does. I assume something similar is available on IOS devices.)
In your note-taking app, tap the microphone symbol and then dictate your notes. The voice-recognition software these days is surprisingly good, and fairly accurate most of the time. I find, though, that you do have to speak very clearly. The note you can see in the screenshot (which is of one of my lists in Google Keep, by the way), reads “… share version”; originally that came out as “… chairperson”. It’s very handy though, especially on those occasions when you have your phone in one hand, a coffee in the other, and nowhere to put the coffee down!
If you found this collection of apps useful, you may also be interested in a course I’m teaching at the City Lit in March 2019. Called The journalist's toolkit: from inspiration to publication, it covers a range of useful ideas, programs and apps. For example:
- How can you find writing work?
- How can you record ideas really quickly from your phone into a spreadsheet?
- How can you keep track of deadlines?
- What websites are especially useful for writers?
- Which blogs are worth reading?
- What books are worth buying?
It’s a one day course on 9th March, and you can find out more here: