From Paper to Computer

It’s confession time again. When I said that I like to work on paper, for instance when drafting an outline for an article, I omitted to mention one important fact. Apart from when I jot things down in a notebook I carry around in my inside jacket pocket, all the notes I write the old-fashioned way are converted into a digital form as soon as possible afterwards.

There are two main reasons for this, both of them pragmatic. First, if I write down a brilliant idea and then lose the notebook I wrote it in, that’s pretty disastrous.

Second, I have boxes in my loft full of notebooks in which I wrote stuff – and it’s almost impossible to find anything, or at least very time-consuming.

Pens and paper, and laptops, are not mutually exclusive! Notes being taken feverishly, by Yazan Badran, I tend to write the date on the cover of my notebooks. For example, one notebook I have proclaims that it dates from January to March 1984. That’s obviously better than its not being dated, but it still means that in order to retrieve an idea I have to try to remember the month and year in which I had it!

These days there is no need for such shenanigans, if you’re prepared to invest a bit of money. I use two different solutions, which are as follows.

The Livescribe Echo Smartpen

This is a special pen, which works with special paper. It does several things.

First, although you write with it in the usual way, when you get back home you synchronise the pen with your computer, and it not only transfers your notes to your computer in digital format, it makes them available as a pdf should you wish to print them out or email them to someone.

What that means, of course, is that it doesn’t matter if you subsequently lose or mislay the notebook – apart from the inconvenience and expense!

Another thing it does is make your handwritten notes searchable. I have no idea how it does so, and I am especially impressed that it can interpret my handwriting most of the time! What that means is that as long as I remember a keyword I can find my notes about it very quickly. When I say ‘keyword’, I mean it’s pointless searching for a word like “the”, because it will result in hundreds of results. Rather, I tend to give my notes a heading, which is what you’d do anyway. Thus I headed my notes from the Education World Forum conference ‘EWF13’, and that’s what I search for if I need to refer to them.

You can also amalgamate notes from different meetings or occasions. For example, I have been undertaking research on a phenomenon known as Bring Your Own Technology, and giving my notes on that topic the heading of ‘BYOT’. I have also created a subsection called ‘BYOT’ in the Livescribe desktop application, so I can copy any notes on BYOT into it. That means I have all my BYOT notes in one place.You can create custom notebooks in the Livescribe desktop

Another handy feature is the ability to record as you write. Amazingly, it matches the recording with the writing. What that means is that if you cannot remember what you meant when you wrote something quickly as you were interviewing someone, say, you can press the pen on the word and it will play back what was being said at that time.

You can also purchase software that will convert your digital handwriting into text, but I didn’t find that to be very effective.

So there are plenty of advantages in using the Livescribe, but there are some disadvantages:

  • The design of the pen is pretty horrible. The Echo is slimmer than its predecessor, but is still very bulky. Moreover, there is no clip on it, and the top detaches for when you want to write, making it easy to lose.
  • You can’t tell when the pen’s memory is full – or at least, it doesn’t give you any obvious warning that it’s about to become so. It would be good if a message box appeared when you synchronised the pen with the desktop, because then you would have more chance of clearing recordings from the pen before entering a crucial meeting!
  • Recently, my pen has stopped working intermittently. The only way to get it going again, I’ve found, is to remove the refill and then reinsert it. As my American colleagues would say, go figure.
  • You have to keep buying refills and the notebooks, and these tend to be more expensive than their analogue counterparts, though not massively so.

On the whole, I find my Livescribe pen an essential part of my writing toolkit, and never go to a meeting without it.

Evernote Smart Notebook

I like Evernote, which I’ve written about before. But Evernote is purely digital. The Smart Notebook bridges the gap between paper and digital.

You have to buy special paper, in the form of a Smart Notebook. These are quite nice, being the Moleskin brand, which I adore anyway. They’re not cheap, but lovely to write on.

The good thing, though, is that you can use any pen you like.

To transfer your notes from the notebook to Evernote, you need a phone or other device with the Evernote app installed. What you do is take a photo of your page(s) with the camera icon in the app, and then synchronise your smartphone notes with your online notes in the usual way.

As with the Livescribe pen, your notes become searchable -- even though they are embedded in photographs. This feature works very well indeed.

There are a few disadvantages however:

  • You need a smartphone or other device in order to use it.
  • Taking the photo is fiddly, even though the app is very good at focusing the page.
  • You can’t record meetings in audio format like you can with the Livescribe.

Nonetheless, given the fact that you can use a comfortable and/or cheap pen, this is a nice option. Also, if you use Evernote anyway you can have all of your notes in one place. (In theory, Livescribe links with Evernote, but I have never managed to get it to work.)


It’s up to you which of these options you think would be ideal for you. Each of them enables you to transfer your handwritten notes into digital, searchable text. For me, both of them are useful, but for different purposes. If I am going out and about, but not to a conference or formal meeting, I tend to use the Evernote notebook because I like the paper and I like my favourite pen! But if I need to make sure I have a record of what was said, eg if I am talking to a supplier about the features of their product, the Livescribe is the more appropriate choice.



Evernote Smart Notebook