Why writers should be using Evernote to make their lives easier

The shirt board Gay Talese used to organize his ideas for "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold"

One of the “shirt boards” Gay Talese used to jot down his notes for “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”

Whenever I talk to writers, I’m interested in how they work, but in particular, how they handle research: all the notes, ideas, documents, and details that they’ll later draw from to write a story. Gay Talese often speaks about how he started out taking notes on cardboard squares that came inside dry-cleaned shirts (and still uses them today). Roy Peter Clark talks about using note cards and hanging folders to organize research and make sense of all the pieces you’ve collected. I know writers who swear by Moleskine notebooks and cling to them as the extension of their brains.

When I work on a piece, I have a tendency to over-research, and wind up with massive amounts of articles, links, interviews, transcripts, and video clips. I used to keep stacks of stuff in big office folders and then group stuff together with binder clips. By then end of a big piece, I found myself with a stack of paper and dozens of documents with scattered highlights and margin notes: all very useful stuff, but hard to use.

At the risk of sounding like a product placement: that was before Evernote.

If you’re not familiar: it’s a free app you can install on your mobile devices and on your computer (you can upgrade to a “premium” account for a a larger amount of storage). You can type in text notes, record audio, or take a photo on the go. You can also save web pages to it, or drop in documents or PDFs you find, or throw in a photo and make notes on it. It even has advanced features that let you annotate charts or make quick sketches.

Screengrab from my evernote notebook viewBut its real value is in the ability to organize all this stuff, which is where shirt boards and file folders fall short. Anything you put in Evernote can be organized into virtual “folders” or “stacks.” In addition, you can “tag” any note you create so that you know what it was about; you can provide multiple tags for any piece of content. All of this becomes really useful when you need to sort and search your stuff.

But more than that, Evernote is really helpful when random ideas come into your head. Sometimes I think of something while walking the dog or waiting in line at the ATM, and I can use evernote on my iPhone to jot down ideas quickly. Or if I’m really rushed, I can hit record and just make a fast audio note. I can add a quick tag, too, so that I’ll know what the idea was connected to. Later, when I’m back at my laptop, that note is automatically synced, and I can flesh it out further. And when it comes time to write, everything I have on a topic or story — research, outlines, ideas, random thoughts — is organized, sorted, and searchable. I can go back to links or news articles I found easily, and add notes to them as I go. It also makes it easier to cut and paste quotes or numbers.

Finally, it’s a great place to start structuring a story. I’ll use evernote to create a document on a basic outline for a story, then refine it as I go. I’ll start a basic note with the structure of a piece, then refine it or reorganize as ideas come to me, whether that’s when I’m at work, or at the gym, or half asleep in bed. The syncing between evernote on all my devices lets me update and refine that outline wherever I go, without needing scraps of paper with scribbles on them in my pockets or valuable stuff thats likely to get lost on a steno pad.

To be clear, there are lots of note-taking/keeping apps available, so plenty of alternatives exist to Evernote. To me the brand is less important than the approach: being able to use notes digitally and keeping them synced has made it a lot easier to do work as a writer.

Here are a few useful links on how to start using Evenote:

Five few good reads this week

Between Feedly and Summify and Read it Later, it’s easier than ever for me to read great nonfiction and features about the craft of writing. If anything, there’s too much to keep up with. But here are a few great reads from the past week:

1. Roy Peter Clark on the first storytelling rule is “Get the Name of the Dog

2. Dan Blank hits you in the gut and urges you to “Build Your Legacy Now, Before It Is Too Late.”

3. Sometimes the best writing is no writing at all, just damn good reporting and research. Case in point: Grantland’s oral history of the infamous 2004 Piston-Pacers brawl in Detroit, “The Malice at the Palace.”

4. Alyssa Rosenberg on the problem of major magazines not hiring women writers and her suggestions for ten of the best they should hire.

5. I’m all about the #Longreads, but sometimes you just want something short. Check out some great short-short nonfiction stories over at 100wordstory.org.

Headlines first?

Rihanna on the cover of Cosmopolitan MagazineThere’s a lot to learn and know about the craft of writing well. There are the literary building blocks, or as Roy Peter Clark puts it, writing tools: things like word choice, structure, description, rhythm, transitions, details.

But then there are the more technical, marketing-minded elements of the business, the stuff that separates unknown bloggers from people who can quit their day jobs and live off the income from full-time blogging: search-engine optimization, social network marketing, and, finally, the art and science of writing good headlines.

The latter raises some interesting questions for the writer. Brian Clark at CopyBlogger advocates writing headlines first, then drafting a story to fit it. In short: start with a catchy, marketable, DIGG-able headline, then invent story to go underneath it:

Start with the headline first.

You’ll of course have a basic idea for the subject matter of your blog post, article, free report or sales letter. Then, simply take that basic idea and craft a killer headline before you write one single word of the body content.

Why?

Your headline is a promise to prospective readers. Its job is to clearly communicate the benefit that you will deliver to the reader in exchange for their valuable time.

His series of posts on effective headline writing includes tutorials like “10 Sure-Fire Headline Formulas That Work” and “7 Reasons Why List Posts Will Always Work.” He also advocates the “The Cosmo Headline Technique for Blogging Inspiration“.

His suggestions make sense, especially if your goal is to maximize clicks and boost your profile. It also feels somewhat mercenary and transactional. Perhaps its the genre of blogging he promotes, but it seems to reduce all writing to a “what’s in it for me?” exchange.

Maybe he’s right. I’ve tried his method on some of my posts at Examiner.com with mixed results. I’ve used some of his “headline formulas”: some worked, some failed miserably.

Overall, I think the approach is dangerous. Yes, your headline should tease readers to check out your piece. And yes, it should provide a “promise” to the readers that if they read your work, it will be worthwhile. But if writers make it their routine to start with a search-engine-optimized, formula-driven headline, won’t it often lead to equally unoriginal and formulaic writing?

There’s nothing wrong with maximizing your chances at attracting a big readership through smart use of the web, but if you start with those goals in mind, then think about your actual ideas and writing second, aren’t you giving up a lot? As the old expression goes: is the tail wagging the dog?

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