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:

5 mistakes writers make when doing interviews, and how to avoid them

a retro-looking reporter taking notes during an interviewInterviewing someone for a story is difficult. Getting people to give you valuable, useful, interesting information in a colorful way is no small task. You need to ask good questions, follow up, take notes, as well as observe the environment and personal mannerisms.  It’s a lot to process, and it only gets harder when you make it difficult on yourself.  Here are five things I’ve learned to avoid that can help make interviews a lot better:

1. Don’t ask long, convoluted questions

Ever been to a big meeting or a lecture where an audience member stands up, and instead of asking a direct question, rambles incoherently for two minutes, then finally asks something like, “what do you think about that?”  Don’t be that guy.  Nothing makes me cringe more than listening to an interview I did and hearing myself launch a long, windy question that takes a full minute to unravel.  It’s rare that such questions need to be that long:  usually it’s just a rambling statement or observation with the real question appended to the end of it.  The interview shouldn’t be about you or your impressions (that’s what your story is for); the interview needs to focus on your subject.  Keep the questions short, clear, and open-ended.

2. Don’t think! Listen.

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made during interviews is being so busy thinking of my next question or how a quote will fit in my story that I miss or neglect to follow-up on something interesting that a subject reveals.  When I listen to recordings of interviews, I’m often baffled that a subject might say something like “I haven’t talked to my father in more than ten years,” and I’ll not even respond or ask him to explain; instead, I move on to an unrelated next question.  A obvious, but difficult skill when interviewing is to concentrate on listening to your subject so that you take advantage of new information he or she presents, rather than robotically taking notes and walking through a list of pre-conceived questions.

3. Don’t marry yourself to weak interviews

Sometimes I’ve scored an interview with a famous person or a highly regarded expert, but when we finally talk, what they say isn’t particularly interesting. Or maybe an interview is interesting and insightful, but turns out to be a poor fit for the focus of the story.

Years ago, while working on a story, I interviewed about six fathers who took paternity leave.  One of them, an old friend, had lots of interesting things to say about the challenges of being on his own with the kids. But when I listened to the recording of the interview, it became clear that he was talking about the challenges of being a stay-at-home father, not about taking paternity leave from work. It might have been useful for a different story, but didn’t really fit this one.  Yet I didn’t cut it.  I didn’t want to give up on the great interview I had with him, even though it wasn’t right for the story.

Sometimes hard-sought interviews just don’t warrant being used in a final story. It’s hard to accept that you might have emailed back and forth with someone eight times, talked for an hour, written up notes on the interview, and yet it has no place in your story. Interviews need to support or develop the key ideas and themes of a story.  If they don’t, they need to go.

4. Don’t write down long quotes; write down times

When someone delivers a fantastic quote, you can get lost trying to jot it down word for word.  Odds are, while you’re doing that, you’re missing something else.  Instead of writing down quotes verbatim, jot down a short snippet of the quote and the time marker for when it he or she said it.

For example, for a recent story, an Afghanistan war veteran told me about teenage students he knows who have no memory of America before it was at war. “Because it’s been there for as long as they can remember, it’s just a fact of life,” he said. Nice quote.  In my notes taken during the interview, I wrote “’just a fact of life’… 7:30” — a quick reminder of the quote, plus the note that he said it seven and a half minutes into the interview. This approach has two benefits.  First, it allows you to focus on what you’re subject is saying more than trying to write out that juicy quote.  Second, when you’re working on a deadline, it will be a lot easier to locate that quote in your recording because you know exactly where to find it.  Odds are, no matter how well you took notes, you’ll need to go back and make sure you wrote it down correctly.

5. Don’t trust your batteries

It doesn’t matter if you think your batteries should be fine; Murphy’s Law says that if you’re doing an interview with a recording device, it will run out of juice at the wrong time.  ALWAYS put new (or freshly-recharged) batteries into your recorder before every interview.  Even if you don’t lose your interview, you don’t want be asking your subject to wait while you switch batteries.  And always have a few backup batteries on hand, just in case.

Five ways to make writing harder than it needs to be

Man with his head on a deskThe more I write, the more I notice myself repeating the same mistakes during the writing process, bad habits that waste time and energy. Since I’m often short on both, it’s worth being aware of those pitfalls and trying to avoid them. Maybe others have the same issues.

1. Writing without a map

Perhaps if you write novels or short stories, or if you happen to be a genius, you can just sit down at a keyboard and compose a story without knowing where you’re going. For me, that’s a plan for getting lost and wasting time. I don’t need to have a detailed outline of a story in order to start writing, but I tend to be much more effective when I jot down a basic structure of the story, a loose idea of where key elements of my story — interviews, research, and quotes — will wind up. All of this is subject to change of course, but without a basic map to follow when writing a first draft, I’ve found myself going in circles or drifting off into wordy tangents that don’t advance the story.

2. Stopping to sweat the small stuff

My best work comes when I can concentrate and write, uninterrupted, for a few hours at a time. I get into a flow, and suddenly, the ideas and the words flow together well. I’m better able to think about the broader arguments and themes I’m trying do develop, and the smaller parts of a story come together to develop that. Sadly, that experience is rare. More often, I write in herky-jerky bursts: ten or fifteen minutes on the subway, half an hour during lunch, or an hour or so late at night or before dawn. When I do get the rare stretch to work for a few hours, too often, I sabotage myself with constant interruptions: email, Facebook, sports scores. But worst of all is when I stop to do micro-research instead of staying focused on the writing.

An example: last week while working on a story, I wrote this line: “Right now, [???] American troops are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.” I didn’t know the number, though I had a rough idea. Instead of leaving that blank spot there and coming back later to fill it in, I clicked away to the web and spent 15 or 20 minutes trying to dig up and confirm an accurate number. By the time I was done with that – stopping along the way to check my email, Facebook, and the Lakers score – and tabbed back over to my word processor, I’d completely lost my train of thought. Whatever groove I’d gotten in was lost. Researching facts and figures is important, but often, they can wait until later in the writing process. Every time I minimize my word processor, stop writing, and start focusing on something else, I lose the focus and concentration it takes to do my best work. Life gives us enough interruptions as it is; we don’t need to create our own distractions.

3. Spending too much time on the opening

Here’s an unscientific chart of the amount of time I often spend on a typical ten-page story:

Hours spent writing and editing a story, by page

One of my most common mistakes is spending an inordinate amount of time on the beginnings of stories:  editing, revising, and rewriting them endless times, while giving later pages a fraction of that attention. Instead of getting a good complete draft on the paper, I obsess about the first 300 or 400 words, to the detriment of everything that follows.

4. Over-reporting

I pride myself on doing thorough reporting and research. Many writers I admire say that they report and research as much as they can, then wind up using a small sliver of what they found. But too often, it’s easy to lose valuable hours digging too deeply into part of a story that’s not essential to the core focus. For example, in a recent feature I worked on about war video games, a related issue to the story was a recent Supreme Court case. I watched the arguments over the case live, then printed and read half a dozen briefs. It was all very interesting, but much more depth than I needed for my article. When I wound up scrambling to finish my draft of the story, I rushed the writing of the final few pages, which were clearly the weakest part of the finished piece. In retrospect, those hours I spend reading and marking up long legal briefs were critical hours of writing time I wish I’d had back. Good reporting is one thing; burning up hours of time on questionably relevant research is just inefficient. The lesson? Good reporting is essential, but always keep the final story in mind. Ask yourself how essential each angle of research is to the core ideas and themes of the story.

5.  Letting darlings live

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch offered this famous bit of advice: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” William Faulkner later shortened this advice to “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Elmore Leonard offered a similar take in more modern times with this simple rule: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” What they’re all saying is that it’s easy to become too attached to a bit of writing that seems clever or “beautiful.” And often, that favorite little chunk of writing needs to go.

In my writing, this most often is a scene or a moment I think I’ve described well, but which starts to seem out of place with the rest of the story. Or it’s a line where I repeat an idea I’ve already expressed, only in some more clever way. It’s repetitive, but I can’t see that because the second line is seems so brilliant. Eventually, I usually bring myself to evict my darlings from a story and relocate them io a designated “outtakes” file. Somehow this doesn’t seem as final. In the 21st century, darlings never really die, they just move on to someplace else.

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.