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:


Rhea · August 30, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Thanks for this, Matt. I’ve been hearing about Evernote and now it’s clear I need to do myself the favor of downloading it ASAP.

Joyce Pardon · September 11, 2013 at 1:34 am

where was this blog two years ago when the first words out of my mouth to anybody who wrote was “how do you organize?” All I got were blank stares and talk about piles around the room and notecards. My computer was a nightmare of files. This is my needed resource. (My computer will still be a nightmare of files, though)

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