I’m sure most writers in this day and age have their preferred digital method of keeping track of their writing. I’ve talked to my peers who use everything from a simple word processing “notebook” to a spreadsheet all the way through applications written for the exact purpose of allowing scribes to stay organized.
For years, I used OneNote from Microsoft, but at the time I switched to a Mac, I no longer had that option. As luck with have it, I stumbled on a new (at least then) free multi-platform tool that allowed me to maintain access to my notes from my desktop as well as on the road and found it to be perfect for me: Evernote, by the Evernote Corporation.
Like OneNote, Evernote doesn’t force you into any structured methodology — it provides you the tools and widgets and lets you decided how to leverage them. So while my process won’t necessarily appeal to you, perhaps it will give you some ideas on how to better use the software or switch to it, if you’re not familiar with it and want to try something new.
Starting with Notebooks
Generally speaking, I respect hierarchies, especially those that make my life easier, and since I usually have several active works-in-progress, I find writing hierarchies imperative. In this case, a logical breakdown in separate notebooks helps me keep my thoughts orderly and compartmentalized. My most active ones are:
- Daily Pages — This is my core notebook and contains a single page for every day. The first thing I do when I wake up is create a new page simply titled with the day’s date. These pages contain anything I create that’s not for a WIP throughout the day. These can include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
- Titles: Frequently, an interesting title just pops into my head and even though I may not have anything more to go with at the moment, I’ll jot it down anyway. Many of my stories have just started with a title and then weeks / months later, I see it when scanning my notes and the story idea (or storyline) just appears.
- Opening lines: Sometimes, I either have a good opening line come to me or I’ll just sit down and write opening lines that I think will lead to more down the road. It’s a good creative exercise I use to warm up if I have nothing in the WIP queue I want to begin continue working on.
- Story ideas / Loglines: Frequently, I get an idea that’s not necessarily fully formed, but still can be expressed in a few sentences. I call these “story ideas” (or if they’re better suited for a screenplay, the industry term “loglines”). They can be framed in the form of a “what if” question, for example — or anything that gives enough to work with when I’m ready to develop it further.
- Storylines: Storylines are extended versions of story ideas / loglines. They are fully formed, but short, story synopses with a definable throughline, usually comprised of at least three paragraphs representing the beginning, middle and end of the story in question. Each storyline's premise is clearly defined, the hero’s journey is delineated from start to finish and key conflicts are called out. Storylines are usually the most “dangerous” because they can derail me from my current WIPs in order to further develop the idea while the storyline is still fresh in my mind.
- Snippets: Very often, I start with an opening line of a story and then write several paragraphs from that until I’ve drained the well from which the idea came or I’m falling asleep at my computer. Just like storylines, snippets can derail me from a fully planned schedule. I tend not to force myself to stop during these writing frenzies simply because I feel anything I can get out of my brain and down on digital paper is a good idea, even if I never use what I write ever again. More often then not, though, I do continue from where I left off weeks, even months, down the road.
- Scenes: Similar to snippets, sometimes an opening scene for a screenplay comes out of nowhere and I just write to see where it goes. As usually happens, I’ll write several scenes before I stop and transfer it over to Final Draft to continue. Two of my current WIPs began just like this — one of which I’m “pantsing” (just writing without an outline or any other formal story structure) from beginning to end), the other began as a pantsing project, but I stopped after fifteen pages and began outlining the rest.
- Blogs: These are blog ideas, either short one sentence descriptions or a few paragraphs (or bullet points) to make sure I capture the key elements of the intended post.
- WIP progress: In order to keep myself honest, I track progress on my current WIPs, but I don’t record word counts or hours worked on each. Instead, I just note the WIP and what scene(s) I’ve completed. As long as I can see steady headway, I’m satisfied … unless I’m on a deadline, of course, then I have a writing plan, a process that’s for a separate blog post.
- Journal entries: Though I don’t keep a formal journal, on those days where I can't get a lot of writing done because of something else — traveling, for instance — I at least mark a note on that day’s Daily Page indicating what I was doing instead of writing.
- Blogs — While I use MacJournal for blogging on my Macbook Pro, sometimes I’m not able to continue with my current post because I’m in mobile mode. Since Evernote is multi-platform, it’s easy enough to copy my current WIP to a blog page in Evernote and keep writing on any one of my mobile devices. When I get back to my Mac, I simply transfer the updated post to MacJournal, format it, then upload it.
- Fodder — In conjunction with the Evernote Web Clipper (see below), I capture interesting / unique news stories and other oddities that could one day be grist for the writing mill. I may never look at it again, but with Evernote’s search function, I can find virtually anything I’ve had an interest in writing about. This is one of the handiest tools Evernote has.
- Writing — Many times, I want to continue building on a story Idea and maintain it in an separate Evernote page. I dedicate the Writing notebook to these pages and with Evernote’s Table of Contents feature (see below), I can easily create an index to make it easier to pick up where I left off. At some point, though, the proverbial chick has to leave the nest and it must move on to my writing application ... usually Scrivener.
The Importance of Tags
The entire Daily Pages methodology would be severely limited if not for tags. My process is pretty simple: when I come up with a new Title, for example, I simply add “Title” in the tags. Other tags I commonly use include:
- Opening line
- Story idea
In addition, I use tags that are titles to my WIPs if I do anything creative for those projects in order for me to easily go back to see what days I worked on those WIPs.
With Evernote’s filter capabilities, I can easily isolate pages by a specific tag. This definitely helps when trying to reorganize notebooks or consolidate pages related to a single WIP or entry type.
The Web Clipper
As noted above, Evernote has a browser extension they call the Web Clipper. What this clever little tool allows you to do is clip some or all of a web page and have it automatically be added to the notebook of your choice. While I use the Clipper to capture articles of general interest, I use it most to capture ideas for stories to write, placing them in the Fodder notebook mentioned earlier. The Clipper is somewhat intuitive in that it is able to figure out into which notebook the clipped page is likely to fit. More often than not, it’s correct, too, but it’s easy to change to another notebook if you prefer it elsewhere. The Clipper makes life so much easier.
Using Note Links & Tables of Contents
Another great feature of Evernote is the ability to create note links — links to other note pages anywhere within your Evernote library — and an offshoot of that, creating a table of contents of links to pages within a single notebook. This latter capability is particularly handy for my Writing notebook which consists of over one hundred partially written stories: I can easily jump to any story I’d like to continue working on after I scan a page of links to choose from. Another great use of note links: adding a link to a “fodder” page as a reference for a story I’m writing. This way I won’t have to copy the content of the entire clipped page into the story page itself. Pretty neat.
Other Bells & Whistles
While there are too many other features of Evernote to describe here, there are a couple of others worth mentioning that I use a lot of: bulleted lists and horizontal lines. Because I tend to "think in outlines" even when I’m pantsing (this goes back to my days as a software developer where I would have to write hundreds of lines of code on the fly), I like to capture ideas in bulleted form. Evernote provides the ability to create numbered lists as well, a feature I rarely use. A button to create horizontal lines is also quite helpful: I use those to separate activities / writings within a single Daily Page, for example. For me, it helps keep the page looking neat and organized.
Pulling It All Together
All of these features make Evernote a pretty powerful tool, but no collection of features is worth anything if you can’t use them effectively. Here is a overview how my “typical” writing day goes with Evernote. I put typical in quotes because there is no such thing in reality.
- Create a new Daily Page and title it with the day’s date (“June 27, 2014”).
- Any ideas that stayed with me from my dreams get written down with a descriptor for what type it is preceding it. For example, “Title: Title of an Amazing New Story.”
- Add “Title” as a tag.
- Insert a horizontal line after the aforementioned title.
- If my brain is ready to pick up from a WIP, I would do the work on the WIP until I stop, then go back to the Daily Page and write “WIP Name — scene N.”
- Add the WIP name as a tag.
- Insert a horizontal line after that note.
- And so on.
At the end of my writing day, I have an idea of what occupied my creative efforts in chronological order. Not too shabby.
So will all this make you a better writer? Maybe yes, maybe no. However, it certainly will make you a more organized one and that usually leads to being a better something. If you a process or a tool that works for you, then you’re probably better off than 80% of other writers. Keeping organized requires constant attention — and tweaking — in order to be successful. If you have no process, who knows, maybe I’ve given you a framework from which to build. In any case, Evernote is a free software program worth exploring.
One final word: I know that OneNote is now available on the Mac, and while I use it for access to my old notes on occasion, I am too entrenched in my Evernote world … and I like it that way. ☺