Going Paperless: Online Writing Tools

This past weekend, science fiction writer Bud Sparhawk and I delivered a talk at the Capclave science fiction convention on “Online Writing Tools.” The purpose of our talk was to demonstrate a wide variety of tools we use in our daily writing work. Bud and I use different tools and have different styles of writing so it made for a diverse discussion. We talked about Scrivener and Google Docs, FileMaker and Inspiration. And, of course, I talked about Evernote.

I thought it might be interesting for readers of this column to see the Evernote part in more detail. For anyone who wants to look at the entire presentation, it is available on Google Drive.

What a writer does

Before I jump into the parts that focus on Evernote, I wanted to make sure we are on the same page concerning what it is, exactly, that a writer does. I have friends who think that writing is easy, that all it amounts to is sitting in front of a computer (or typewriter) and banging out your thoughts on the keyboard. In our talk, Bud and I used the following illustration to help clarify a lot of the things a freelance writer has to do as part of their job:

Writers Life

The tools writers use to do all of these things vary by task and by writer. Since we are talking about one particular writer today (me) and one particular tool (Evernote), here is where I find myself using Evernote in my writing life:

Writers Life Evernote

Below, I will touch briefly on each of these areas and how I integrate Evernote into my writing life.

1. Using Evernote to capture ideas

There is nothing worse for a writer than getting a great idea and not writing it down. The reason, of course, is that you end up forgetting the idea. In fact, I have a theory that the likelihood of forgetting an idea is directly proportional to the quality of the idea times the length of time since you got the idea, squared. Put another way, the better the idea and the longer you go without writing it down, the more likely you are to forget it.

Long experience has taught me that there are two critical factors in capturing ideas:

  1. You must be able to capture the idea quickly and easily.
  2. You must be able to find the idea once you’ve captured it.

The first is pretty obvious. If you get an idea and have a cumbersome method for capturing it, you are less likely to use it. You need a tool that allows you to capture the idea within seconds and without hassle.

The second may not be as obvious. For instance, you can scratch an idea on a napkin, but what happens if you lose the napkin? The same principle applies here as with backing up data: it is not the ability to backup that is critical, it is the ability to restore. It’s all well and good if you capture your idea on a napkin, but if you can’t locate that idea later, the method you used to capture it is meaningless.

I use Evernote to capture my ideas, and since they released their newest upgrade for iOS 7, it has indeed become quick and easy to use. I often get ideas while taking my daily walks, and it has become easy to pull out my iPhone, jot down the idea and move on:

Capture Ideas

In the screenshots above, you can see how I do this. I tap on the Quick Note section of the screen on the left. That takes me to a new note. I jot down the idea, tag it and save it. Later, I can find the ideas I’ve captured simply by searching for the tag I’ve assigned to the notes. And because all of the notes are stored and centralized on Evernote’s servers, I can access my ideas from any device.

2. Using Evernote for research

With few exceptions, research is a part of just about any writer’s life. Since much of what I write is science fiction, research is a large part, although this mostly applies to the second draft. In my first drafts, I don’t spend a lot of time researching. In order to get the story done, I just make stuff up and then leave notes in the manuscript that say things like, “Need to do a calculation here” or “need to find out how far you could hit a baseball on the moon.” The actual research happens in the second draft.

Evernote is a great tool for research because you can do it all in context of what you are researching. For instance, I was doing some research on the science fiction writer Clifford D. Simak not to long ago. In my browser, I pulled up an article on Simak from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:


If what I find is useful, I’ll use the Evernote Web Clipper to capture the page in Evernote. I usually capture it in “Simplified” format. I have 3 reasons for this:

  1. It makes it easier to read.
  2. It removes the clutter and distraction from the page.
  3. It makes it easy to annotate.


While in the “Simplified Article” view, I am still in my browser, still in the context of the article. From here I can use web clipper annotation tools, like the highlighter, to mark up and annotate the document, which is extremely useful. I can mark up important passages as I capture the research. When I save the clipping to Evernote, it saves it with my markups and annotation:



3. Using Evernote to manage projects

Each piece that I write, fiction or nonfiction, can be considered a project. How I manage them depends on a couple of factors. I am often asked if I create a notebook in Evernote for each writing project I manage, and the truth is I do not. That said, I have evolved a set of rules that I use for determining whether a notebook is necessary. Those rules workout roughly as follows:


I work on two types of freelance projects:

  1. Commissioned: these are projects where an editor has asked me to do something for them, write a story, write an article, etc.
  2. Non-commissioned: these are projects where I have not been asked but am writing something on my own for eventual submission.

I also break my projects in two sizes:

  1. Small: short stories, short articles, etc.
  2. Large: novels, novellas, in-depth articles or interviews.

The grid above shows how I determine whether or not a project requires its own notebook in Evernote. Anything that is commissioned gets its own notebook. The reason for this is that I am doing the work for someone else, and want a place to collect everything related to that project for quick reference.

For non-commissioned work, the only time I use a notebook is when it is a large project for which I foresee a lot of notes and documentation. I typically do not create a separate notebook for non-commissioned short stories and articles, but I have done so for my novel.

My reasoning is balancing need over complexity. For large projects, it is easier to toss lots of documents into a single notebook and looking for it there, as opposed to smaller projects, where I can apply a tag to a few documents (a contract and galleys, for example).

Also, there are limitations to the number of notebooks one can have in Evernote (I believe the current limit is 250). I am nowhere near that limit at this point, but making judicious use of notebooks helps manage the need for them as well.

4. Using Evernote for contracts

When I receive a contract for a story or article, I scan the contract into Evernote and file it appropriately. But I go one step further. Contracts specify the rights you are selling to your story or article. Often times, multiple rights are involved, but mostly I am interested in the main rights. These rights are sold for a specified period of time and for a specified dollar amount. When this period of time has expired, you get the rights back and can resell the story or article somewhere else. There are lots of reprint markets so it is useful to know when these rights revert back to you.

After scanning in my contract, I read through it to identify when the rights revert back to me, and then I create a reminder on the note to proactively remind me that the rights have come back to me. Here is one example:


The screen capture above shows a recent contract for a story I sold to the Beyond the Sun anthology, which appeared back in August. Although the image is a little blurred, you can see that I have set a reminder for the note on the date on which the rights revert back to me. I will get a notification from Evernote on that day to remind me that I once again have the rights to the story.

5. Using Evernote to track payments

Finally, I use Evernote to capture payments I receive for my writing. When a check arrives in the mail, I scan it into Evernote. I annotate the note with what the check was for, tag it as a payment, and set the create date of the note to match the date on the check.

Sometimes I will receive payments via PayPal (typically, these are royalty payments from overseas markets). In these cases, I get an email notification of the payment. I forward the email to my Evernote email address, annotate the note in Evernote as I do for a check, modify the create date as necessary and then tag it as a payment.

When it comes tax time, all I have to do is search for any notes tagged “payments” for the last year and I get a listing of all of the checks and PayPal payments I’ve received. I can tally these up and send them to my accountant. It saves me (and her) an enormous amount of time.

These are just some of the ways I use Evernote to help with my freelance writing. There are many more. I am occasionally asked if I use Evernote to do my actual writing. I do not, and I have written about why I don’t use Evernote for writing stories. I think Evernote is an ideal tool to help manage the business of my writing, however, and as I do more and more writing, I find Evernote to be of greater and greater use in managing my writing.

If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let know me. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post: Quick Tip: Using Evernote Reminders for Upcoming Deliveries

3 thoughts on “Going Paperless: Online Writing Tools

  1. Hi There: I just discovered your blog and have been enjoying reading it and catching up with older posts. Was wondering what your thoughts were on the new crop of Chromebooks and if you were thinking of upgrading? I have a Samsung ARM Chromebook that I also use as my “writing machine.” Thanks!

  2. Ryan, I’ve had my Chromebook for less than a year and I really like it. No plans to upgrade at this point because I have no reason to. The one I have does everything I need and does it well.

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