May 15, 2017 Update: I no longer use Evernote; eventually I found it too clunky. One idea is to use a private WordPress blog to track citations and notes.
For a long time I’ve struggled to track and organize my research for various writing projects. My solution—for now, anyway—is to use Evernote to stash and organize articles and notes. I also use Evernote for my to-do lists, which works fairly well, and for a few other tasks.
Evernote is a type of software that combines features of a word processor and a database. (Another example of this type of software is Scrivener, which I’ve also started to use for writing.) It’s great for displaying multiple thumbnails of files at a time, allowing easy viewing of a given file, and organizing files by category.
Evernote has several advantages other other offerings of the type. Its web-based interface allows users to access their data on any web-connected device; its mobile apps allow easy syncing between mobile devices and desktops; and its web browser add-on “web clipper” enables easy storage and sorting of the contents of web pages. No longer do I have to worry about important articles disappearing on me; I just save a copy to Evernote. (Evernote also has a desktop app, but I didn’t see the point of using it.)
Unfortunately, a recent “upgrade” to Evernote’s web-based interface made the software less functional for me. Before, I found it easy to group multiple files by “notebook,” then to “stack” multiple notebooks into groups. With the upgrade, I found it too hard to display this hierarchy of files, so I ended up unstacking all my notebooks. For ease of use, this is how I recommend using Evernote: Put all your notes into notebooks, and don’t attempt further nesting of files.
Before I unstacked my notebooks, I didn’t use Evernote’s tag feature. Now I use tags. These are useful for grouping small numbers of like files together and for tying together files in different notebooks.
I do four main things with Evernote: collect research, write and collect notes about projects, collect information about personal business interactions, and maintain to-do lists. Let’s take these in turn.
Most of my notebooks are devoted to research topics. For example, I have a notebook for “Philosophy, Kant” and another for “Philosophy, Rand.” (This naming structure allows me to easily view related notebooks next to each other alphabetically.) I have a notebook for “Research, Abortion” and another for “Research, Capitalism.” (Someday I may get around to changing the word “research” to “policy.”)
When I come across an interesting article that I want to save, I cut-and-past it into a new note in the appropriate notebook, or I use Evernote’s web-clipping function (which I use with the Safari browser). Usually with the web-clipper, I find it useful to cut-and-paste the citation information as straight text into the “Add remark” box, then save the main text in “Simplified article” mode.
I use separate notebooks to record my personal notes on various topics. As examples, I have notebooks for “Project Notes, Religion” and “Project Notes, Roads.” Of course, it’s possible to use a single notebook to combine outside materials and personal notes. For example, I could put my collected articles as well as my own notes about roads into a unified folder. But I opted not to do that, because generally the number of articles I gather far outpace the number of notes that I write, so in a unified notebook my personal notes would get buried.
I use a “Personal, Business” notebook to record information about contractors, doctors, and other service providers with whom I interact.
Finally, I have two notebooks for to-do lists, “To Do New” and “To Do Archive.” I like using the archive file, because I can reproduce the contents of my list into a new list, then save the old list to the archives. That way I can go back and see my progress if I want. At this point, I have two notes in “To Do New,” my main to-do list and my to-write list, which lists the various writing projects I hope to take up.
Obviously there are lots of different ways to use Evernote, but I’ve found a way that works pretty well for me and that’s easy to maintain. I use the free “basic” level of service; two different pay-per-year levels offer more services, including sharing features that many businesses use. So far, the basic level has been ample for my needs.
I was surprised to see a total limit of 100,000 notes and 250 notebooks; I’ve already stored 897 notes in the short time I’ve been using Evernote. I asked via Twitter if the company plans to expand these limits. Evernote replied, “Not that we can publicly release.” But most users won’t need to worry about those limits for a long time.
For collecting and organizing research, as well as for various other tasks, Evernote works.
October 1, 2015 Update: Today I hit my monthly upload limit, which, for the free account, is 60 megabytes. The first, paid upgrade offers a full gigabyte—way more than I need. So my solution is to simply stop using the web clipper and cut-and-paste files into Evernote so as to avoid space-consuming images. You can find your monthly usage stats in your account summary.