Why I Use Evernote – or: Why I Started to Enjoy Writing

– Tom Uytterhoeven –

One of the topics that can start a vivid discussion between PhD-students, regardless their actual research topic, is the latest productivity app (another is where the best pizza is served). So I spent a lot of evenings testing out apps like:

  • Omnifocus – good, but expensive if you want it on all your devices – and I don’t like the interface on the Mac – thinking about moving to Pocket Informant or just use the Apple native iCal and Reminder apps.
  • Scrivener – takes a while to get used to, but right now I start all my writing there – no iPad version yet, I use Pages, Daedalus (syncs with Ulysses), and Textilus there – last two allow you to sync with Scrivener through workhorse Dropbox.
  • 30/30 – when I got to speed things up, this is the app I use to annoy myself – hate it, but it works!
  • iThoughtsHD – mind mapping tool – cool, but there are free apps (Mindnode has a free version) out there that do an equally good job – do watch out for apps that charge subscription costs.
  • Daily Routine – plan your day – for when you have trouble scheduling enough writing slots in your daily routine – used it when I started doing research and had a difficult time adjusting from being a full time teacher with a fixed lesson schedule to the flexible schedule of a researcher – would not buy it again, still have it on my iPad mini (without retina display) though.
  • iAnnotate PDF – work on those PDF’s on your screen – used GoodReader also, but like the iAnnotate interface and possibilities better.
  • Pocket – the internet is an infinite reading list – Pocket allows you to save info and get back to it later on – I use it as a filter: read and delete or save.

Some of these apps I had already before I started doing research, some of them I downloaded during a long semester without a laptop (Murphy’s Lawn n° 951: if a lap top crashes on you, it will crash precisely on the moment your budget does not allow you to replace it), leaving me with only the iPad to work on. A lot of them were deleted after initial enthusiasm (Clear, ReadQuick, Documents, Evomail, DocAS, Ilaro, GrafioLite, Rockmelt, SignEasy, WorkFlowy, Any To Do, Timesheeter, iA Writer, Notability, Pearltrees, Remember The Milk, Wunderlist,…). None of these apps really disappointed me. They just didn’t fit into my workflow as good as I wanted to, so I stopped using them or began looking for alternatives. That could eventually be the fate of every app that I currently use, so do not take my list as an endorsement…

One app I will probably never delete is Evernote. To put it a bit lyrically: wherever the long and winding road to the perfect workflow takes me, I always return to Evernote as my home app. I realized this today, when I was looking into Endnote. I had heard about this program (when did we start using the word ‘app‘ instead of ‘program’?), and thought it might help me keeping track of all those references of journal articles. But then I saw… the pricing! And I decided I would just stick to my handcrafted Evernote solution for saving references.

It is pretty basic, actually. When I start reading a new book(chapter) or paper, I jot down the full reference in an Evernote notebook, labeled ‘References’ (original name, I know), with the name of the author as a tag. When I need to put the reference in a footnote, I just open the notebook, do a little search query on the author, copy-paste the reference into my document and that’s it.

Note taking follows more or less the same pattern. First I tried making a single note for each quote and/or remark I wanted to save for later use. But that really takes too long, with opening and closing a new note for every single thought. It’s just easier to make one note for a whole article or a book chapter, using the full reference as note title. The main advantage is that you can leave the note opened on your desktop while reading and just start typing when you found something new. To find the note later on, I use both author and (if needed) the number of the chapter in question as tags. You can add more tags, but in my experience the search function in Evernote does a good enough job in retrieving key words from the full text of a note. In fact, when I have the article in PDF, I just add marks and notes within the PDF-file and then save it as such in Evernote. I admit, when you don’t use Premium, you will do best to add more relevant tags in cases like these. But overall, it works just fine. I have my notes, I know there out there and I’ll always find them when I need them.

And that brings me to the joy of writing. Last year our faculty organized a doctoral colloquium with Colby Dickinson as guest speaker. He talked about different aspects of doing research. One of the metaphors he used for doing theology was that of carpentry. Just as a carpenter goes to his or her workshop to make a table, a chair, or a filing cabinet, a theologian goes to his or her office to make a paper, a journal article, or a book chapter. He referred to Robert Greene’s ‘Mastery‘ for further reading. Although I thought the metaphor was interesting, I did not make too much of it.

But last week that metaphor started to really work for me. Reading became more than just ‘working my way through the literature’. It became something like a carpenter does: choosing the right sort of wood, selecting the beams you need,etc. It’s something you do with care, with attention, with love for craftsmanship even. And writing became more than just putting the right number of words in the right format, it became something like scraping knobs, carefully crafting a dovetail joint to put planks together and slowly make a table, a chair, or a filing cabinet. It’s something you do conscientious, taking your time, with love for craftsmanship even. So each day I read and put my little pieces of wood in my Evernote workshop. And each day I take some of those pieces out and work with them.

The metaphor does not cover the essence of theological work entirely: there are knobs you cannot scrape away, you do not always get to choose the wood. The reality of whatever you are studying sometimes resists your presuppositions, your prefab schemas. Maybe the image of a sculptor is more appropriate, following Michelangelo’s lead… This movie illustrates more or less what I mean:

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