I have tried many note taking strategies over the years, from writing notes in a .txt file to writing notes in paper notebooks to writing notes using printable PDF templates to a variety of desktop and mobile apps, including Evernote, OneNote, and Color Note. Out of all of these options, I found that Evernote works the best for me. But how did I navigate this process? What were the main factors that influenced my decision? In this post, I will walk through these different options, and share my perspective on how to choose a note taking application that best suits your needs.
Paper Versus Digital Notebooks
I actually love to write things down on paper. Writing on paper helps me crystallize my thoughts and look for big picture patterns. Every morning, Monday through Friday, I write in my journal. When I’m working on a difficult research problem, I’ll often take out a sheet of paper and start drawing diagrams or writing bulleted lists. When I want to brainstorm new research ideas, I will write them on paper or on a white board. I occasionally write my tasks for the day on sticky notes. There is something satisfying and fulfilling about paper notes that I miss out on with digital notes. But as I already mentioned, my primary note taking system is not on paper, it’s in Evernote. How did I make this decision?
My main consideration when thinking about using paper versus a note taking app is how easy it will be to find my notes long after I have written them. My memory is not great. I have a long history of losing things. For these reasons, I try to structure my life so I don’t have to worry about losing physical objects, including paper notes or a physical notebook. If I only need a note for a single day or less, then I will use paper because I prefer that writing experience. But if I will need that note for the long term, for example for a research paper or proposal submission, then I migrate that content to an app.
In Defense Of Paper Notebooks
However, humans have been taking paper notes for thousands of years. Most apps don’t even last ten years. So for many researchers, paper notebooks seem like a safer bet than note taking apps. On top of this, you probably have a better memory than me! I never used a structured system for tracking my paper notes. If you learn from my mistakes and put a tried and true note tracking system in place, then going the paper route could work just fine for you. One system I particularly like is the commonplace notebook. Keep in mind though that the medium is not the critical factor in whether you will write good research notes. The critical factor is whether you will take the extra steps to organize your notes to make sure you can find exactly what you need when you need it. If you want to learn more about how to organize your notes to boost your research, my next post is on how to write excellent research notes for computer science.
Choosing a Note Taking Application
If you are like me and would find it easier to track notes digitally, then you have a lot of options. My favorite app for taking notes is Evernote, but I have also received recommendations from colleagues for Microsoft OneNote, Notion, and even GitHub to keep everything in one place. Students have mentioned using Apple’s iCloud Notes as well. Rather than focusing on any one app here, I will instead discuss what I look for in a note taking app, and you can decide which of these points matter to you and what you might like to add to the list.
My Non-Negotiable Features: Text Search, Syncing Across Devices, and Hyperlinks
One of the main ways I find relevant notes is through text search. It only takes a couple months for me to forget the exact names and/or phrases I put in my notes, so text search is an absolute must for me. Most note taking apps nowadays support text search though, so this should hopefully be a non-issue.
Another important feature for me is syncing across multiple devices. Most of my best ideas come to me at random times throughout the day, such as when I’m walking to and from work, doing chores, or even when I wake up in the morning. In most of these cases, I’m not at my laptop, but I still have my phone on hand, so I prefer to take notes on my phone. When I write notes on my phone, the last thing I want to do is write the note over again because the note isn’t synced with my laptop. A related feature I look for is easy sharing of notes with people who don’t use the app. As an example, Evernote makes it really easy to give people view-only access to notes through public links, and it’s easy to turn sharing of public links on and off for each individual note.
Aside from text search, the main way I find relevant notes is through hyperlinks. For example, when I start writing a new note as part of a larger project, I’ll add a list of links to older notes at the top of the new note. I also add a reverse hyperlink in each of the older notes for accessing the new note. That way, if I want to quickly review a relevant note within the same project, I can hop over to the relevant note through the hyperlink and back.
Other Useful Features: Image Embedding and File Attachments
Finally, I also look for note taking apps that support images and file attachments. Sometimes I draw a diagram or take a snapshot and want to hold onto it for the future, so I just paste it directly into the note I’m writing. With an embedded image, I can include it alongside existing text, add a caption, etc. However, the image quality may not be great for embedded images, so in some cases I will attach the original file so I maintain access to the original source.
Free Versus Paid Subscriptions
I actually have a paid subscription with Evernote because I use it a LOT. However, my honest opinion is that you should use the free version of Evernote until you bump into one of the freemium limits. For me, that was the limit on the size of individual notes. In the beginning, I never did anything very fancy with my notes. I just wrote text. But eventually, it got to the point where I would add images and files to my notes, which is difficult to do with just 25MB available per note. So I started paying for it. I see that the free version also has a severe limit on the total upload size per month (60MB). If you use the freemium version, I highly recommend avoiding adding any images or files, since this will eat in to the 60MB. If you stick to just writing your own text in the beginning (which is what I did), then the free version should work for a long time.
Which Subscription Level Should I Choose?
Currently, there are two subscription levels, “Evernote Personal” for 7.99 USD per month and “Evernote Professional” for 9.99 USD per month. If you want to pay for Evernote, here are some things to consider. I do not use most of the fancy features Evernote advertises. There are really only four features I take advantage of in the paid version (I’ll use Evernote Personal as an example): syncing unlimited devices, 200MB maximum note size, creating custom templates, and offline access on mobile and desktop. Technically Evernote shows me text extracted from images, docs, and PDFs when I search for things, but that doesn’t matter to me because there’s usually enough text in the note already to execute a successful search even without those extra files. And unless you upload lots of space-heavy files, such as high resolution images and video files, you are not going to bump into the 10GB monthly uploads limit. So you might pay for a lot of things you don’t need with the paid versions. That being said, the freemium limits are really just for writing text notes, and I want to do more than that. Also, I have a work laptop, personal laptop, and a smart phone, and I use Evernote daily on all three devices. The few features I do use are critical for my daily work, so I pay for them.
When to Buy a Subscription
Unless you are running your own business, I recommend just getting Evernote Personal. I already use only a subset of what the Personal subscription provides, and I would consider myself a heavy Evernote user. But don’t pay until you start getting frustrated with the free version. There is no sense in paying for something you may not use or even like. Try your desired app out first and if you like it then make a commitment with your money. Once you are ready to pay for a subscription, I recommend paying annually. Most subscription services will give you a modest discount if you pay annually.
Also, keep in mind that the specific app you use doesn’t matter in terms of writing useful notes. You can even use paper notebooks if you want. But if you don’t know how to write good notes in the first place, then you will be unhappy with your notes no matter what app or medium you use.
Choosing Which Devices to Use For Writing Research Notes
The next thing to do is to decide which devices you will use to take your notes. If you want to stick with free apps only, then my recommendation is to take notes mainly on your laptop/desktop computer, followed by a smart phone. I’m making assumptions here about what devices you have access to, but if you are a computer science researcher then I’m pretty sure you have a computer separate from your phone. Why no tablets you ask? Well, the free version of Evernote only allows syncing across two devices. Your main work computer and your phone should be the two devices, since you likely spend more time on your work computer at work and more time on your phone outside work. If you use a tablet way more than your actual work computer, then go ahead and install Evernote on it. Otherwise, don’t do it! You’re just giving yourself unnecessary headaches in the future having to swap Evernote between devices.
Whether you use a paper notebook or a digital one, you can write great research notes. The key is making sure that your chosen strategy includes all of the features you need for optimal note taking. Everyone’s needs are different, but I prefer to use note taking apps. I look for the following features in my preferred apps: text search, syncing across multiple devices, easy sharing, hyperlinks between notes, and support for embedding images and attaching files. Evernote is my favorite, and I have been a paying subscriber since 2017. However, definitely use the free version of your preferred note taking app until you bump into one of the freemium limits. No sense spending money unless you know for sure it makes sense!