Evernote for Writing Academic Papers


It’s hard not to be a fan of Evernote: It’s a great application to keep track of notes, sync them across multiple devices, share them – and with hand-writing recognition, it can almost perform magic compared to stacks of papers all over the desk (an inevitably on the wrong desk in case you ever work from more than one…). It’s also pretty much usable in the “free” version – or at least I’m still trying to reach my upload limit, and I can honestly say, it seems like a great app for people who like to make notes, remember things in the middle of a train station – or are just too disorganised to work on a paper or chapter in more than one place (in short… me). So I was quite intrigued that a colleague suggested, rather than just using Evernote for making notes, switching to actually using it as a “word processor” to write a paper or chapter in. So I gave it a try – and here are my experiences of this…As I said before, I’m a great fan of anything but Word to write. Word just simply isn’t up to it when it comes to organising sections efficiently, making sure you balance word count in sections – or using Word as a note pad or brain storm map before writing a paper or chapter. I do give Word the credit for being the better than, for example Scrivener, at layout – and there is (sadly) no doubt that most people use word to send around documents. So for better or worse Word is here to stay, but it doesn’t have to be the main tool of an academics trade.

I also love Evernote: it’s just a great little app that keeps my notes where I need them. Of course, while it is good at that, it can also do a few other things – like writing a paper. In some ways, the way to achieve this is similar to the process when writing using dedicated writing software like Scrivener – or at least that is how I did it.

So in order to get started on a chapter I was writing, I created a new “Notebook” for the project. This was basically the shell that contained all the ideas and sections that I wanted to cover. The next step was a bit more tricky, as it involved giving each of the different parts some form of identifier, which ordered the various notes into important “admin” notes (such as style sheets, to do list and word counts), back ground notes and of course notes for each section of the finished chapter. I used the first character in the notes to order them. Unfortunately, Evernote does not let you move the notes around easily, but rather seems to insist on ordering them either by date created/updated or alphabetically. Alphabetically does work, but you need to think of naming the notes. So for example, all the Todos and other admin stuff, I named !whatever which Evernote puts first. Chapter parts became 0.01Introduction 0.02Firstbit etc. Finally, general notes became ZZZMindmap.   I’m not sure it was the best way to organise the notes, but it worked for the purpose, but please bear in mind that you may want to adjust this if you want to write with Evernote.

The next task was then simply to work on the various admin and background notes and write the chapter sections. The obvious advantage of using Evernote being that, when I had an idea, it was really easy to jot things down using my phone or whatever app or  computer was in easy reach. Definitely a big advantage of Evernote!

Once the writing was done, the next tricky bit was trying to convert all the notes to one document to export it to Word for the final formatting. One idea was to convert the notes to HTML and then import these into Word. But, yes, as Word is a little choosy when it comes to importing and likes to add things where there weren’t things before, I figured that the better way of exporting and importing was simply to copy and paste the notes into one document. This worked much easier than using the HTML option. Finally I could then adjust the layout – and add citations using Zotero, which sadly does not work in Evernote itself.

So overall,… how did it go? Well, it depends what you compare it with, and which features are important. I think the main advantage is the omnipresence of all the notes. I also liked the way that admin notes, sections and background notes are instantly available wherever – and, in true Evernote style, can be anything from pictures to PDFs, text to hand written notes. That is definitely something that mad things easy and, despite the slightly geeky setup procedure, makes it worthwhile considering Evernote as writing tool. And it is much easier to organise material (and thoughts) using Evernote in comparison to word.

However, if you compare Evernote to Scrivener, then unfortunately the dedicated Scrivener wins for me. Maybe this is because of my writing style, and due to the fact that I’m usually ending up reordering sections a few times. Scrivener also allows you to have all the background material – although the major disadvantage of Scrivener remains, for the time being, that it can only be used on a computer (unless you fancy some rather complicated syncing to an app called SimpleNote).

Both Scrivener and Evernote have, of course, one main issue: And that is the lack of integration with a citation software. Probably not a big one if you are happy to add the citations later when formatting, but it needs to be pointed out. So, on balance, I’d say that Evernote is a great programme/app/site for notes. And yes, if you are geeky enough you can make it work as a writing tool. But if you want to be less geeky and more “getting down and writing”, then maybe you should think of investing the US$45 for Scrivener… just a thought.

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