After I accidentally threw my Macbook out of a moving car and couldn’t afford another one, I’d suffered with a Windows machine for 2 years before getting a Mac again.
I made a solemn oath never to use Windows software again, but last week, I did something that really shocked me.
I enjoyed using a Microsoft product. I enjoyed using it even when there was a viable non-Microsoft alternative.
Then why, I ask myself, am I submitting myself to a Microsoft product when I don’t have to ever see Microsoft again?
- I have made a terrible mess of my Evernote.
- OneNote is actually quite good.
In this post, I’m going to share my experiences with Evernote and OneNote, compare them, and give you an idea of how I get value out of them as a writer and note-hoarder spending all my waking hours on a laptop.
Evernote: The ‘Everything Bucket’
My Evernote has been reduced from a well-indexed scrapbook of research to a heap of Untitled Quick Notes thrown 1000-deep into the default notebook.
While searching around for a way to fix this, or an Evernote alternative, I found a great piece by Alex Payne making the case against apps like Evernote and why they encourage us to be more disorganized:
Computers work best with structured data. Everything Buckets discourage the use of structured data by providing a convenient place to commingle “structureless” data like RTF and PDF documents. Rather than forcing the user to figure out the rhyme and reason of their data (for example, by putting receipts in a financial management application and addresses in an address book), Everything Buckets cry: “throw it all in here! Search it!” — The Case Against Everything Buckets, Alex Payne
Yes, Evernote is a fantastic tool because of it’s features, but it does nothing to encourage you to get into good habits. Armed with the screenshot hotkey, you’ll quickly run up piles of unindexed data and bury any meaningful notes you were planning on referring back to.
The Major Problems with Evernote
For all it’s good points (getting to that in a moment), Evernote has a lot of flaws. The first of which is that for an organizational tool, it’s not particularly easy to organize.
It gets rammed full of crap
Around 90% of my notes are screenclips. I use Evernote precisely because I don’t want to go through the process of saving the image file somewhere, then opening it and uploading it to its destination.
As Alex Payne says:
Everything Buckets are selling you a filesystem, and removing the step of creating and saving a new file within that filesystem
Thanks to that setup, if you’re not careful your Evernote will end up looking like this:
Notebooks are not the way to go
There comes a moment where there’s no point in organizing all your rubbish. It would take several hours to go back and undo the damage caused by almost a year of abuse, so I’ve taken to using even poorer methods to fix it. Namely, using notebooks instead of tags.
As Jason Frasca ‘notes’:
What you do not want is too many notebooks. Notebooks become difficult to scroll and hard to make sense of once you get above 30 notebooks. — Evernote Notebooks v. Tags
And that was my mistake. The way I saw it, a notebook stack was the perfect place to house God-knows-how-many notebooks. What I didn’t work out from the outset was that tags were the way to go.
With all it’s focus on clipping, it neglects actual writing
While Evernote isn’t the most pro writing tool in a master blogger’s toolkit, the fact that it’s so valuable for organizing research means that it’s a good idea to store drafts and research in same digital space. Makes sense, right? But here come the problems.
- No H1, H2, etc.
- No markdown support
- No distraction-free writing mode
- Everything’s locked to a grid
How to Improve Your Evernote Experience
Don’t worry! Almost every major Evernote problem has a solution. And that solution isn’t just ‘switch to OneNote’ — as I’m going to get to in a moment.
Push all of your screenclips into their own notebook
The mistake I made with Evernote was creating a default notebook for myself called ‘Inbox’ then never processing it because it was too full of rubbish.
If, like me, most of your notes are screenshots, then your default notebook should be called ‘Screenshots’ and automatically save your clips there.
Unless you plan on using the screenshots for anything other than saving or dragging into Slack once, leave them in the default notebook. Unfortunately there’s no way to tell Evernote to only put your screenshots in that notebook and your other notes elsewhere, but that’s a fix I’ll get to in a minute.
Create one notebook per ‘life vertical’ and use tags instead
At first, it seemed like a good idea to create a notebook for every blog post I write. I made a notebook stack called ‘Blog Post Scrapbook’ and stored it all in there. As Jason Frasca said, when you get to over 30 notebooks it’s difficult to properly organize your notes. Use tags because:
- Notes can’t be in two notebooks at once, but they can have two tags
- Scrolling through a list of tags is easier than remembering the note’s title or content for search
- Tags are unlimited, notebooks are limited to 200
- When you have thousands of notes, it’s tough to remember which notebook you put it in
Examples of notebooks that represent life verticals are: work, family and university. Inside your work notebook, you could have tags such as ‘link building project April 2016’.
As an example, here’s my improved structure organized in Alternote (more on Alternote later):
I use Alternote — a Mac client for Evernote — to enable selective sync and get anything that isn’t going to be referred back to out of the way. I also use it because it’s more of an enjoyable writing experience for drafting, and closer to my favorite writing app, iA Writer.
Use Alternote for the ‘actual note’ side of things
Go ahead and clutter your Evernote up with all the stuff you like. Seriously. As long as it’s not in one of the notebooks you sync and organize with Alternote, you’ll be fine.
Alternote uses your data from Evernote and help you create a second, distraction-free instance of the app with better writing capabilities.
As well as being a minimalistic alternative for important notes only, it also has:
- Markdown support (woohoo!)
- H1 & H2
- Distraction-free writing mode
Here’s the beauty itself in action:
By keeping your Untitled Quick Note clutter out of Alternote, you make it the perfect place to organize research and write, whether that’s project proposals, blog posts or meeting notes.
Microsoft OneNote: Honestly another solution for these problems (not joking)
OneNote is a skilled deception on Microsoft’s part. You open it up, have a quick laugh, think it’s shit and never bother with it again. Had I not decided to use it to write an Evernote comparison blog post, I would have never known its usefulness.
At first glance, it looks like Microsoft Word (shudder) with a sidebar (stomach churning) and 2005 interface (heart attack).
After spending the better part of last Saturday playing around with Evernote and OneNote back to back, it was refreshing the way it organized notes.
Unlike Evernote, where notebooks are shown to be the best way to segment your notes, here we have segments within a notebook, like old-school tabs inside manila folders.
Inside these tabs are another way to organize — tags. This structure works better for me that Evernotes, partially because I’m starting over with a blank slate and being careful to organize properly, and partially because I’m discouraged from creating 1,000 notebooks full of rubbish.
OneNote’s paper-like layout makes it easier to informally sketch out ideas
The thing I like most about OneNote is how you can write anywhere on a page instead of being awkwardly locked to a left, right or center alignment.
This solves my problem of shying away from planning and drafting in an environment that feels too formal. (It’s also why I like WorkFlowy for notes and drafting.)
And it’s great for collecting and organizing research on a single page
I like how I can use one page to paste on (literally like a clipping glued to a page) boxes of information, and keep them visible and accessible without clicking. Putting boxes off-center or over to the right of the main layout section is a lot more in key with my brain than switching to another note in the notebook.
Here’s an example of OneNote used as a scrapbook:
But search is sadly lacking…
OneNote’s search isn’t as powerful as Evernote’s. See the difference:
When you search a keyword in OneNote, you’re shown the relevant notes. But for some damned reason, you can’t search or filter by tag on OneNote for Mac. Sigh.
Here’s Evernote’s superior search:
With Evernote we have suggested searches, in-text searches, tag searches, recent searches and the ability to save and filter searches, too.
With OneNote, we’ve got section searches, and in-text searches. That’s a sad lack in comparison.
In reality, Evernote and OneNote have 2 drastically different uses…
As I said before, Evernote is an Everything Bucket. It’s a ‘we don’t need no organization’ briefcase stuffed full of unmarked papers. Let’s look at what it’s best for:
Evernote is best for clipping and organizing web resources
Set your default notebook to something you don’t mind populating with dross, and use the tag feature instead.
(Yes, I do indeed have 22 active browser extensions. And yes, I only ever use 1.)
Since this clip went into my generic clippings folder, it isn’t cluttering up space. And I tagged it with the name of the project it’s part of so it’s really easy to find. We’re onto a winner!
…If you want to use it for writing, use Alternote
The busy Evernote environment can play havoc with your eyes if you spend 6 hours/day writing in there.
While researching, I tag the clips with the name of the article I’m working on. Then, I open up Alternote, click the tag and start organizing my research into a structure for the post.
OneNote is no good for proper organization, but it’s a great freeform scrapbook
OneNote’s search sucks. It’s tagging is barely even cosmetic, never mind about functional. The way you organize notes (search and tagging aside) is a little better than Evernote’s but, all things considered, what it’s truly useful for is:
- Freeform note-taking
- Informal layout planning
- Creating a one-page scrapbook
I’m surprising myself that I recommend it at all, but in reality it’s a great tool for that purpose, whether or not that’s what Microsoft intended.
Overall, I’m going to use both. OneNote for grabbing things together on one page and organizing them in a way that fits with the way my brain’s wired. And Evernote/Alternote for collecting and organizing clippings and screenshots, and writing final blog post drafts.
Maybe this will teach me to be less critical of Microsoft than I have been in the past?