Happy November! I love this time of year. Christmas is my favorite holiday, and I am all on board with the next two months of holiday music, shopping, and ridiculous, over-the-top light displays. But even though the next two months are wonderful, they’re also insanely busy! I can barely remember where I put my winter shoes, much less where to find that one note about that minor character who’s suddenly really important to this scene I’m writing. Which is why I have a really simple, free solution: Evernote. Today, I’m going to show you how to use Evernote to organize anything, including your writing.
(Side Note: This post is not sponsored. Any time a post is sponsored or contains affiliate links, I’ll let you know at the top of the post! Evernote is the best solution for my writing needs, and I hope this system can help you out, too.)
The Dilemma of Tags vs. Notebooks
Evernote had been on my radar for a long time before I really tried it. I dabbled in it a couple times but never saw the potential. Plus, I liked to try out new note apps all the time and could never find one that worked well for me on its own.
When people talk about Evernote, they usually mention how useful tags are. But tags never worked well for me as an organizational system. If I were to use Evernote for all my notes, writing and otherwise, the number of tags would instantly skyrocket. I’d never be able to find anything.
Then there are the proponents of notebooks, who advocate the use of these file-like items to organize notes. Each notebook has many notes in it, and notebooks can be organized into stacks. That made more sense to me, but it was still problematic––if I had one notebook for an entire work-in-progress, I’d have to scroll forever before I found the one note I was looking for.
I needed deeper organization.
Then, I stumbled across this article by Stacey Harmon. She makes a compelling case for notebooks, but it was her brief description of how tags can be useful that sparked the lightbulb over my head. She mentions two ideas: using a tag to quickly filter for immediately relevant information, and using tags to track a note’s “status.”
The Solution: Notebooks + Tags
Based on those two ideas from Harmon, I completely revamped my use of Evernote. Here’s the breakdown.
Notebooks are my building blocks. I use Evernote for just about everything in my life, including my WIP, blogging, digitizing and keeping track of household files, organizing for tax season, jotting down random thoughts with no category, saving recipes, keeping digital versions of sermon and podcast notes . . . I could go on.
Each of those big categories gets its own notebook (or, in the case of household files, a stack of notebooks). I also have a “Catch-All” notebook. This is exactly what it sounds like. It catches random incoming notes that I haven’t organized yet.
If notebooks are the floors of my system, tags are the elevator.
My WIP notebook alone has 84 notes in it. That’s a lot to sift through when you’re looking for something specific.
I know what you’re thinking: why not have a WIP stack with a notebook for character notes, one for plotting, one for settings, etc. inside it?
Simple. Because I often need to flip quickly between one type of note and another. On the desktop app, I could simply have open tabs for each notebook. But when using your phone, you can only have one note open at a time, and flipping between notebooks is cumbersome.
That’s where tags come in. I have six.
Six? For all of Evernote? Yes. Six. The ones you see in the picture above are all I use, and all I need.
How It Works
Pending, Active, and On Hold
All notes, but especially those for my WIP, follow a simple process. They start out “pending.” These are new notes––the random ideas that popped up while I was out in the world or doing other things. The stuff I had to write down at once before I forgot. Basically, they’re the unfiltered thoughts that have the potential to be useful but are currently too messy to make sense of.
I go through pending notes every week or so, depending on how busy I am. From there, notes can move to one of two places: “active/accepted” or “on hold.” Either of these states means that the notes have been cleaned up, clarified, and/or outlined.
Active notes are immediately useful to what I’m currently working on, whether that’s writing character profiles, plotting, drafting, editing, you name it.
On hold notes are useful––I’ll need them, but not for the writing stage in which I’m currently entrenched. These “on hold” notes will eventually become “active.” I go through “on hold” notes every couple weeks or when I finish a writing stage.
Completed, Reference, and Rejected
From the “active” stage, notes can move to either “completed” or “reference.”
Completed notes, as you might expect, are notes that are no longer relevant to the portion of my WIP I’m writing. They’re still important because their ideas or scene snippets made it into the planning or the actual WIP, but I won’t need them again.
Reference notes are also completed, but I’ll need them again. These are things like character profiles and the plot outline. I’ve finished them, but I’ll need to refer back to them when drafting or editing my WIP.
I use one more tag: rejected. At any of the above stages, a note can enter the “rejected” pile. It just means I had an idea and ended up not using it. Or, on occasion, it means I cleaned up the idea and transferred it to an existing note.
Why not just delete unwanted notes? I’d love to, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve deleted a note or even a Word document for my WIP and regretted it later. Has it really affected my writing? No. But I started keeping all my notes anyway.
Everything is Findable
I use this system in every relevant notebook. Some notebooks, like digital versions of household files, don’t have statuses, per se––I just want to be able to search for them when I don’t have access to the physical files. It would be a waste of time to go through and tag all those notes, so I just let them sit, untagged, in their respective notebooks.
But when it comes to my writing, I want to be able to find the exact note I need in two seconds. And with this system, I can. On the desktop app, I can click on the notebook, then filter by the tag I want, and have it all at my fingertips. In the iOS app, you can do the same.
With Android, it’s a little trickier. You have to start by using the search bar, then go into “refine filters” filter by the notebook and tag you want, and delete the search terms you typed. But, the app does save your recent searches. I typically need to find only my active WIP and blog notes when I’m using my phone. Those are almost always my recent searches, so I can simply tap the search icon and then the recent search I want.
In the article I linked above, Harmon mentions being intentional about how you name notes. I took that advice to heart. Combined with my notebooks + tags system, the way I title my notes helps me find everything I need quickly. I can scan through my note titles and know exactly what each one contains in a glance.
But that didn’t happen overnight, nor did I come up with the system on my own. It’s largely modeled on Forrest Dylan Bryant’s system for writing a novel using only Evernote. While I had already written my WIP outside Evernote when I came across his method, I am doing all my rewrites in Evernote after seeing how useful Bryant’s system is.
Bryant uses tags differently than I do, and while I briefly tried integrating his tagging system into my own, the whole thing felt redundant. The simple beauty of his method is the way he titles his notes.
Each of Bryant’s novel notes begin with a novel code. (To work well in my system, I’ve eliminated this––my notes are already organized by WIP using notebooks.) He then uses the category of the note. So, a character profile would be named, “Character: Fred.” A chapter would be named, “Chapter 01: Fred Goes to Town.” He does the same with research, plotting, and location notes.
I use these same categories, but I put the category in all caps and separate it from the “real” note title with a vertical bar. My notes, then, look like this: “CHARACTER | Fred” and “CHAPTER 01 | Fred Goes to Town.”
Having the category in all caps means that when I’ve got my WIP notebook open and filtered by the “active” tag, I can scan through quickly to find the type of note I’m looking for. If I’m writing a chapter but I have a few character profiles and a scene snippet or two active, I can quickly find the type of note I need.
Putting the category name in all caps also lets me ignore it when it’s not relevant. For example, I’ve tagged most of my character profiles “reference,” so when I come across a dozen notes that start with “CHARACTER,” I can quickly switch to scanning the names. The difference in appearance between the category and the note’s name allows me to switch between what is and isn’t relevant at any given time.
Bryant’s system also uses a Dashboard, and he has a template you can download to Evernote. I use this template, and it works well.
I agree with Bryant’s recommendations to title the dashboard with a period (“.DASHBOARD”), sort your notes by title in alphabetical order, and to tag the dashboard with all of your novel’s tags. My dashboard has all six of my Evernote tags, so it shows up in every filtered view. The period at the beginning means that when you sort by title, the dashboard will always be at the top.
I’ve also used the period to bring my protagonists’ character profiles and my main setting profile to the top of their respective categories. For example, “CHARACTER | Fred” becomes “CHARACTER | .Fred” so Fred always shows up first in the character list.
The dashboard is actually where Bryant’s system started expanding for me. I used to do this only for my WIP notes, but now I use dashboards for other notebooks, too. When I started Indigo Typewriter, the first thing I did was create a dashboard.
I also create a “hub” for every post. This post’s hub is named “HUB | Post 9 | How to Use Evernote to Organize Your Novel.” The hub contains a checklist for everything from the rough draft to editing to adding photos to SEO to publishing. It also has links to every draft of this post. Each one of those is named “POST 9.1 | How to Use Evernote to Organize Your Novel,” and “POST 9.2 | How to Use Evernote to Organize Your Novel.” Each post draft has a link to the hub at the very top, making it even easier to flip between notes.
I’ve mentioned links a couple times. The ability to create internal links is one of the most useful features in Evernote. It’s a little cumbersome to add internal links, but so worth it. In the desktop app, right click on the note and click “Copy Note Link.” Then go to the note you want to link, highlight the text you want, right click, and hit “Add Link.” You can also use “command” + “K” to get there faster. (On a Mac, at least. Windows may be different!)
I use links in my blog notebook to connect all my post drafts to their hub. In my WIP notebook, when creating character profiles, I frequently reference other character or setting profiles. Adding the referenced note’s link just makes it easier to find.
How It All Comes Together
Let me show you all this in practice.
This is what my blog notebook looks like, unfiltered. Notice that there are 61 notes! In one month of blogging! But when I filter by the “active” tag, look what happens:
Ah, that’s much nicer. Only 6 notes. And, because of my super OCD titling, I can scan through to find exactly what I want in seconds.
I hope you find this system helpful. It’s tailored to the way my mind works, so you’ll probably want to adjust it to your own needs or simply take bits and pieces of it. That’s okay! Adjusting and choosing bits of other people’s systems is exactly how this one was born.