New Year's Resolution 2012: Take Better Notes!

Great new software tools for writers

Posted Jan 09, 2012



It has become clear to me that the only way I am going to write The Pura Vida Paradox, my next book, is to take more and better notes.  I can’t rely on memory, and the topic is too big to handle in a simple outline, because it goes from Aristotle’s theories of happiness through Positive Psychology in general, and from there to the measurements of happiness and subjective well being, and finally into the history and sociology of Costa Rica.  I have to write better notes, and organize them so I can find them again.  This is complicated by my living in Costa Rica, where I can get ebooks, but there is no library.

Fortunately, I’ve found some solutions that I can share.  The first is the Amazon Kindle and its notes function.  The Kindle is not really designed for technical materials and note taking, but it has several workarounds that are useful.  First, all versions of Kindle have a notes feature, so that one can select text, copy it, and make annotations to a file called My Clippings.  You can transfer My Clippings back to your computer via USB as a text file, and then cut and paste it into word documents.  That is pretty cumbersome but it works!  A bit easier is to open a Kindle application on your working computer, and highlight, cut and paste from the Kindle app to the word doc.  This is awkward because each entry comes out with a Digital Rights Management signature about where the comment came from, reiterating Amazon’s ownership.  But it also works. Slowly.

Once clipped, where do you put your quotes and comments?

First, Papers is a lifesaver, a search engine and pdf saver for Apple systems that automatically searches wherever you tell it, after which it opens and saves pdf files.  Once there you can cut and paste as desired and Papers has a “cite while you write” feature that to me seems easier than Endnote.  Papers costs a little for most users, but is free to students at many universities.

Then there is a British program called Scrivener that allows you to drag and drop or cut and paste words and thoughts into “index card” like mini-documents, so you can see the highlights of your quotes and searches in a broad overview; it is easy to arrange and rearrange the sequences.  Scrivener exports to MS Word or other word processing software for final editing and submission.  Scrivener also costs a bit, but has student discounts.

Evernote is a wonderful program that allows one to view a web page, clean it up and eliminate the advertisements and side bars, and then clip and save it to a searchable online storage site.  Evernote and its applications are, for the most part, free.

Finally, I’m trying to learn Tinderbox, by far the most complex and adaptable program for “information gardening.”  Tinderbox makes outlines, but more importantly it makes colorful maps that evolve as your project evolves.  I don’t know my conclusions about Costa Rica and happiness yet.  Tinderbox allows one to put in snippits and larger chunks of thought, in whatever sequences you want, and then look at it from lots of different points of view.  Tinderbox is the most expensive software I’ve mentioned, but I can envision using it for everything from this book to organizing my To Do lists and library. 


As my mother slipped into dementia, she tried to compensate by taking extensive notes.  She made so many notes that she couldn’t find the ones that were relevant to her daily life!  When she died, I found notes on every available telephone book, envelope, and paper surface in her apartment.  I don’t want to be like her, for many reasons, but I can now understand how desperate she was to maintain her sanity and independence by writing things down.  Hopefully, it will be easier for my heirs just to delete some electronic files than it was for me to sort through my mother’s illegible scribbles. 

I hope these suggestions are useful to those of you who have made New Year’s resolutions to get more organized!