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What I Use: Evernote and Microsoft Word for Writing

According to the Evernote web site, I first joined the service in March 2008, almost four years ago. But it wasn't until last month that it finally clicked for me, and I've since begun using Evernote extensively, replacing a surprising number of software programs and services in the process. My use of Evernote is part of a wider strategy to be more efficient and simplify my computing setup, using only the hardware, software, and services that make the most sense for my needs. This change required a serious recalibration, and a deep rethinking, of how I get work done.

In this article, I'd like to explain how I arrived at using Evernote as my primary writing tool, why it's better--for me--than competing solutions, including some that might seem more obvious, and a bit about how my workflow is changing as a result. As you may know, I occasionally publish a "What I Use" article--the latest one, of this writing, dates back to late November--and I suspect the next one I make will look a bit different than all of the others. My change to Evernote is only part of why that is so.

Periodically reviewing the technologies I use regularly and then making changes as needed, or at least fine-tune things when possible, is something I'm guilty of not doing frequently enough. It's like a weird inertia kicks in, but if you make a similar effort from time to time you may find, as I have, that you're using software products or services not because they really make sense but because that's what you've always used. Getting out of this rut isn't just healthy, it's smart.

And these days, getting out of that rut increasingly means dropping old-fashioned, disconnected apps and adopting solutions that are centered firmly in the cloud. That is, the PC is no longer the center of a modern computing experience. It is a tool, and should be used that way, but the master copy of data should be kept in the cloud, not locked onto a single hard drive in a single PC, a hard drive that could fail, on a PC that could be unavailable when you need to access that data. It should be available anytime, from anywhere.

Really, that's what this is all about.

There are many aspects to this change, including some obvious things as email. Not coincidentally I wrote a number of articles about email consolidation last summer in part because I finally fine-tuned my multiple accounts down to something manageable and thought I'd share what I learned. I provide links to those articles in What I Use: Hotmail and Exchange for Email, in which I also describe the email solutions I'm now relying on. (Hint: Where possible, consolidate email accounts in the cloud, not on a PC or device.)

Photo management is another good example. There are common-sense ways to automatically cloud-enable the many photos that are trapped on our smart phones, so I've been writing a series about that. (Check out Digital Photos To Go, Part 1: Smart Phone + WindowsDigital Photos To Go, Part 2: Windows Phone + CloudDigital Photos To Go, Part 3: iPhone + Cloud, and Digital Photos To Go, Part 4: Android + Cloud for the gory details.) More broadly, I've been writing and speaking for a while now about the need to both replicate and backup our most crucial data so that it's not just available when and where we want it but also fully recoverable in the event of a disaster. Cloud storage is a key part of this. (I use CrashPlan.)

You get the idea. But writing... Writing is core to what I do. It is, in fact, what I do. So I approach this in a far more analytical way than even email, because I spend more time in my writing tool of choice than with any other application I use save a web browser (which is most everything else: Reading the web and RSS feeds, of course, but also how I access email.) That said, my own move to Evernote is part of the rethinking mentioned above, and a change in the way I do things not to be different but to be more efficient. In my case, hopefully, to eventually emerge as a better writer as well. Again, your mileage may vary.

OK, enough of that. To understand why I needed to change, first you need to understand how I've always done things in the past.

What I was doing 

With the exception of a nearly three-year period in which I used OneNote for note-taking (meetings, phone meetings, and so on), I've used Microsoft Word to create virtually everything I've written, dating back to about 1993. That was the year Word 6.0 appeared, and I used that version of Microsoft's word processing solution to co-write my first books, Visual Basic 3.0 Projects for WindowsExcel 5.0 Projects for Windows, and at least part of Windows 95 Projects (the latter of which we completed with the beta version of Word 95.)

Since then, I've upgraded to each subsequent version of Word in turn, and always early, during the beta. I've paid attention to the improvements in each, such as automated (rather than batch) spell checking, the addition of grammar checking, and so on. And while Word, as a fairly mature application, has certainly slowed down from a new features perspective as time marches on, I was always certain I needed that newest version. You know, because I'm a writer.

As Word has improved, however, it's also gotten smarter. And one of the ways in which it is smart is that it tries to out-think the user. That is, I'll make a typo and Word will fix it. I'll make a grammatical mistake and Word will highlight it so I can think about changing it. These things happen so seamlessly I stopped thinking about them. But over the years, as errors have crept into my writing, I've started wondering whether my reliance on Word and its auto-correct features--no, my over-reliance on this stuff--has in fact harmed my writing skills.

Don't worry, I'm not blaming Word fully. This is clearly my fault and even if I could pinpoint specific issues in Word, and fix them--heck, I've certainly experimented with doing just that--it's yet another thing I'd have to manually manage from PC to PC. Maybe what I needed was ... something other than Word? Something simpler? 

Something cloud-centric?

Remember, Word is an old-school application. It's tied to an individual PC. And it creates files, documents that must be managed in your PC's file system somehow. I'm fairly rigid when it comes to the organizational stuff, and without beating it to death, let's just say I've adopted a pretty consistent system for storing and then archiving the documents I've created. And while the details have changed a bit over the years, today it breaks down as follows. On my PCs, I used Windows Live Mesh to synchronize certain folders between each machine. And I use my Windows Home Server, with multiple terabytes of data, for archiving and as a central point for media and document sharing, and for cloud backup, in this case via CrashPlan.

The relevant PC folders synced via Windows Live Mesh are Docs (for frequently needed text files and Word documents), Work (for in-progress articles) and then Book (which contains individual folders for the current book and 1-2 recent books). So as I install Windows on any given PC, one of the many things I do is install Windows Live Essentials (which includes Mesh) and then set up the folder syncs.

On the server, things are even simpler. I use the built-in Documents share in WHS to store all of my documents, and inside is a fairly convoluted series of folder paths (under my user name) for such things as Books, Penton (work-related, with sub-folders like Print Magazine, SuperSite, UPDATE, and the like), and Other Documents. That SuperSite folder is, perhaps, the biggest chunk of all this since I use it as my central clearing house for most work-related notes and articles. There are folders within for topics (Windows, Windows Phone, Apple, Google, and so on). Dive into Windows and there are folders for each year from 1995 to 2012, plus one called "Older," and within each of those, folders for each event. These are named so that they appear in chronological order using normal folder views, using names like "2011-01-02 - Mailbag," "2011-01-05 - CES," "2011-01-05 - Windows 8 Briefing," and so on.

It's a pretty extensive archive, but of course I travel too, and I frequently need to be able to access older information from the road. Rather than futz around with WHS' remote access features, which don't work well with my particular ISP, I use two Logmein services, LogMeIn Pro (FTP-style browsing and downloading) and LogMeIn Hamachi (VPN, for Explorer-based drag and drop file copies). Anywhere I can get online, I can access my home server.

As the years have gone by, my needs have changed to keep pace with changes in the technology market. So in the early days, before such wonderful connectivity, I'd make CD- and then DVD-based archive disks that I'd travel with so I could access those server-based files when needed. This gave way to remote access years back, and to the way I do things now. But in a like manner, with the proliferation of cloud storage services, I've wondered whether some form of cloud access to data, combined with client-side sync for offline use, could replace my Mesh-based folder syncing. Or maybe Microsoft could simply improve this so that it could take advantage of all 25 GB of the available SkyDrive storage and it could just work.

But taken a step further, what if the application I used to write was also cloud-based and provided client-side sync? This was the question I asked myself when Google Docs first debuted, and then really investigated when the more capable Office Web Apps, with a web-based version of Word, appeared last year. What if I could simply replace Word? Maybe replace it with a web-based version of Word?

Using a Google Docs or Office Web Apps type approach, of course, I'm still creating documents. And these documents are things that need to be organized and filed, though in this case that would happen in the cloud rather than on my PCs and home server. Maybe there was yet a further step to take... Remove not just the application but also the actual files, the documents. Crazy?

Actually, yes. Ultimately, it's not really possible or desirable to all remove every piece of the puzzle. I still need to write, using a tool that's made for that job, and I still need to store what I create--whatever form that takes--somewhere ... and then ensure that that content is synced to and available on the PCs I'm using. But with the way the world is changing, it just seemed like this could occur in a more efficient, cloud-based manner. And as I examined what was out there, I started to discover that virtually everything had some fatal flaw.

Also, in discussing the act of writing with other writers recently, I've discovered something. Many of them don't use Word primarily, if at all. Some use it when needed, such as when submitting book chapters, where a Word document isn't just expected but is in fact necessary. Others don't use it. Mary Jo Foley, amazingly, writes primarily in Notepad. And unlike me, she's not interested in keeping a lifelong archive of her work. She just publishes and tosses out the document file.

This is particularly interesting to me because she publishes to the web. And heck, so do I. In fact, the vast majority of what I write--80? more?--ends up on the web. This is a big difference from 1993-1994, when I was starting out. Back then, almost everything I wrote was going to be printed on paper in some way and the tools I used reflected that. Today, that's most decidedly not the case. And while I haven't changed the tools, I've changed everything else. Today, being able to copy and paste between the thing I'm writing in--Word or whatever--and the web forms I use for work, and to have it actually work, is a crucial part of the equation. In fact, anything that makes this part of the process more difficult is a non-starter. Word works. Would anything else? Something more efficient and cloud-connected?

I can't make the drastic step of using Notepad and skipping the archiving of my content. I'm just not wired that way. But I can make a change. And when a new version of Evernote for Windows appeared in early December 2011, I once again installed it and checked out the new features. And this time, for the first time, something clicked. Evernote doesn't create documents; instead, you create notes that are stored in the cloud and then synced, when you want them to, between PCs and devices. Could this thing ... replace Word? ... and Live Mesh? Was that possible? Certainly, there was something to the simpler Evernote UI that I liked. But ... would this work?

Why not.... ?

The easiest way to find out whether Evernote would work was to use it, but also to use competing solutions as well. Which I did, silently and without really announcing it, throughout December. I tried everything from WordPad (heck, it's built into Windows) to Word Web App to Google Docs to OneNote. And maybe the next logical step in this discussion is to explain why none of these other solutions passed muster.

WordPad. It's built into Windows, uses a familiar ribbon UI and is arguably a very stripped down version of Word that uses nice, open, and portable rich text as its default document format but is still compatible with even the latest Word doc versions. Copy and paste between WordPad and the web works fine, but it doesn't support the creation of headings (though it will work with them if they're already in the document). Ultimately, this thing is just Word Light, and its only real advantage is that it's part of Windows, so there's nothing extra to install. But it's still document-based.

Microsoft OneNote. Microsoft's excellent note-taking solution shares most of the advantages of Evernote and it has a few advantages of its own. And starting with Office 2010, shed its local-PC-only configuration and can now work exclusively with cloud-based notebooks (in SkyDrive, SharePoint, or Office 365) as well. That's huge. But OneNote falls apart in one key area, for me: Copy and paste from OneNote to the web forms I use is abysmal, requiring far too much hand-editing. It's just not efficient. Maybe this changes, and if so, I'd absolutely consider switching. (I also don't find the web- and mobile-based versions of OneNote to be as capable as those of Evernote, though this is less important.

Office Web Apps. This is an approach I've tested several times now. In fact, if it worked well, I'd consider using the Word Web App in Office Web Apps even if it meant manually organizing files. But it doesn't. Word Web App is slow, doesn't support an offline mode, and, most problematically for me, can only edit documents in the full width of the browser window. That is, you can't set margins to be anything other than very, very wide, without manually resizing the window every single time you use it. I suspect Microsoft will fix all this. And when it does, I'll consider switching.

Google Docs. This one seems like a good choice: It's a reasonably capable web-based word processor, supports an offline mode, has headings support, and is tied to a great source of almost bottomless online storage. But Google Docs doesn't copy and paste well to my web forms at all, so it's basically unusable. I was surprised by this, frankly. 

Why Evernote

Compared to just using Word, and to the solutions mentioned above, Evernote ticks the most boxes. It's a cloud-based note-taking solution, not a full word processor. But that means it has good editing tools (but not heading support, which is a letdown) but doesn't try to out-think me. The cloud nature of the tool means that the content I create--which includes notes, but also what I think of as articles and blog posts--is available anytime, from anywhere. 

On the PC, I install a lightweight application, and can configure (on a per-PC basis) which notebooks are synced to the machine for offline use. But the central copy of the data is always in the cloud. And you can share individual notebooks with others, a key aspect to my collaborative book writing endeavors.

Evernote doesn't just replace Word, it also replaces Windows Live Mesh, because it contains my in-progress articles and posts too. My filing and organization is done in Evernote, not on my PCs and home server. (That said, I'll still archive some material--like original screenshots and so on--on the home server.) The web and mobile clients are generally excellent, not just so-so as with OneNote.


Ultimately, the reason Evernote works so well is that it's so single-minded and simple. I don't need a complex word processor to write blog posts and articles. And I like its organizational abilities, and its web browser add-ons, which let me easily collect information from the web, like the Building Windows 8 blog posts I use for background material. It just happens to work well for what I do.

I create a lot of content. With the understanding that during this time period I also wrote various articles and posts in Word and the test solutions mentioned above, in exactly one month of Evernote usage, I created 50 blog posts, 6 UPDATE editorials (one for next week), 27 SuperSite articles, one print magazine article, and 38 news stories. I also tooks notes for four meetings and collected a ton of notes from various Microsoft blog posts. And since I'll always have an Evernote mobile app on my devices, I've begun collecting notes that will be useful on the go, including one for my frequent flyer/rewards programs information.

Evernote is not perfect. As mentioned previously, it does not support headings, so I have to fake them and then hand-edit them into my web-based articles. It doesn't support note locking of any kind, which is a curious omission: Once I'm done with an article, I'd like to know that a future errant keystroke isn't going to wipe it out or edit it in some fashion.

And, as it turns out, I can't completely replace Microsoft Word. 

Why Microsoft Word

I can't completely replace Word, of course, so I won't. First, I actually like using Word quite a bit and I'm very familiar with it. My print magazine articles and weekly newsletter need to be submitted in a Word document format, so I'll at least be converting from Evernote to Word in those cases. And the books I write simply require Microsoft Word: Not just for the final submissions, but for the actual writing. I just can't take any chances with manuscript, so those will stay in Word.

Word and Office and Microsoft's online services will all evolve in the coming months and years. And just as I used OneNote for three years, I could see using Evernote temporarily and then moving along if something more efficient comes along. For now, however, I'm more than OK with Evernote, and find it to be the right combination of text creation and cloud-centricity.
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