apps · technology · writer's notebook

Electronic Writer’s Notebooks

A handwritten, digital writer’s notebook never crossed my mind ’til I read Cathy Mere’s Sharing Our Notebooks post this past summer.  Her post inspired me to buy a stylus to try using my iPad as a writer’s notebook since I had become guilty of not carrying my writer’s notebook around anymore.  (My notebook use changed after I bought an iPhone in late 2011 since I began using the Notes feature on my iPhone for jottings. Further, I started snapping pictures of things I wanted to write about later.) Lucky for me, I won the notebook app pack Cathy and Amy Ludwig Vanderwater gave away. Once I was gifted with a variety of apps, I began using them to figure out which one was right for me.

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Some of the apps I’ve been using.

I tried out Day One, which I liked as a journaling app. However, I was really looking for an app in which I could physically write into. Knowing Cathy had used Noteshelf with a stylus, I turned my attention to that app next.

Noteshelf allows me to create a variety of notebooks, which can be customized with different covers and paper styles. One can also play with different different ink colors and pen types when writing.  Once I got the wrist protection set up properly, I was able to write with greater ease.  While my handwriting isn’t as neat as I would like it to be, I believe that’s the fault of my stylus, rather than the fault of the app.  (I have my eye on a Jot Script Stylus, but I haven’t been able to justify the $75 price tag yet.)

While I’d like to say writing on my iPad feels just like writing on paper, it doesn’t.  I still love the feel of crafting prose inside a physical writer’s notebook. However, it helps to have one less thing to schlep with me on overnight trips or to a medical appointment. The iPad is think and my stylus doubles as a pen.

Take a look at a few pages from some of my Noteshelf notebooks:

Drafting a story.
An idea I had for a board book.
A short daily entry (that reflects the “don’t play ball in the house” idea).

Not only am I working on my writing in my notebooks, but I’m also using Noteshelf to create lists. I have a notebook for TWT where I jot down things related to this blog that I need to hand-write rather than type into an Evernote note. For instance, I crafted an agenda for our TWT Author Google Hangout, which happened last night.


A page from the middle of the night manuscript.

I had dabbled with Penultimate a few days after I began using Noteshelf. While I liked the fact it automatically synched with Evernote, I had issues with stray marks appearing on my Penultimate pages even after turning off the multitasking gestures on my iPad.  Plus, I didn’t like the look of the notebooks or the pen styles as much.

My relationship with Penultimate changed when I woke up at 4:00 a.m. on November 10th. I had a brilliant idea for a picture book I had been thinking about for the past 15 months. I needed to get it down on paper, but wasn’t tempted to sit at the computer in what felt like the middle of the night. Therefore, I rushed downstairs to the couch I bought after graduating from college, grabbed my favorite blanket, a glass of orange juice, my stylus, and my iPad.  I opened Noteshelf and paused. What would happen if I drafted the manuscript in Noteshelf and lost it? With the words for the manuscript ready to burst out of my head, I opened up Penultimate and began writing since I knew it would save into my Evernote.

NOTE: Last week I checked the export features in Noteshelf and found out one can export a notebook to Evernote. However, it exports as a PDF, which means you have to download it in order to see it in an Evernote note.

Click on the image to enlarge.
Click on the image to enlarge.

After spending the past couple of months learning how to use a few different apps as writer’s notebooks, I find myself asking myself “Noteshelf or Penultimate?” as if I have to pick one.  Realistically, I don’t since I can continue to use both of them.  Both apps provide me the ability to embed photos into my notebooks and give me a variety of ways to share my writing with others. Even though I like the look and feel of Noteshelf (above, left) better, I love the way Penultimate notebooks become searchable in Evernote. (For instance, I used the word footbridge in my manuscript. I typed footbridge into my Evernote search bar on my home computer and my manuscript just popped up.  How’s that for convenience?) If I decide to eventually pick one, that functionality alone might help Penultimate beat out Noteshelf.

Click on the image to enlarge.
Click on the image to enlarge.

Finally, the jury is still out on Super Note, which was one of the apps I received from Cathy.  I spent so much with Day One, Noteshelf, and Penultimate that I haven’t tried it out yet.  Cathy uses Super Note for keeping lists of writing ideas. At this time, I use Evernote for that purpose. However, I intend to try out Super Note going-forward since I have a feeling, just from reading app’s the welcome message, it has a lot to offer.

Have you considered trying out an app in lieu of an actual writer’s notebook? If yes, what do you use?  If no, would you consider it going-forward?  If so, what kinds of things must-haves does an app need to have in order for you to try it?

9 thoughts on “Electronic Writer’s Notebooks

  1. Notability is another nice notetaking app. I have used it for my instructional walks. It works well with Dropbox, and I can email the note directly to the teacher from Notability. Unfortunately, my Dropbox is getting full. Penultimate seems to be getting better, so I may migrate over to that platform, now that I am committed to Evernote as a Premium user. I have also used the Moleskine Evernote notebooks for that real paper feel. You can scan in your writing and it becomes readable within Evernote.


      1. I am almost through my second one. Still haven’t found much use for the stickers, but the free three months of Evernote Premium makes it a worthy purchase.


  2. Stacey,
    I’m so glad you found some use for the apps. I share many of the same thoughts on the apps. However, I haven’t really found a love for Penultimate. After reading your post, I think I need to revisit it as a possibility. You mention my ultimate fear —- losing everything. Oh, I just can’t think about that.

    All this talk about a stylus has me thinking as well. I have just been using one I picked up at Best Buy. I honestly can’t even tell you what brand it is. I didn’t want to spend too much on one as I have a tendency to leave pens laying around and wasn’t sure I’d been any better with a stylus. I might have to check out the iPearl mentioned by Anne.

    I’m not sure anything will ever be exactly like writing on paper, but there is a benefit to the convenience of always having your notebook with you.



  3. Thanks Stacey. I have used the Notes feature on my Android but that’s it. I appreciated reading about the different apps/ I haven’t thought about it much, in fact i just bought a brand new journal insert for my leather Oberon journal. You have given me much to consider.


  4. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately! A number of the schools I work with now have either iPads or ChromeBooks for all their kids to use, so we’ve been experimenting with the best ways to use them. So far, we really like doing all the notebook work at the start of a unit in a physical paper/traditional notebook with pen – this allows them to sketch, make diagrams, charts, etc a little more easily (at least for now) than on the computer. For whatever reason, Penulimate on the iPad seems to confuse the kids I’ve worked with so far. They spend more time choosing colors and pen styles than actually writing, it takes quite a bit of coaching to get all the settings just right so that their wrist doesn’t make marks, and the pages don’t turn sporadically, and they have a hard time getting used to how to save a notebook and then find it again the next day… But I guess that could get better with practice, of course! Anyhow, we’ve been having kids collect entries in a regular paper notebook, then once they have a plan for their draft, we’ve been setting kids loose on their laptop/iPad/ChromeBook to draft, revise, and edit using google docs. The commenting feature in google docs is really nice, and we’ve been seeing lots of kids post questions for their partners and teachers using the comments feature — something they rarely did when they were drafting on paper (though now I’m thinking we could invent a paper version of “comments” for classrooms that don’t have access to the technology…)


  5. I have used them all, Stacey, but still like Penultimate best. Just bought an Evertouch Capacitive Stylus with mesh from Amazon & like it a lot. It wasn’t very expensive. Thanks for the detailed analysis on this!


  6. What a fun post Stacey. I have been an avid penultimate user myself for a while, and I was so happy when the syncing with Evernote improved. I use penultimate for everything – for my own writing, for conferring notes, even to create toolkit resources that I use in conferring (I feel a post coming on!).
    In terms of stylus, I’ve tried a bunch at various price ranges (haven’t tried the jot script) and believe it or not the one that works best for me is an iPearl, it comes free with a leather iPad case for about $10 on amazon. I recommend it for anyone just getting started because it’s not a huge investment.


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