Text Editing – Dropbox or Evernote?

Never trust anybody over 30 (million).

That’s been my gut feeling recently. Big companies scare the bejeezus out of me, because I don’t think I can trust them to do what’s best for their customers if it ever conflicts with what’s best for their bottom line. In particular, publicly traded companies are required by law to return as much value to their stockholders as possible. And more and more of them do that by squeezing the consumer.

So when I heard Evernote has a valuation of $1,000,000,000 en route to an IPO, I started squinting at them. Yes, they look trustworthy now. In fact, CEO Phil Libin has said on several occasions that he wants Evernote to be a hundred year company, and the only way they can do that is if their users trust them for life. But can they stick to their principles when the shareholders are screaming for more profit?

As it happened, this news hit right about the time I was getting annoyed with Evernote personally. It’s awesome on my Windows laptop. It’s arguably even better on Android. But their iOS client needs a lot of work, and that’s where I’m spending most of my time these days. On any note with more than 1,500-2,000 words or so, the iPhone version of Evernote slows to an unworkable crawl. This is with Markdown-formatted ASCII text, too, not rich formatting. Maybe this was a sign from the universe that I should be moving my writing to a safer, more controllable location. Like my own hard drive, synced to my other devices via Dropbox.

There are lots of Markdown-friendly plain text editors for iOS. Perhaps too many. Like any good former software developer, the first thing I needed to do was nail down my requirements. I needed to have a universal app that worked on both the iPhone and the iPad (I don’t have an iPad yet, but as soon as I can afford one, I’m getting it). Syncing to Dropbox needed to be automatic, not manual via a button. I don’t really care about export as HTML as my blog supports Markdown directly and I’ll be doing my own post processing for fiction, but HTML preview would be really nice. And given the small screen of the iPhone, I’d really like a full screen option; no UI chrome, just my words and the keyboard. Lastly, I need to be able to search for a specific phrase or some other way to navigate round in a large document.

That narrowed down the list to a handful.

Byword almost made the cut, but I couldn’t find a full screen option. Elements also gets honorable mention, but it has no search. And while the others technically met my needs, I discovered after days of testing that each one also had some kind of dealbreaking annoyance I couldn’t live with. Nebulous has a really clunky UI. Writing Kit is cluttered from trying to do too much. Notesy takes too long to refresh/sync every file in a folder as soon as you open the folder, whether or not you had any intention of opening that file. Et cetera.

And frankly, why is Dropbox charging almost five times as much per gigabyte of storage as Google Drive and Microsoft’s SkyDrive? Are they really five times better? Am I made of money? Will these damn kids ever get off my lawn?

So I took another look at Evernote, and hit upon a little known Evernote feature that might solve my problem. Note links.

If you right click on a note in Evernote, on of the options on the popup context menu will be “Copy Note Link”. You can then paste that into any note you like. I think you can paste it anywhere that supports hyperlinks, as long as you tell your computer to open Evernote to handle links starting with Evernote://

So here’s how I use note links to make writing fiction in Evernote manageable on my iPhone.

I have a “main” note for the full length work. For Crusade, book 2 of the Unification Chronicles, I’m doing something weird and writing the major plot threads independently of each other, planning to weave them together later. So I’m starting with Daniel’s story, and the main note is called UC2 Daniel.

Now I start cutting and pasting from the outline into separate notes. The first one is called Totally fake first thing in my outline and contains whatever notes or prose I’ve already written for that scene. Then I copy the note link in Evernote, and paste it into UC2 Daniel. Then I skip a line to make it finger-friendly on the iPhone, and do the same thing for the second scene, and so on.

When I’m done, I have a copy of my outline where every line item is linked to a note containing that scene. Want to edit that scene, I just click (or tap) on the link, and I’m taken to that note. When I’m done with that, I hit the back button in Evernote’s toolbar on the desktop, or the back arrow in the upper left of the iOS client, and I’m immediately back to my outline.

I can jump around the whole novel quickly this way, never losing track of where I am. I can reorder the chapters just by cutting and pasting the links within the main note (no renumbering!). And since each note remains around 1,000-1,500 words (I write short, punchy chapters to keep readers turning pages), the notes are never so big that they get clunky to edit.

Since the main note is a note and not just a table of contents, I can also add things to it to help me through the long process of drafting a novel. I put a checkbox in front of each link so I’ll know at a glance which ones are done and which ones I still need to write (like many novelists, I don’t necessarily write a book from beginning to end, but jump around). I can further organize the checklist into three acts, lining up the act breaks where they need to be. I can annotate the outline with notes to tighten this section up, or that something else is moving too fast. I can be as simple or comprehensive as I want, since this note itself won’t be in the final manuscript. (This would also be the ideal place to write the synopsis, since the outline is right here.)

And here’s the really cool part. This integrates cleanly into my Evernote GTD system I detailed on Monday. The links are independent of whatever tag or even notebook the note is in. So I can tag the notes with my GTD context tags (@anywhere, @computer) and move the current one and only the current one from my Writing notebook to my Action notebook so it shows up in my task lists. The links still work!

Of course, as I was writing this, Evernote updated their iOS client with major UI improvements on the iPhone. It’s now much easier to edit, file and tag notes on the iPhone. So maybe if I’d just waited, none of this would have been necessary. I’m glad it was, though, because linked notes are perfect for long-form document organization.

One thought on “Text Editing – Dropbox or Evernote?”

  1. […] A few weeks back, I made a big deal out of ditching Google as much as possible because a number of things they’ve done recently have made me uneasy about where the company’s priorities lie. The idea was to replace all the Google services I used with alternates from other ecosystems, open source and under my direct control if possible. […]

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