Taking Notes with Pen and Screen

A couple of months back I read this article by David Hewson about using an Asus Vivotab Note 8 to replace paper printouts while editing. I liked the idea of being able to carry a whole stack of manuscript pages in my pocket and work on them whenever the notion took me and I am a sucker for a new gadget so I bought one myself.

The Note is small and light tablet with a decent 8 inch screen and a Wacom digitiser pen. It uses the latest generation Atom processors and it gets about 8–9 hours of battery life. It comes with a free copy of Microsoft Office 2013 including the very wonderful OneNote, of which more later.

I’ve used Drawboard to mark up PDFs of a couple of book length manuscripts and it performs as flawlessly as David says. I save the edited PDF in Dropbox and, hey presto, it shows up back on my Mac ready for me to input the changes into Word or Scrivener or whatever else I happen to be using that day. I can recommend the process to other writers but that’s not really what I wanted to talk about today.

The Note has given rise to other changes to my workflow that I had not expected. I carried the tablet with me so I could do my editing but I found I was using it for other things. You see, it’s only slightly larger than the paper notebooks I normally use to capture my stray thoughts and ideas. The pen slides into the casing so I never have to worry about finding one or having it run out of ink. (These things happen to me more than you might think.)

Because it was there, I started using the pen to make notes. It just felt more natural than the on-screen keyboard. At first I wrote with the handwriting recognition software built into Windows 8 and Evernote, Word or WriteMonkey.

To do this, you open up a small window at the bottom of the screen and write in it with the pen. As you do so, your words are transformed onscreen into what Windows thinks you meant. Once you’ve filled a couple of lines you transfer the text to whatever program you are writing in with the push of a button, then you continue on.

Recognition is excellent, very accurate even in the face of my sloppy scrawl. It makes a nice break from the keyboard which is important for my RSI but I would not like to have to use it for a novel since my pen input is about a third the speed of my typing. That said, it’s more than good enough for a quick note although I found having to make the occassional correction slowed me down a little bit. Also on an 8 inch screen in landscape mode, the input window takes up a lot of space which makes your work a bit less than readable.

I started using OneNote. This program uses the notebook/binder visual metaphor and you can write directly into it with the pen, just as you would write directly onto a page. It does a very good job of understanding my handwriting and the files it creates are searchable. I can make notes right on the screen, giving each a separate page if I want. I can have as many notebooks and pages as I like colour-coded with different types of paper if I feel like it.

I can doodle, draw maps and diagrams and do a mass of other things I have not yet got to grips with. I found myself using the program exactly like I would use a normal notebook, making notes about stuff I had just read, jotting down ideas, fragments and bits of the usual inchoate nonsense that float through my brain, drawing little maps and sketches. It also let me store clippings from web-pages, screen captures and other stuff which is not something my paper notebook ever did.

OneNote uses OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) to sync through the cloud so my notes are always backed up and available on the web or on my other computers. I can export them as PDFs if I want to which is useful when I want to look at that list of 100 short story ideas as a standalone file on my computer or transfer it to Evernote or DevonThink.

The Asus Vivotab Note 8 is an example of how some new tech can be genuinely useful to a writer. It doubles up as an ebook reader, a manuscript editor and a reporter’s notebook. I can take photographs with it in a pinch. I can do pretty much anything on it I do on a Windows computer, albeit more slowly, given the limitations of pen input. It’s not the sort of thing everybody will want or need but it does an absolutely splendid job for me. As these things go it’s not terribly expensive ($269/£280 on Amazon right now). You might want to give it a look.

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4 Replies to “Taking Notes with Pen and Screen”

  1. I recently got an Asus Transformer t100, and I’ve been pleased with it. For years I’ve been looking for a laptop that doesn’t get too hot to use while actually in the lap, and amusingly I think a low-end Windows tablet is it.

    So I will write much of my next book on a Windows tablet. Which is not a sentence I ever thought I’d type.

    The screen is too small to do editing or layout, but for raw composition it is fine, especially with the Zoom in Word dialed up to 200%.

    1. Agree with you about the T100, Jonathan. It’s a good machine. I think Atom chips have now reached a stage of being useful for most tasks a writer might want them to perform. Great battery life and they run cool too. I know Windows 8 is far from popular but I think it works pretty well for these sort of tablet/netbook form factors.

  2. Do you combine OneNote and Drawboard? I’m on the verge of buying Drawboard to read and annotate scientific publications but I find that OneNote would be easier to use as it will automatically sync the annotated pdfs to all of my gadgets

    1. You know it never even occurred to me to try using OneNote for this purpose. I think Drawboard is a better general purpose PDF reader/annotator than OneNote. I keep my Drawboard PDFs in Dropbox and sync them across my machines that way.

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