Take Good Notes

[This post originally appeared at Slaw.ca on September 9, 2014]

Tablets are for information consumption. Voice options may be changing that a bit – for example, if you need help on where to bury a body – but it is challenging to create with a bare tablet. A keyboard will help but then you are straddling the laptop fence. There is one key productivity app that lawyers can use with little effort and no keyboard and that is the notebook. Some interesting notebook and journal apps have appeared recently that can make you feel as though you’re writing on a paper pad.

Writing on a tablet isn’t for everyone and here are some of the reasons you might not use it in your legal practice. I like writing on my tablet for a couple of reasons, most of which would hold if I was using paper. It is faster for me to quickly capture notes by hand than by keyboard. Research that writing is better for information retention and learning than typing also resonates. I can also keep better eye contact and listen more closely when I’m writing than when I’ve got a screen propped up between me and others. Almost as importantly, sometimes I am not writing notes so much as doodling to keep myself engaged in a discussion which I’m hearing but not actively a part of.

Writing Apps: S Note, Moleskine Journal, Bamboo Paper

Samsung Android tablet users will be familiar with the S Note app (also available on Windows 8), and they have one for phone users as well called S Memo. It remains my favorite default Samsung app but I have been playing around with Wacom’s Bamboo Paper (iOS, Android, and Windows 8) and Moleskine’s Journal (iOS, Android, and Windows phone). There are loads of journal and note-taking apps out there but my interest was piqued by these two because of Wacom’s dominance in writing and illustration hardware and Moleskine’s writing paper journals.

s-notes

S Note has a couple of templates (memo, birthday, landscape note) but that isn’t a big draw for me. It has two specific features I like. The most important is that it can block input from anything other than the S Pen, Samsung’s stylus. It means I don’t end up with random lines where my sleeve button or outside of my pinky finger touches the tablet. I also like the feature where, as you are writing, it will convert your handwriting into text.

Moleskine’s Journal is a fun app. To open it, you have to slide the rubber band image over just as you would with a paper journal. It comes with some better defined templates – weekly schedule, to do list, wine journal – and looks very nice. It has some unusual features, like the ability to add bits of text or images to the inside “pocket” of the cover. It is very much like a physical journal.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to just write with the app. The pen and pencils are more suited to artists than writers and I spent a lot of time popping open the side menu and fiddling with my pen width. I never did get it quite right. Someone doing drawings or who writes with more flare would find the tools quite handy.

moleskin

It may be my tablet or the early iteration of the app, but I ended up with lots of blobs around my writing. It was as if I had a leaky fountain pen. You can also see the marks my sleeve buttons made at the bottom right of the screenshot. This is probably the nicest looking note-taking app I’ve seen, but it doesn’t have quite the functionality I would want.

Wacom’s Bamboo Paper is a lot closer. It has very little in the way of templates but, when you create a new notepad, you can choose gridlines or straight lines and any color cover you want. The writing is much nicer than with Moleskine – which is not surprising, since these are the hardware/stylus folks and Moleskine are the paper people – and had some nice tweaks.

wacom-bamboo-paper

You can select Bamboo Paper tools easily from the top toolbar, similar to the S Note. What I also liked is that if you press and hold your pen, it will display the color options. This means you can flip colors of ink without having to leave where you are on the page. Where the Moleskine and S Note pens can be more tightly controlled for width, Bamboo Paper just has 3 pen sizes. But writers should be able to use any of these.

Then What? Exporting Your Notes

If you are taking notes that are relevant to a client matter, you need to get them into the client file. S Note has an export feature that allows you to send all or part of a note book to PDF. Unfortunately, Moleskine is a social app and you can only export via its sharing menu to Facebook and Twitter, as well as the MyMoleskine site. Bamboo Paper uses the normal (on Android, at least) sharing function so, while it has no internal export option, you can share a journal to Convert to PDF or some other program. Once exported, you can add the PDF to your client file.

Me? I’m still a fan of writing on tablets. It’s enabled me to eliminate the last elements of paper from my work. I’ll stick with S Note for now because it is an excellent note taking tool. But I am going to keep both Moleskine Journal and Bamboo Paper around to see how they improve. You can never have too many writing apps. If you’re looking for a good note writing app, consider:

  • the types of pens and the control you have over them to act like a writing tool;
  • the way you use your pens (multiple colors, multiple highlights)
  • the types of templates included
  • and how you are going to get it out of your tablet and into your client file.

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