Plain Text Notes and Evernote

As a follow-up to my Tools & Toys Guide to Research Implements, I will go into more detail about how I use plain text notes and Evernote.

Plain Text

I use nvALT and Simplenote for my plain text notes. nvALT runs on my desktop, stores my notes as plain text files in Dropbox, and syncs with Simplenote, my preferred iOS plain text solution. I have my nvALT hotkey set to ⌥ + Space, allowing quick access to my notes anywhere in OS X. On iOS, I keep Simplenote in the dock. While tagging is an option, search in both apps works well, so I don’t use any tags.

Anything that is suitable for plain text gets stored in nvALT/Simplenote rather than Evernote. For me, the speed and simplicity of plain text is important. I have notes with everything from lists, frequent flyer numbers, and keyboard shortcuts I commonly forget.


My main use for Evernote is my “paperless file cabinet”. Storing PDF scans of any paper documents I need to keep in Evernote allows me to quickly search not only the name of the document, but the OCRed content as well, making it easy to find what I’m looking for.1 I also store magazine pages from my iPad, photos of handwritten notes2, MS Office/iWork documents I need for reference3, and archives of plain text notes I no longer need.

As for tags, I use them in Evernote for ease of finding documents. Since the default date for a note is the date of last modification, I want to be able to search through my paperless file cabinet by the date on the document. Rather than depending on OCR for that, I have a tag for each year and month. I use a few other tags to classify documents, but most of my organization comes from Notebooks and Stacks (groups of notebooks).

Note: If you have sensitive documents in Evernote that you don’t want stored and indexed in the cloud, you can create a local notebook. The downside to this is that you won’t have the ability to search within the document.4


Storing all my notes in the cloud gives me easy access to them from anywhere. If you are interested in learning more about Evernote and how to make it work the best way possible for you, I highly recommend reading Evernote Essentials. For nvALT, Macdrifter has some great tips.

  1. PDF OCR is only available if you have Evernote Premium. 
  2. Evernote OCR only recognizes handwriting in images. Image OCR is available to everyone. 
  3. Evernote recently added the ability to search within attached MS Office and iWork documents if you are a Premium subscriber. 
  4. If you decide this is a route you want to go but still want to have the search capability, PDFPen does a great job with OCR. If you save OCR to your PDF before you import it into Evernote, you can search the text of a document while still keeping it off the cloud.