Notes and the Internet

Note:  As of April, 2023, my current recommendation for a note-taking application is Obsidian.  It hits a sweet spot for me between structured and free-form.

From time to time I obsess over some part of the writing process. Unfortunately it’s often other than writing itself.

Lately, I’m trying to figure out the best way to take notes and keep track of my web searches for a fiction project I’ve been working on for a long time now.

I have organized quite a few notes for this prospective novel with Papel, a free note-organizing software written by Michael O’Donnell, which I mentioned previously in this post.

PF-notes2-2The part I like best about Papel is the freeform graphical symbology of it, linked as you choose. But I think it would work best for organizing a smaller project than a novel. The linking is limited, as is the symbology, for the complexities and interrelations of the research and plotting required. I could go the predominantly text route with a personal wiki like Wikidpad, but I want to tie in all the research notes and clips from the web…

I should make plain what I need, and what I don’t. What I don’t need is a collaborative platform. Writing a novel is a lonely business, and that’s the way I like it. I need a program that lets me organize my text notes and plotting and characterization the way I want, and that integrates somehow all the web stuff, and stores it all on my computer. Since I’m trying to write a science fiction novel, there’s a lot of research involved.

There are internet based programs and services that let you collate and relate your material on somebody else’s server somewhere, often with the capability of sharing with others. I just don’t have confidence in this kind of solution, with server crashes always a possibility. And the sharing part… hey, I’ll share when I’m ready, alright?

notes1One such online notes/research collation program is the free Zoho Notebook. One review calls it better than the expensive Microsoft product OneNote.

OneNote , by the way, seems to be just what I’m looking for, and through a special deal from work I can get it inexpensively. Although it can be used collaboratively and is designed to integrate with the Microsoft Office suite, it seems to also offer that combination of notation and collection residing on my computer that I figure I need. But to satisfy my curiosity and as a public service I wanted to see what alternatives I might find.

Another free online notes and web service is the wiki-like Springnote. And yet another web-based notes organizer is Ubernote, although it does apparently allow you to back up all your work on your home computer.

I occasionally used Evernote in its previous free standalone incarnations when it was a way to store screenshots, web pages and notes in a long ribbon of data. But I didn’t really find that method of organization so useful, and now it has gone web-based, although still free. For those working as a team at work or play, it’s probably good, but I just don’t trust other people’s servers. Call me old-fashioned.

My most dependable and most used program for collecting web research has to date been Local Website Archive. It’s a way to store selected web pages offline so you can refer to them at your leisure, and it’s not a website ripper that downloads every page on a site. You can organize what you’ve captured like a note tree, and open it later as you wish.

datemplesolomonnewtonThere’s still a free “lite” version available and as this useful review notes, the so-called “lite” version is quite adequate. But the problem is that a good way of organizing your written notes to go with all this collected information is not there.

Enter Surfulator, a program that costs actual money. I’ve kindly been given an evaluation copy by the publisher.

I’ve begun using it in a limited way, and it has the characteristics I want: it sits on my machine, it captures web pages and I can organize and relate my written notes to the research as I find it and later.

It is actively supported and undergoes continuous improvement by its developer, Neville Franks (or Chief Rocket Scientist as he sometimes calls himself). His forums are informative and useful.

In Surfulator, you can embed your notes in the downloaded pages and everything can be linked together in a kind of knowledge database. Some people use it as a PIM (that’s Personal Information Manager, another whole subject area that I will leave alone.) You can read Mr. Franks’ claims here: he is not afraid to compare it to other similar programs.

So I like this program, although the cost seems a bit high at $79. For example, a similar although admittedly not as polished or as supported a program, AnyNotes , is available for $25. But if you do serious research on the web, Surfulator may well be worth it to you.

And yet my quest continues… If you surf with Firefox there’s a couple of plug-ins along these lines that may be useful.

Scrapbook is primarily another web page archiver, similar to Local Website Archive, but with expanded features compared to LWA. You can attach short notes or comments, but it is not really set up to act as a knowledge database in the flexible way Surfulator is. (Although as I look closer at Scrapbook which I haven’t used that much, it does have a feature to add text notes resembling the browser Opera’s notes function.)

Similar to Scrapbook is the freeware Internet Research Scout, which I haven’t tried at all.

Another research tool is Zotero, which again is a plugin for Firefox (which is the browser I use). It’s more of an academic style web data retriever and organizer with concern about such things as citations and bibliographies which it can capture automatically. It has more note-taking functionality than Scrapbook but it is geared towards annotating individual items rather than organzing an overall project like a novel with all the links and interconnections that would be useful.

nevnotesIf you want to work with just text, then CintaNotes seems like it might be a useful program. It provides you with several ways to take notes. You can enter notes manually, clip text from other applications, or paste text from the clipboard. It seems like a great application, except you can’t work with anything graphical.

Wired-Marker is an interesting concept: highlight items of interest as you find them on a web page and that material is automatically saved for you.

The developers say: “You can highlight not only text but also pictures, tables, and selected portions of the screen. You can even add notes to the highlighted items.” Another one to investigate more thoroughly.

For an overview and comparison of many of these notetaking programs, take a look at the site. It mentions some of the software mentioned here, including Surfulator and Evernote.


Explore posts in the same categories: Culture, Internet, Writing

8 Comments on “Notes and the Internet”

  1. forestrat Says:

    Thanks for this info. I’m always researching one thing or another and I have oodles of links saved all over the place. I try to organize them, but I don’t do a very good job of it. One of these apps might help me out.

    If there were something that would tie together the random thoughts I have while in the shower or running on the treadmill, notes from the margins of books I read, scraps of web sites I visit, and notes I jot down in my journal while hiking, then we’d be really talking.


  2. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    We need some kind of wireless router with optical character reading and writing functions embedded in our skulls, I think.

    But then it would get to be like going through reams of audio tape (or digital recording) after doing an interview, rather than just taking some notes at the time. Or that thing that I always wonder about with people and their videocams… they record everything and they’ll have so much they can never take the time to look at any of it again…


  3. Eliza D Says:

    I have OneNote but have to say that even I do not know how to navigate the software very well. Perhaps another post on how you use your OneNote, eh, Fencer? Cheers, and love the roundup, as always.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    I’m still in the early stages of figuring how best to use OneNote myself… that could well be a post, examining how to make that work for writing. Good idea!


  5. Karen Says:

    Hi, just found your site (searching for watercolour actually), but noticed this post. A bit late in the game, but if you haven’t already discovered and for anyone else looking – beware: I have had significant trouble using OneNote with Firefox – saved pages are often screwed up. I assume this is because of the fact that Microsoft’s browser likes to do its own thing (i.e. not follow any standards) and of course, OneNote must work well with IE (which it does). Not too helpful if you refuse to use IE in all its glorious bugginess!

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Karen,

    Thanks for your comment…

    It turns out I didn’t follow up on OneNote, since for me it would mean getting the whole cumbersome Office 2007 suite, and I just don’t need it. So I didn’t get to discover that it doesn’t play well with Firefox, which I do use.

    One recent find that may be a good solution is the freeware Canaware NetNotes 5.2. I haven’t had the chance to seriously try that yet, but it looks good.


  7. highly informative site. I have been archiving a good deal of material as you can see and am moving into the great many smaller pieces. Let me know of additions and ideas as they occur, if you please. Thanks. Al

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi Alfred,

    Thanks for stopping by… and glad you got something out of it.


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