Going paperless: the apps and gadgets that keep me paperless

My attempt to go paperless is more than just an effort to convert my existing paper to digital format. That conversion is important because it helps to establish a baseline. But what I hope to achieve by going paperless is to eliminate the need for paper most of what I do. Not everything that comes into my paperless system starts as paper. Some of it is already digital but the fact that it is already digital means that I can forgo the paper option entirely.

One example of this is the magazines that I read. As a science fiction writer, I read most of the major monthly science fiction magazines; I have subscriptions to Analog, Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ClarkesworldInterGalactic Medicine Show, and Daily Science Fiction. Three of these magazines still produce paper issues. But all of them are available in digital format and over the course of the last 18 months, I have let my paper subscriptions lapse and I now receive all of the magazines in digital format. I also subscribe to 3 science magazines: New Scientist, Discover, and Scientific American. I used to received these magazines in the mail as well, and have since converted all three of my subscriptions to digital format. Finally, I get both Rolling Stone and Time magazine in digital format. Most of these magazines could still be paper coming into my paperless world, but because they are available in digital format (and because I don’t mind reading them as such), I’ve eliminated the need for that paper before it ever gets into my system.

Perhaps the most crucial elements to being able to go paperless in this manner are the apps and gadget that I use that make going paperless so easy. Since I frequently get asked about the applications and gadgets I use, I thought I’d use this week’s post to provide a listing of what I use and how I use it to go paperless.

The hardware

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  1. iPad 2. My primary tool is my iPad 2, which I got just over a year ago. I got the WiFi-only, 64 GB model, which I don’t believe you can get anymore. (You can, of course, get an iPad 3 instead.) Virtually everything I need to do for work, home or my writing life can be done on my iPad. I’ve recently written about this in greater detail.
  2. iPhone. When I don’t have my iPad handy, my iPhone makes for a good alternative. While I can’t do as much on my iPhone as I can on my iPad (I wouldn’t try writing on my iPhone, for instance), it is invaluable for looking up things in Evernote. I can use it to take pictures and to keep track of various social media applications. Also, great for listening to music or watching a show. And I’ll even read on it when no other alternative is available.
  3. MacBook. I have a rather ancient MacBook as my home computer. I have replaced various parts within it several times now, but it is still running well enough and as I do more and more on my iPad and less and less on the MacBook, there seems no point in replacing it.
  4. Dell Latitude E6400. My work computer. A Windows machines, but I grew up with Windows and I do Windows web development as part of my day job so I am used to it.
  5. Apple BlueTooth wireless keyboard. I use this keyboard for both my MacBook and my iPad. The benefit here is the same feel no matter where I am typing. As a writer and blogger, the feel of a keyboard is important and it is convenient to be able to use the same keyboard  no matter where I am.
  6. Bamboo stylus. I use this with certain apps (listed below) to be able to hand write notes or sketch out diagrams on my iPad.

The software and apps

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  1. Evernote. Evernote is the centerpiece of my paperless world. Just about everything of significance goes into Evernote1. There is no limit to the amount of data I can store in Evernote. As an Evernote Premium user I can upload 1 GB of data each month. Evernote works on all of my devices so my data is accessible anywhere. And Evernote integrates with many of the other apps listed below. I couldn’t have gone paperless without Evernote.
  2. Evernote Web Clipper for Chrome. I use the Evernote Web Clipper for Google Chrome on both my MacBook and my Dell Latitude. It is a critical part of my paperless efforts. Being able to send all or part of a web page directly to Evernote (and tag it and add notes at the same time) has probably saved thousands of web pages from being printed on the printers that I used to use. Instead of printing out the stuff that I want to keep for later (research, maybe, for a story); a confirmation page from a purchase–you know, the ones that always say “print this page for your records; I can simply send them to Evernote where they are stored and searchable with all of my other paperless data.
  3. Kindle App. I am an e-book convert. As someone who collects paper books, I never imagined myself loving e-books as much as I do. But I have done a complete turnaround. There are only two circumstances in which I buy paper books these days: (1) the book isn’t available in electronic format and I really want it; or (2) it’s a book by a friend or author I admire and I want to get it signed. I started with a Kindle back in 2009 and switched to the Kindle App when I got my iPad. I’ve read dozens of books on it at this point, and purchased even more. And as I have learned over the years, there are some huge advantages to e-books, especially for someone going paperless2.
  4. Scrivener. I have been using Scrivener, which is a word-processing application designed with writer’s in mind, since 2007. When I am writing fiction and sitting in front of my MacBook, it is the only software I will consider using. I haven’t used Microsoft Word in years. Scrivener does everything I need, and does it really, really well. And I’ve come up with mechanisms to avoid printing out manuscripts. Indeed, I can write a story in Scrivener, send it to my Kindle App, where I can proofread it and make notes, and then take those notes and put them back into Scrivener, make my edits and send off the story to a magazine without ever using a single piece of paper. I can even build story time lines in Scrivener without the need for pen and paper.
  5. Elements. When I am not sitting in front of my MacBooks (which these day, is more likely the case), I do my writing on the iPad. Fortunately, Scrivener makes this easy by allowing you to sync your projects with an external folder, like Dropbox. Elements, by Second Gear Software, is a clean and simple text editing app for the iPad that allows you to edit text files directly from your Dropbox account. So I can write some scenes of a story in Scrivener, sync them with Dropbox, then switch to my iPad, pull up those scenes in Elements, and continue writing. When I go back to Scrivener, later, all my changes are there. It is seamless and simple, and recently anyway, I’ve done a lot more of my fiction writing in Elements because I am away from my home office much more.
  6. Penultimate. I find there are still times when I need to sketch something out. For quite a while, I was tempted to grab a piece of paper, sketch out what I needed, scan in the paper and then toss the original. Until I discovered Penultimate. Penultimate3 is an iPad app that allows you to free-form sketch diagrams or whatever you’d like. It provides some different “paper” backgrounds, like lined paper or graph paper. Your notes and sketches can be organized into notebooks, which can be exported to various formats. Best of all, it integrates directly with Evernote, meaning I can eliminate the paper phase entirely. I can simply pull up Penultimate, sketch out what I need, and then send the note to Evernote when I am finished. I tend to use this a lot more in my day job than in my writing, but I am just as paperless there as I am everywhere else. And every little bit helps.
  7. Goodreader. There are times when I want to make notes on PDFs. Goodreader is the best app I’ve found for doing this on my iPad. Goodreader allows you to pull up a PDF file, and then make all kinds of notes, and annotations to the file. You can highlight text, draw circles and boxes, add comments. And when you are finished, you can “flatten” the PDF and store it locally, or in the cloud. Goodreader also allows you to send the files directly to Evernote. Again, no printing out PDF files. Not marking them up by hand. I can do it all on my iPad and get the resulting file into Evernote without ever using a single piece of paper.
  8. Zinio. I mentioned all of the magazines I read at the start of this post. Many of these magazines are available on the Kindle App. But some are not. I use the Zinio app to read New Scientist, Discover, and Rolling Stone on my iPad. Zinio makes hundreds of popular magazines available on the iPad. You can subscribe to them through the app, and the prices are the same that you’d pay subscribing to the paper version. Sometimes, the electronic version is a little cheaper. The magazines look exactly like they’d look if you received the print version. And there is the added benefit of being able to read the magazine as you see it–or in text mode (easier for people who aren’t comfortable with the font size or with zooming in). I love the fact that I can get my magazines on my iPad and Zinio is a big part of making the experience feel identical to if I was reading the paper edition.

Cloud apps

  1. Gmail. I’ve been using gmail for many years. (I recently wrote about some of my personal email statistics.) I love it and in many ways, I use it and organize my email similar to the way I organize my Evernote data. On my MacBook and Dell machines, I use gmail in a browser window. On my iPad and iPhone, I tend to switch between the built-in mail application, and the Gmail app, depending on what it is I am doing.
  2. Google Docs. I have to use Microsoft Office at my day job, but outside my day job, I’ve completely given it up. Google Docs does everything I need and often in a simpler, less bulky manner than Microsoft Office. For my non-fiction pieces (columns on science fiction, book reviews, interviews, etc.) I use Google Docs to write the piece. In some instances, I can share what I’ve written with an editor who can edit the piece right there on the screen in real time. Very cool for folks who are writers working with editors who don’t live anywhere near where their editors live. My writing records are also stored in Google Docs, using their Spreadsheets.
  3. WordPress. This blog and website are done using a self-installed and maintained version of WordPress. I switched from LiveJournal to WordPress back in early 2010. My WordPress site now contains nearly 5,000 posts dating back to late 2005 when I first started blogging regularly. I use Evernote to keep track of ideas for posts, and I sometimes even outline the posts in Evernote as well, but I usually write the posts directly in WordPress using my browser. If I happen to be away from my computer, I’ll write the post on my iPad, using my browser there, as opposed to the WordPress app, because I like the browser interface better.

What tools do you use to help you go paperless?

(This post and all my Going Paperless posts are also available on my Going Paperless board on Pinterest.)

  1. If you are new to these posts and at this point are wondering: what about security? Aren’t you concerned about putting your data in the cloud? please see my earlier post on protecting and securing your paperless data
  2. Yes, there are issues of DRM that can complicate matters, but TOR Books recently announced that beginning this month, all of their books would henceforth be released DRM-free; and indeed, I received John Scalzi’s Redshirts this morning on my Kindle App, and it appears to be DRM-free. I imagine other publishers will follow suit once TOR’s experiment has been proven successful.
  3. Penultimate was recently acquired by Evernote.


  1. What tools do you use to help you go paperless?

    I’m nowhere near you, Jamie.

    What I use is my Kindle, my netbook (I do all of my gaming stuff on it rather than printing sheets),and Google Drive (formerly Google Docs). That’s where I do writing for my reviews. I also use Google Drive for RPG game post writing too.

  2. Wow! I’ve recently tried going paperless and it’s proven less than successful… but I haven’t thought out my process as well as you have! Now you’ve given me the apps that bridge the problems I experienced (like Elements, never heard of that before)!

    Now I have no excuse not to go paperless. Here goes…

  3. Great article Jamie. I just got an iPad about a month and a half ago. The article is really inspiring. I use Evernote a lot. One thing I’d be happy to have is an Evernote Web Clipper for iPad. That will make the whole paperless experience better and reduce dependence on computers.

    1. Thanks, Chizzy. There is a version of the “clipper” for the iPad, but it is a little tricky to get working. Once you have it installed, though, it works beautifully. Try these instructions and see if they work for you. I think these are about as simple as they get.

  4. I really love these posts. They have been a tremendous help in my own paperless project.

    Honestly the biggest help was learning about stacking. I’ve been using Evernote for years and had no clue!

    Thank you 🙂

  5. Regarding the Evernote Clipper, part of my own (quite similar) paperless process is the use of Instapaper (and I’ve played with ReadItLater/Pocket and like it but keep going back to Instapaper). I use that for any “Can’t read it now but want to read it later” websites as well as any “I want to come back to this soon” things. I have been a DEVONThink Pro user but I think it is way overkill for what I do and am thinking of either simplifying down to Yojimbo (Mac) or to Evernote for anything I want to keep and reference later. Thanks for your post. It’s making me rethink Evernote as a repository versus simply shared notes.

  6. Evernote heads my must have tool together with SugarSync, without those two I am totally all at sea. As well as the Evernote clipper on Chrome on my Android Galaxy SII I use Dolphin as a browser because it has Evernote and Skitch plugins so I can save stuff while surfing away from the desktop. Hell, what else are we expected to do in dentists’ waiting rooms! I am also playing with Springpad.

    I use my scanner via Scandrop to scan documents and beam them to Evernote. Apart from the PC, scanner and smartphone the only other essential piece of hardware is my Fellowes shredder, great for getting rid of the paper crap that our modern life seems to generate 🙂

  7. Jamie good read. I have the desire to go paper free. I say that as I look at a pile of papers to my left, and a few more over on the right. One of the main things that I cannot seem to get past, I find it much easier to read a paper copy. While I can read short stories, e.g. news, anything longer and I would just as soon print it off. That is amplified if I am following instructions, e.g. a tutorial. I have gotten much better. Any advice on getting past this block?

  8. I have tried to move to digital magazines as well. One obstacle is saving articles for later reference.

    With the print copy you can tear out a page and scan it into Evernote. How can you duplicate that process with an electronic copy? Especially in Zinio there should be an export article to Evernote feature…thoughts?

    1. For saving magazine articles from an app that won’t let you export, you could always do a series of screenshots (hold Home button while hitting Power button). Then import the series of Camera roll images into Evernote.

  9. I have a similar setup. Additionaly I use the app Scanner Pro to scan papers and directly include the digital versions in Evernote. But of ourse this reqiures the better camera of the iPad 3 I also prefer PDF Expert over GoodReader because the interface is more straightforward. A big problem for me are MS Office documents with annotations and changes in tracking mode. These are still quite common for business exchanges and there is no app for iOS to deal with it.

      1. Excellent news. I have been interested in Scrivener for a long time but have held off until an iPad version became available. It might be nearly time to make the move then!

  10. Fantastic Post. One of my aims this year is to go totally paperless. My next step it to scan all my old files and store online. I use Google Drive but have to say never tried Evernote before.

  11. When I first found your post I made a comment. From there I received some notifications about some really cool desktop setups (pics). I finally made the plunge and picked up an iPad. I have searched and searched and cannot seem to find any images. Maybe I dreamt that, who knows. If you have such links please send me in the right direction.


  12. I think one of the best pieces of hardware for going paperless is a second monitor for your desktop computer. Often you want to look at things side by side, either for comparison or for copying and pasting. Having a second monitor makes it so much easier than switching back and forth between open windows.

    1. Very good point Mike. I have got so used to having a second monitor I forget about how essential it is for comparisons and the like as part of my daily workflow.

      1. Jamie, aren’t you afraid of dropping that 27″iMac when you take it to work, on vacation, on airplanes, etc? 😉

  13. I currently have all my files stored in Goodreader. This does not work that well because it is not accessible on my computer or phone sync. I am currently trying to convert to Evernote. How can you convert all documents from Goodreader to Evernote with ease?

    1. Seth, one option would be as follows:

      1. Open Goodreader.
      2. Go to the Manage Files section
      3. Select one or more PDFs to send to Evernote
      4. Click the Email button to create an email with the selected PDFs attached.
      5. Send the email to your Evernote email address.

      When you do it this way, you’ll need to send one email for each note you want to create. So if you want 5 PDFs in a single note, select all 5, click Send Email and send that email to your Evernote email address. If you just want one PDF, just select the one and do the same. Repeat as necessary.

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