How to take notes on an iPad

Since switching from my spiral notebook to an iPad, I’ve been working to create a workflow that enables me to take notes on my iPad during meetings, and then make use of them everywhere.


The iPad is really the perfect meeting companion. I always felt weird taking notes on a laptop — the screen creates such a barrier between me and the other meeting participants, and the keyboard is loud and a bit disruptive. But the iPad, sitting mostly flat (propped up on the Smart Cover) creates no such barrier. With a stylus in my hand, I can take notes on the screen without disrupting any meeting. The notes I take are just as legible and useful as any notes in my spiral pad, but they have the bonus of being digital (not paper) so I can find them on any of my devices, from anywhere.

Before I talk about my exact setup, I want to cover some general discoveries that I find important to any digital note-taking setup.

  1. You need a stylus.
    I know that Steve Jobs said that the human body is equipped with all the styli that you might need (holding up his fingers), but writing with your finger is awkward and (at least for me) leads to terrible handwriting. If you are going to take notes all day on your iPad, you need a stylus. You can get a really basic stylus for less than a buck; but I prefer the a chunkier writing experience like the elago Stylus or the Just Mobile AluPen. But then my pen of choice is chunky too (the venerable Dr. Grip).
  2. The magic of the zoom window.
    The key to writing on the iPad with handwriting that doesn’t look like a Kindergartner is note-taking software that has a zoom window. A zoom window is an area on the bottom of your iPad screen where you can write letters about 1” high and the software records them about 2X smaller. When you get to the right hand edge of the zoom window it slides across the page (or creates a linefeed if you are at the right margin) so that you can write continuously at the bottom of the screen. This also solves the problem of placing your hand on the iPad screen.
  3. Dropbox is your friend.
    Having a note taking app that syncs to Dropbox or Evernote enables you to easily get your notes from your iPad into whatever filing system you use for your project files.

So how do I do it?

My favorite note-taking app is Notability. It has three things that make it my favorite. First, it meets my basic criteria with a zoom window and Dropbox integration. The Dropbox integration is especially nice because it is “two-way”. Notability saves each note file as a PDF in Dropbox, but I can also open PDF and Word files from my Dropbox into Notability. This is particularly handy for agendas or other notes I want to refer to in the meeting. I’ll open the meeting agenda from Dropbox into Notability and they write over the top of the agenda (just as I might with a paper agenda). Second, I really like the feel of the “ink” — it doesn’t feel like I’m writing with a stylus on a screen, the ink has a flow to it that’s very nice. The bonus is that Notability will also create an audio recording while you are taking notes. This can make some very large files, but it can be handy for those times when you really need to catch every word, but also want to have your written notes.

Having the iPad means that I also have access to 16 colors, and 24 different pen tips so I can fancy up my notes (or doodles) quite a bit. I’ve even started experimenting with Sketchnoting.

When the meeting’s over, Notability syncs my notes to Dropbox where Hazel automatically files a copy into my folder for that client. Then, whether I’m at my desk or on the go, I have access to all my meeting notes for all my clients.

Have you tried taking notes on a tablet? How do you do it?

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