Like a lot of you, I carry a notebook every day and take a ton of handwritten notes about almost everything from grocery lists to my someday novel.
I prefer writing on paper with a pen and have no interest in using handwriting apps for the smartphone, digital pens or tablet and stylus to capture my thoughts. Something about that just seems to suck all the creativity right out of the process. Over the years, we’ve heard from many of you who feel exactly the same way.
The problem is that I end up with a whole lot of written material with no easy way to organize it and little to no searchability. It’s frustrating when I can remember writing down some brilliant idea that’s hanging right there at the edge of my memory, and I have to flip through every page of a dozen notebooks just to find it.
So, what I end up doing periodically is transcribing my handwritten notes book by book into Microsoft OneNote. As you can imagine, it’s a tedious process.
That’s why I was really excited the other day when I saw a headline in the Guardian, “How can I convert my handwritten notes into Word documents?” Unfortunately, my excitement had dimmed considerably by the time I finished reading. It seems there is no really good way of converting handwritten notes to text.
The bottom line is that there are a few options, none of them optimal. You can use:
Use OCR (optical character recognition) software to “read” your documents and convert them to text. The problem here is that the handwriting must be very clean, and the software probably still won’t recognize everything. OCR is almost useless with cursive handwriting.
Speech-to-text software that will turn your notes into the plain text as you read them aloud from your notebooks. In order for this to work, you need a top-notch program that translates with few mistakes. You’d also have to be willing to slowly, patiently read every page of every notebook you want to save.
A transcriptionist to type your handwritten notes to text. Probably the most reliable method (aside from doing it yourself) but has lots of downsides. The first is cost. You can hire an individual to do it for as low as US$1 per page, or hire a transcription service that can charge US$6 per page or more and take two weeks to get it to you. The other major drawback is that complete strangers will be reading your notes.
There is any number of text-to-text transcription services available online.
Scan to PDF
A scanner to convert your handwritten pages into PDF documents. Then, you can go through each page and tag the PDFS with relevant keywords to help you find the pages more quickly. Of course, this is a time-consuming process and the searchability of your notes would be limited.
One other possibility that bears mentioning is EverNote, a cross-platform program that manages notes and organizes them for easy retrieval.
It is capable of searching images for recognizable text, but as you can see from this explanation of EverNote OCR, it is severely limited for the purposes of converting handwritten notes to text, especially if they are written in cursive.
Moleskine offers a Moleskine EverNote Notebook which is supposed to make the handwritten text searchable. However, from what I’ve read, it has the same shortcomings as most other OCR: it just doesn’t read sloppy print or cursive that well.
So at this point, it’s looking like the two best options are scanning notebooks into PDFs or reading them into text with a speech-to-text program. Either way promises a long slog that I’m not looking forward to.
Has anyone tried anything else that has offered better results? I’d love to hear if you have.