No Good Way To Convert Handwritten Notes To Text?

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.

 

No Good Way To Convert Handwritten Notes To Text

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.

Notebook and Pen in Hand

 

The bottom line is that there are a few options, none of them optimal. You can use:

OCR

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.

OCR programs include SoftWriting, ABBY FineReader and a few other top-rated OCR programs.

OCR Document

Speech-to-text

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.

One of the most recommended speech-to-text programs is Dragon NaturallySpeaking from Nuance. Available for PC and Mac, and on the iOS for mobiles. It works with Microsoft Word.

Dragon Naturally Speaking

Transcription

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.

Transcription

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.

Scan to PDF

All-in-one printers that include scanners, printers and fax machines cost less than $150. Or for about the same price, you can pick up a portable Doxie scanner.

 

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.

Moleskine Everenote

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.

12 thoughts on “No Good Way To Convert Handwritten Notes To Text?”

  1. Hey Tony Bridges,

    thank you for your blog entry. I am really not an expert on this subject. As far as I know, this kind of OCR is quite difficult and all good software will rely on Artificial Intelligence (AI)
    When you use methods built on AI, there are two ways:
    1. the software was trained on enormous generic data and tries to translate your writing into characters without your feedback (can be ok, but it is not explicitly adapted to your writing)
    2. the software was trained on enormous generic data AND you can further train it on, say 5-10 pages of your own writing (you explicitly give the software the jpg and the transcript). This will result in better recognition.

    Now I want to point you to one scientific project that uses this technology (2.): the software Transkribus https://readcoop.eu/de/transkribus/ . It is commonly used to recognize historical handwrittings for past centuries.

    I didn’t use it but it seems very capable. However, it looks rather expensive.

    Reply
  2. Thank you for this helpful article. 🙂

    Unfortunately I can’t offer a solution to the digital part, am still looking (currently looking at OneNote). About the paper notebooks: I use the ADOC system, which allows me to carry one general notebook with tabs and then take the pages out filing them into themed notebooks. It is neater than a folder and for prettyness I have a leather cover (similar to https://www.campomarzio.store/moda-small-journal-cover-blue-jeans am not affiliated, had the cover for close to 10years now and still looks great)

    Reply
  3. You pointed out the OCR technology (From an image get the equivalent in the digital text). Yo need to explain the concept ICR (Intelligent character recognition. From your live handwriting get the conversion to digital text, you write and the writing is converted on real-time or when you need it).

    ICR technology is used by different applications (iOS or Windows or Android). This is used by Livescribe, and apps like Notability and Nebo (If I’m not wrong if somebody has some extra info please share it.).

    Liz commented that Nebo “You can leave the handwriting or convert it to text. I added a paper-like screen saver to improve the feel of writing on my screen and find the program works quite well. It’s also easy to export your document as a Word file or save it to evernote.”

    Reply
  4. Why not use MyScript Nebo on an iPad. You can leave the handwriting or convert it to text. I added a paper-like screen saver to improve the feel of writing on my screen and find the program works quite well. It’s also easy to export your document as a Word file or save it to evernote.

    Reply
  5. Google Drive is your answer – it’s not perfect but it does work. Take a picture of your page. Upload it into your google drive, then right click and ‘Open with’ Google docs… hey presto.

    The new google doc opens with the original screen shot and then the converted editable text underneath. Quick and free

    Reply
    • Is that only workable from a desktop or android?? I’m on iOS and see “open with”, but Docs isn’t included in the list at all.

      Reply
      • So, the trick is to upload it into Google Docs on your phone. Then, go to into Google Drive on a computer, and do the Open With.. step.

        I just tried this. My handwriting is pretty terrible, and Google Docs one only 1 word wrong.

        Reply
        • I just tried this and to my surprise it worked! There’s some formatting errors, but like Jay said, it converts pretty well from my slightly cursive writing, and making a few tweaks here and there won’t take as long as actually typing the full page. Instead of using a jpg I’m going to try this with PDF using the scanner at work, to see if it’s equally as good or better. Thanks for the tip, Helen!!

          Reply
    • This might be a viable option for personal notes or loading data into your official company Google drive. Otherwise you need to check with your legal departement whether it is ok to upload company data to third party providers. Client data might be stored in countries clients have not consented to or company secrets might be shared with other companies.
      Same applies to Evernote or having Alexa, Siri … running during meetings / company phone calls.

      Reply
  6. I am so glad to find your article. I also would like to clean up my piles of cursive handwritten sticky notes and cursive handwritten paper notes and scan them in, separate them into categories, use OCR to make them searchable… and after looking online for DAYS, I still can not find any apps that can do this. Would love for someone to develop this app.

    Reply
  7. I am a user of Livescribe pens, currently the Livescribe 3. You are tied in to proprietary paper and notes can only be stored on a iOS device. However the the software converts from hand writing to text and I have found it to be quite accurate.

    Reply

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