How to Write and Take Notes Online

Thanks to a number of free web-based services, creating and keeping documents on one computer and toting around thumb drives or emailing files to yourself or colleagues could soon be a thing of the past.
Published: May 7, 2007
Author: Jordan Running

I've got a copy of Microsoft Word on my computer, but it spends most of its time gathering dust. I write almost all of my articles online, in a web browser. The benefits are numerous, but the biggest is that all of my documents are stored online, and as long as I have an internet connection I can access them without having to carry around a memory stick or email files to myself.

There are dozens of web sites that let you create documents and take notes online. I'm going to point you toward a few of my favorites, at least one of which you ought to find useful for your purposes.

Bare bones: Writer

The simply-named Writer is the web app I'm using right now to write this article. It has a super-simple premise: You type, it stays out of your way. You can get started with Writer without even signing up. You just type into the box and your document automatically is saved periodically. There's no fancy formatting to deal with and the uncluttered editor is designed to minimize distractions (try putting your browser in full-screen mode to see what I mean).


If you like Writer, I recommend registering an account, which will allow you to save an unlimited number of documents for as long as you like. It also has built-in blogging support, which lets you quickly post your document to a number of different blog services. If you decide you don't like Writer's green-on-black color scheme or the monospaced font (I'm rather fond of them), on the Prefs screen you can switch it to a sans serif font and adjust the colors to suit you.

Writer is the definition of bare bones, but if you just want to do some typing with a minimal amount of fiddling, it's a winner.

Serious word processing: Google Docs

If you're looking for an experience more like the one you're used to in Microsoft Word, a few steps up from Writer is Google Docs & Spreadsheets. Though not as featureful as your desktop word-processing software, Google Docs is as polished as you've come to expect from the Big G and has all the features most people need for day-to-day writing, including fonts, bulleted lists, images, tables, spell check, and so on. One of the best features of Docs is that you can import Microsoft Office documents, as well as HTML and text files.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets

Another perk of Google Docs is the built-in sharing and collaboration system. You can invite friends and colleagues to view or edit the document you're working on, and the server will keep a copy of all of the past revisions, so nothing is ever lost. You can also publish documents, making them available to the world. If you've got some serious writing to do, or need more advanced layout options, Google Docs is a good choice.

The wiki way: PBWiki

If you're caught up in a big project and need a way to take notes or create documentation on a variety of topics ´┐Żnot to mention keep them organized´┐Żbut don't want to resort to a full-fledged project management system, consider a wiki. You might be familiar with Wikipedia, the world's biggest wiki, but even for small, personal projects a wiki can be a great way to keep things together.


There's lots of sites out there that will host a wiki for you, but I'm most fond of PBwiki. It's a free, user-friendly service that lets you set up a wiki just for you, or for a small group of people, or for 10,000 of your closest friends. PBwiki does have a learning curve, and you'll have to learn to use wiki markup, a special (but easy to remember) code that will let you turn plain text into formatted text with headings, lists, images, and so on. Once you've got the hang of it, it's easy to create pages and create links between them. Like all wikis, PBwiki saves a complete record of each revision of every page, so just like in Google Docs, nothing is ever permanently lost. You can control who has access to your PBwiki and who can edit it, or you can just keep it to yourself.

If you find that you've got way too much information to keep track of for a single Writer or Google Docs document, PBwiki might be the way to go.

A little disclaimer

I love these tools and use them all the time. But remember the big advantage, that all your documents are stored online? That can also be a disadvantage. If you find yourself without an internet connection, you could also find yourself without your documents. Also, you're trusting your documents to a third party. If you're keeping anything remotely valuable or sensitive on someone else's servers, you should: A) Read the service's privacy policy. Twice. And B) Make frequent back-ups of the stuff you're keeping online, so you have it in case you lose connectivity or the server has a catastrophic failure. Never underestimate the value of a good backup.

About Jordan Running

Blogger since 1999, Jordan Running went pro in 2005 and never looked back. Sometimes programmer, occasional photographer, and serial tinkerer, he decided to to switch to Linux in 2001 but just hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.

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