Tablet Note-taking Made Easy with Xournal

Every tablet needs a good writing application –something to take notes, make annotations, and maybe even scribble a quick sketch. Xournal is a GTK-based program that does just that.  It works with Linux-compatible desktop graphics tablets, tablet PCs, and maemo-based handheld devices (such as the soon-to-be released Nokia N900). Xournal is available in many distribution repositories, or you can download the source code from their website.


By default, Xournal presents you with a notebook background. You can change that to a blank page, a a plain ruled page, or a graphing grid.  To do this, click the “Journal” menu, then “Paper Style”, and then choose the one you like. To change the paper color, click “Journal” and then “Paper Color”.

There are several input styles:

1. Pen – basic handwriting tool.
2. Eraser – to remove writing.
3. Highlighter – for highlighting text.
4. Text – to type in regular print.
5. Ruler – to draw straight lines.


Xournal also has support for graphics tablet features, such as pressure sensitivity and automatic eraser detection. All of these features can be configured under the “Options” menu. To scroll through multiple pages, click “View” and “Continuous”, and to create a new page, click the up arrow in the bottom left corner, next to the page number.

Background Selection

Xournal has another feature which lets you select any background you want, rather than the four it provides. Start with a new document and:

1. Click “File” and “New”.
2. Click the “Journal” menu.
3. Click “Load background”.
4. Select a background (preferably a wallpaper or scanned document that will cover the entire page).

Now, you can write directly on that new background. If you select “background screenshot” instead, it will show your desktop. Click on whatever you want to take a screenshot of, and it will import a picture of it into Xournal.

PDF Annotations

One very useful Xournal tool is its PDF annotation capabilities. To annotate a PDF:

1. Click File
2. Click Annotate PDF
3. Choose a PDF file.
4. Use the pen tool, highlighter, or ruler to make annotations.


With a graphics tablet, annotating becomes just like editing a physical document on your desk. The advantage is the undo feature. A simple Ctrl-Z will take you back to the last time you lifted the pen. When you are finished with it, you can export it back to PDF format.

Selection Rectangle

The selection rectangle gives you the power to move something even after it has been drawn, written, or typed. For example, you might have circled some text but then realized that the circle was not quite where you wanted it. Click the “selection rectangle” button and then draw a rectangle completely around the part you wish to move. You will then be able to drag it to a new location. It will let you select as many objects as you want, as long as they are completely inside the selection rectangle.

Xournal is easy to setup and use, and best of all, it is free software. With Xournal in your computing arsenal, nothing will be safe from your pen.

Tavis J. Hampton

Tavis J. Hampton is a freelance writer from Indianapolis. He is an avid user of free and open source software and strongly believes that software and knowledge should be free and accessible to all people. He enjoys reading, writing, teaching, spending time with his family, and playing with gadgets.