Looking For Advice: Writing On The Ipad

I’m working on changing my work habits as a writer, and part of that is changing tools. Over the years I’ve progressed from fountain pen and legal pad to manual typewriter to desktop PC to portable pre-laptop to laptop to notebook to netbook…

Now, I’m typing this on my brand spankin’ new iPad 2, composing in Simplenote for cut & paste into WordPress. I’m loving the device as a new toy, but got it primarily to be my new main writing tool.

I knew in advance that I wasn’t going to be satisfied typing on the touchscreen’s virtual keyboard (which I’m doing right now, and it’s about like I expected it to be). So I have an order in for a Bluetooth keyboard to use with it, allowing me to use the combo pretty much as a netbook.

Thing is, I’m trying to decide what app or combination of apps is best to use for writing books. So if any writers out there have been down this road already, please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences.

As I said, I’m using Simplenote right now. I also installed Plaintext to try, and have seen quite a few folks recommend IA Writer. Ideally I’d be able to automatically, or at least easily, sync files to Dropbox or something similar so that I could freely switch to other machines as need be. In that vein, I’m curious about DocsToGo as well.

I had also been thinking of starting to use Scrivener for Windows, and still might if there’s a good way to get it to interact with whatever app I wind up using on the iPad.

Again, if you have any experience with this stuff, please share.

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4 comments on “Looking For Advice: Writing On The Ipad

  1. Rob Donoghue says:

    Ok, so three main concerns for writing: Editing, organization and setup.

    For editing, I would not hesitate to suggest Plaintext, Elements, Nebulous or IA writer. All three work very well and sync seamlessly with dropbox, making them excellent for writing on the go. All of them are straight text editors (you won’t find an RTF editor on the ipad, even where you’d expect, for licensing reasons) so take that as you would. If formatting is absolutely necessary as you write, then pages is very good. There are apps that can theoretically write in .doc format, but I can’t recommend them. They’re better than they used to be, but they’re all clunky in one way or another.

    Simplenote is an excellent app too, but I would suggest against it for any serious writing. While it excels at automatically syncing notes (and has some excellent sharing features), if there’s a connection problem, you can end up with randomly lost or duplicated text with no warning, and sometimes inobviously. I trust it for notes, but I don’t trust it enough for writing.

    One other note-taking thing – if you like the “spread of index cards” approach to notetaking, there’s an excellent app called simply “Index card” which works very well for random notetaking. Plus, there’s always evernote, which I don’t use, but enough people swear by that I’d feel remiss in not mentioning.

    Ok, now organization. The one downside to most of these apps is that they just save the files in directories in your dropbox account. This is not bad for a while, but if you accumulate a lot of docs, it can get pretty disorderly. There’s a temptation to go for a fancier writing app that promises organizational tools, like Manuscript, but doing so steps away from the simplicity of things. My advice: just keep your dropbox folders organized, and if you have more than one kind of writing (say, blog writing vs. fiction) consider using a different app for each. The apps aren’t expensive, and the functional differences aren’t going to introduce any real friction into the process.

    Ok, lastly, setup. The hardware.

    First, and external keyboard is a godsend, and the main question to ask is if you want something portable or not. I use an apple bluetooth keyboard because I carry it everywhere, and it’s super portable (I’ve tried the fold-up bluetooth keyboards before, and while they’re ok for whipping out a quick email, they’re just too awkward for extended writing). My friend Chuck, on the other hand, only writes on his Ipad at home, so he has a little station for it where he plugs in a full sized USB keyboard to write. That’s on option too. To do it, you need to buy the camera kit to get the USB adapter, but in all probability, kit + USB KB is still cheaper than the bluetooth option. You could theoretically use a USB keyboard in a portable setup, but I don’t really see it.

    I have an ipad 1, so I have no idea if the ipad 2 cover is as good as they make it out to be. If it’s a satisfactory stand on its own, then you’re golden. If it turns out it’s not, then you probably need a stand. For this, there are 2 good solutions.

    Option 1 is a 12 south compass stand ( http://twelvesouth.com/products/compass/ ). It’s small, folds up and looks awesome. It is also a little self indulgent, but I can say this because I saw Chuck’s, lusted after it, and eventually got one of my own. There are other stands (search for “Ipad stand” on amazon and you’ll see a stack) but I favor the compass because I like mine.

    Option 2 is to spend a couple bucks at staples and get a business card stand (like this – http://www.amazon.com/Rolodex-Black-Business-Holder-22251/dp/B00006IAKZ/ ). Test your ipad in it at the store, but they work surprisingly well. Sole consideration: If you get plastic, it can break when being carried, and if you get metal, you might want to take tape to it to keep it from scratching.

    All in all, I love writing on my ipad, and I probably do more writing on it than anywhere else these days. I’ve tried way more apps than is reasonable, so if you have questions about any specific apps, let me know, I’ll try to answer.

    -Rob D.

  2. Tim Byrd says:

    Wow, thank you, Rob. This is all very appreciated.

    The keyboard I’m getting is a Zaggmate (http://www.zagg.com/accessories/zaggmate-ipad-case). Figured a design that serves as high impact case, stand, and keyboard was perfect for my needs.

    I’ve now installed Simplenote, Plaintext, and IA Writer. Of the three, I like the look and feel of Writer best, though I’ve done just a token amount of test typing. I assume all these save as basic text files, so moving between machines and platforms would be easy enough.

    I was wondering how they handle paragraphs. There seems to be no way to format an indent, so I default to blog-style and double-space, but I am going to be writing prose, so actual prose format is desirable. Also, with ebook formatting being a concern, it’s better to have a single return as paragraph marker. I know reformatting after the fact isn’t difficult, but it will add steps to every file I work with.

    My other small concern in using these type of apps is that I’d have to go back through and add any italics I might want, so an app that allowed for easy composing, easy sync, and at least a basic amount of formatting would be nice, unless it coded up the file with too much stuff that would interfere with a clean ebook build.

    I’ll look up Elements and Nebulous; those are new to me.

    I do already use Evernote for my research, which is integrated across all my machines.

    I looked at some reviews of Pages, Docs to Go, and QuickOffice. Pages and QO both looked particularly nice, with good formatting and organization, though again, the concern about too much code is possibly an issue. (This was a helpful video comparison: http://youtu.be/Ce4reaC4eTg).

    It’s heartening that you enjoy writing on your iPad so much. I’m still at the stage where I’m trying to justify my purchase to myself, so the fact that you’re doing what i want to do and liking it is a good sign. ;)

  3. Rob Donoghue says:

    I’ll be really curious how the Zagmate works out, because MAN it’s pretty!

    Regarding formatting in text files: Yeah, you’re kind of hosed. The best solution I’ve found is a regular post-processing pattern. For example, I use text markup of *bold* and _italic_ (that’s a cheat because I never really use underline, and because _italic_ is easier to type then ~italic~) and I’ll just pastt the final text into word and run a search and replace (find _()_, replace it with \1 with italic formatting applied to the replace) to clean it up.

    This works for me because I only do two or three such tags. I am sometimes tempted to go down the more powerful route of using markdown ( http://www.simpleeditions.com/59001/markdown-an-introduction ) and runnign a script on my files. If this interests you, there is a markdown editor for the ipad (Edito), and while I’ve found it’s just unstable enough that I don’t like writing in it, you could absolutely paste a document into it to see the results of markdown, and export a formatted doc. Markdown does take a bit of learning, but it may be exactly the right solution for your ebook files.

    I’m actually going to go spend a few hours writing on my ipad this afternoon. One thing I’ve really found is that the lack of features means a lack of distractions. It means a little bit more work when I’m done, but when I’m actually writing, the fact that it’s a little work to check twitter or IM helps keep me focused.

    Anyway, good luck!

    -Rob D.

  4. Tim Byrd says:

    Thanks again, Rob.

    The Zaggmate came, and it’s awesome. I love using it, and it interacts perfectly with the iPad. When time allows, I’m going to do a follow-up post about this streamlining/changing of writing habits, and I’ll cover it in detail.

    I’m using IA Writer right now, and will use your search & replace idea for formatting as I need to. I’m thinking of getting either Pages or QuickOffice HD, though, when it’s time to get down to the fiction again (I’ll be doing ECT the next few weeks, which I don’t think will be very conducive to working on a novel). Both will save as .doc files, and For Kindle, at least, working with .doc seems to work fine. And doesn’t Smashwords require a doc file?

    Anyway, thanks again for your input. It has been very helpful.

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