Review: Writing Apps for iPad

One of the reasons I bought an iPad (aside the “Ooo! Shiny!” effect all things Apple have on me) was the idea that this incredibly flat little thing could serve as a decent writing tool, and that this might spur me eventually back into writing, something I’d been missing for quite a while but doing absolutely nothing about—for reasons I won’t be going into in this post.

Lately, there has been a crop of new Apps coming out that seem to fit very well with how I think (and therefore write), and I would like to talk a little about them here.


Every writer has their own way of going about things, that is a given. For me, there are a few tools on the iPad I now find indispensable:

  • TextExpander – text-entry shortcuts
  • Notebooks – note-taking and organising
  • iA Writer – pure writing
  • Pages – word processing/publishing

Together, these four apps cover almost every part of my flow of writing. I’ll talk about apps for writing research in another post.

So what are they?

TextExpander

TextExpander, like its sibling on OS X, lets you define abbreviations for commonly-used phrases, blocks of code, indeed any kind of text content, including some nifty placeholders for things like today’s date and so on. Then, in any app that has support for TextExpander, typing the abbreviation will automagically replace it with the full snippet: writing “tyvm” in an e-mail would thus replace it with “Thank you very much!” for instance.

Writing fiction, I find myself creating character and place names, some of which don’t exactly flow easily from my muscle-memory typing reflexes, so being able to just it a few letters instead is great, and makes for consistent spelling.

If you’re a developer, you could have snippets for code block templates, and of course inserting dates, addresses and so on becomes a snap.

Due to current limitations in iOS, TextExpander support has to be coded into every app that wants to make use of it, which is a shame. On OS X, it’s system-wide. Still, there is an ever-growing list of these apps, making this little utility one of my must-haves.

A sample "thank you" snippetTextExpander supports sharing, and many iPad apps.You can Tweet directly from within TextExpander

Notebooks

Next up is my favourite notebook app, appropriately-enough called simply “Notebooks”. This app lets you write plain text files, like many others, but also create “books” of notes; these are essentially folders by any other name, and can be nested inside each other. So, for work on the manuscript of My Great Novel, I have a Book called just that, with sub-books (I know, that sounds silly, but bear with me) for Research, To-do, Character Notes, etc.

Notebooks can sync its files through a variety of channels: iTunes’ own clunky solution; WebDAV; Dropbox; WiFi and SyncDocs. Each of these options is configurable and can be deactivated it not needed.

A very useful feature is being able to add Contexts to notes-this works like it does in many to-do apps, so you could associate notes with “@Home”, “@Office”, “@My Novel” or whatever you want, and then filter your view so that you only see the notes you want. Also, this feature integrates with Appigo’s Todo app, a very good to-do manager on iPad-indeed, you can send any note directly to Todo as a new item. If you don’t have Todo installed, you can still convert a note into a Task List inside Notebooks, and notes can have their own due dates, providing some simple management right inside the app.

In fact, I feel I’ve hardly begun to scratch the surface of what Notebooks can do: among other things, you can store PDFs and images right inside Notebooks, so you could have relevant research a couple of taps away while you’re compiling your manuscript, without having to switch in and out of various readers and browsers all the time. I think that, even with the advent of iOS 4.2 any day now, this will remain a very useful feature.

For a full review of Notebooks, with screenshots and all, head on over to MacGasm.

iA Writer

For the actual act of writing, I prefer something uncluttered and as simple as possible that gets out of my way, letting me focus on the words themselves. For this, my favourite is by far iA Writer: the app is about as minimalist as can be (almost too much so, in fact: I find I miss one or two features, see below), giving you a soothing light grey background and a simply beautiful and extremely readable font that was specifically designed for the app.

You can write either in portrait or landscape mode—personally, I find that the iPad’s portrait keyboard isn’t usable for more than entering a search term or two in Google, so I use Writer in landscape mode. Writer adds an extra row of keys at the top of the keyboard, with common punctuation marks, and also cursor movement left and right, either by character or by word—very useful.

The makers of Writer go on about “focus mode”—a special mode where all but three lines are greyed-out, forcing you to concentrate on what you’re writing right now. I haven’t really used it yet, it feels too constricting to me. Having most of the screen (and therefore text) disappear when using landscape mode seems to me to be enough, however everyone’s mileage varies, of course.

Writer can send its files to Dropbox (no other syncing is available as yet), but it feels more like an afterthought: you can’t easily manage files, and the sync has to be done manually. However, it will sync both ways, storing all its files in a folder appropriately-enough called “Writer” in your Dropbox account.

At this point, I’d like to mention that it would be nice if the various app writers would let you configure the Dropbox folder you want to put things in: each one creates its own, but it would be really convenient to be able to open a file in Writer, work on it, then immediately open it in Notebooks for further handling such as tagging, integrating into another sub-book and so on. So for now, I use copy/paste, and also the free Dropbox app for iPad that lets you move and copy files around between folders.

Writer doesn’t support sub-folders as of this writing, though that’s planned for a future version.

Back to Writer—apart from its lackluster Dropbox implementation, the other thing I miss is TextExpander support, which Notebooks has. I’m not advocating creeping featurism for what should remain a simple, minimalist app, but TextExpander support would be a “transparent” feature that could greatly speed up the process of writing, and would certainly not break the immersion of being in “the Zone”.

Reading in portrait modeWriting in landscape modeWriting in Focus mode

Pages

Much ink—and even more electrons—has already flowed about this app, and I encourage you to read some of the in-depth reviews elsewhere. I felt the need to mention it here because it’s the final step to assembling your writing: once all is done in Writer, then Notebooks, I import the text to Pages, from where I can lay it out somewhat better, style headings and things, and finally export it as any number of formats, including ePub and PDF, making the finished product instantly readable on just about any existing e-reader.

Finally, some links:

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