Holy Grails, Windmills, and Serious Writing On the iPad

by Mark Crump

Writing apps on the iPad have become a Holy Grail of sorts for me. I’ve tried them all. Serious Writing on the iPad, I felt, needed Serious Tools. All the apps did most of the things I felt were necessary. But that one true app eluded me. None of the apps did all the things I needed. They say admitting you have a problem is the first step, and so I admit to you: finding the perfect app was a windmill I was tilting at.

I solved this problem by defining for myself what Serious Writing was.

Back in my printing days, projects had three stages: pre-production, production, and post production. After mulling my quest over, I realized most of my writing falls into this as well. Pre-production is the point where you have your feet up on the window sill watching the birds and truthfully answer, “Why, yes, dear, I really am working. Why?” You don’t even need an iPad for this; pen and paper is probably the best choice anyway. Post production is where you get your writing into final form. You format it to meet your publisher’s requirements; get it into that godawful corporate template you loathe; or maybe drop it into a web-based CMS system for publishing. Most likely, the iPad isn’t ideal for this, either.

However, the production portion is where the iPad can come in quite handy. The production stage is where I feel Serious Writing happens: the act of simply putting one word after the other. I am a big fan of Merlin Mann’s Making the Clackity Noise article, and the iPad helps me make the noise.

OK, before I go any further, I’m not for a minute suggesting an iPad is a suitable replacement for a laptop, desktop, typewriter or quill pen. However, I am finding the iPad is a decent balance of portability and functionality. While the debate over whether the iPad is a content creation or content consumption device will be everlasting, I’m willing to bet most of your every day writing can be done on an iPad. Working on that Executive Summary for your report on a crowded train? The iPad is great in cramped writing conditions. I’ve gotten work done in doctor’s offices, coffee shops, commuter trains, waiting for a conference session to start, and sometimes while I’m curled up on my comfy chair working while watching the Red Sox cough up a five run lead in the ninth inning. While at least 80 percent of my time spent with the iPad is consuming content, I love that I can keep current projects with me to work on when I need to.

That’s not to say it’s all beer and pretzels. The on-screen keyboard isn’t at all ideal. If I know I’m in for an extended writing session I’ll throw the Apple bluetooth keyboard in my bag. Getting files to and from the iPad is a needless pain. If your work requires heavy footnoting or citations, you’re pretty much hosed. I’ll often put the proper MLA citation in there, and link it to Endnote on OS X later. If I’m footnoting something on the iPad, I’ll cheat and put the whole footnote as a parenthetical (1 – Diet Coke tasted much better cold) and later in OS X Pages I’ll use the footnote command and paste the note in.

How exactly have I integrated the iPad to my work flow?

Outside of accepting the limitations of the platform, the big decision I made was deciding on a program I felt excelled at the “getting writing done” part of the process, and accepting the hassles of file transfers. After giving all them of more than careful consideration, I chose Pages to do my work. It doesn’t have parts I use a lot, like word counts, but I liked the writing interface (the file browser is kind of a mess) and felt it met my needs. Which is a nice way of saying it didn’t crash on me. To aid in file transfers, I just use the iWork.com beta since I also use Pages on OS X. While the other writing programs excelled at using cloud services, I felt they let me down when I wanted to get actual work done.

Nowadays, most of what I write passes through the iPad. The fiction projects I’m working on all have current versions on the iPad. This article was written predominately on the iPad, if for no other reason than to eat my own dog food. Sure, the post production stuff all happens off the iPad. This post was edited on WordPress in Firefox. A fiction manuscript will receive the proper editing and formatting in OS X. If I’ve kludged citation management on the iPad, I’ll fix it then.

The biggest reason I write on the iPad? It’s always with me. I want to have an excuse to write; not use a missing tool as an excuse not to write.

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