The iPad as a Mobile Writing Platform

I’ve come to enjoy writing in Pages on my Mac, and using the Pages app on the iPad is proving to be just as capable. Enough people have asked how I like it that I thought I’d just go ahead and write up what I’ve done to turn it into a great system for writing on the road.

First, let’s talk about the on-screen keyboard. While it’s not near as bad as some would expect, it does have its quirks. When typing in landscape mode, the key sizes and spacing are not far off from a standard keyboard, and just as with the iPhone, the predictive typing and auto-correction helps smooth most typos. The downside for full-fingered typists, however, is the rearrangement of some of the keys, most notably dropping the exclamation point down to the comma key and having the apostrophe as a sort of sub-key of the comma (hold the comma key and swipe up to get an apostrophe). I still haven’t quite gotten used to it, but at the same time, it hasn’t really slowed me down, especially for short works or outlines.

I found an easy solution in adding a Bluetooth keyboard. This gives me finer cursor control and text selection with the shift and arrow keys, and it leaves me more screen real estate for typing. Even carrying both the iPad and the keyboard, I have less bulk and weight than a laptop and I still get the benefit of longer battery life.

There may be other writing and text-editing apps available, but again, I’ve found the Pages app works quite well. Most of the basic formatting, like numbering and indenting, has made it to the app, and it can export to PDF and Word docs as well as to the native Pages format.

Two ways the app could be almost perfect: 1) More flexibility in exporting apps (such as to Dropbox, below); 2) Add support for comments. My editor at Evileye Books makes extensive use of the comments features in Pages and Preview on the Mac, and he’s getting me addicted. It would be so much easier if those comments also showed up in the Pages app, even if it was through something like an icon placeholder if not having them on-screen at all times.

To get files to the iPad, as well as to keep them in sync on other devices, Dropbox is a must. I have their software installed on my desktop, my laptop, my iPod touch, my iPad, and now my shiny, new, Android-powered smartphone. Put a file in a Dropbox folder and it’s uploaded to the Dropbox server, where it is then pushed out to every device subscribed to the account. I can even access my files from any browser, or use it to share files with other people. The Dropbox app can open and read Word docs, PDFs, and Pages files, and it can send files right to the Pages app for editing.

Dropbox’s single, most important selling point is it helps ensure I have the most current copy of a document available at all times. No more comparing time stamps, copying across a network, and no more juggling thumb drives and hoping they don’t suddenly crap out. If Pages could export back to Dropbox directly, the system would be bulletproof.

My next must-have app is Evernote. There are competitors like Simplenote, but whatever the final solution, they help keep my notes synchronized across my various devices. I still brainstorm best with a pencil and paper (so the Moleskine still goes with the iPad), but important notes get dropped into Evernote for easy access. Evernote makes it easy to keep notes for different projects sorted, and the tagging makes it easy to find them. I can also take photos and drop them into Evernote, and there’s a voice note feature I have yet to take advantage of.

I have the Kindle app loaded on all of my portable devices, too. While it’s nice to have as a distraction or for inspiration, I also have a free Kindle edition of The New Oxford American Dictionary on hand for when I don’t have an Internet connection and searching Google isn’t an option.

And that about sums it up. I have email and my address book, of course, but the smartphone handles most of that. Same for Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress apps, but I don’t consider those must-haves for the actual process of writing. Google Earth and Maps can be helpful at times, and I’ve got things like a first aid reference, a how-to guide, and a drink mix app for occasional use as well. I have yet to use the Dragon Dictation app for more than just tinkering and testing, but I can see how it might be useful at times, too.

Lately I’ve been all about keeping it Spartan. The core tools are the true necessities; the rest are just flashy apps and distractions. I spend all day multi-tasking on my desktop and laptop, so it’s nice to have a pared-down device with just one app holding my focus on the screen. I’ve come to enjoy editing and proofing on the iPad as well. Using it like a tablet closely mimics editing on paper, and it feels more relaxing than sitting at a desk or keyboard. Again, if I could add comments to documents, it would be almost perfect.

Finally, I love the portability. I carry a lot of extra gear in my laptop backpack for work, and I can drop the iPad into my karate backpack without adding significant weight or bulk (I keep karate notes in Evernote as well). I can drop the iPad into a messenger bag, with or without the keyboard, and haul it to a convention or on a short trip with no problem. Hell, I can even drop both the iPad and the keyboard into a saddle bag on my motorcycle and really travel light.

Time was I thought I’d never be able to do without a laptop. Now I feel like I’m just using the laptop out of habit. I’m not quite ready to give it up, but if I had to, I bet I would get along just fine.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

12 comments

  1. Troy Knutson says:

    Hey, Mike!

    How goes it?

    Any comments on the currently available or soon to be available crop of e-book readers?

    Thanks,
    Troy

    • Mike says:

      Hey Troy,

      My wife has a Kindle. If you want e-reader only, I think they’re great devices. I haven’t had hands-on with a Nook, but I’m pretty well hooked into Amazon and that’s the route I’d go. And the WhisperNet (cellular wireless access) is a great feature. I’ve heard a lot of mixed results about Nook’s color LCD at the bottom of the screen.

      Mike

    • Caiden says:

      Superbly illmuiatinng data here, thanks!

  2. Troy says:

    Does your wife have a Kindle 2 with the Wi-fi?

    I was looking at the Kindle 3 Wi-fi version. I’m wondering about the browser if that is even effective in the least.

    Any thoughts?

    Thanks,
    Troy

    • Mike says:

      She has the 3G, but no wi-fi (though it amounts to about the same). The browser is very limited, it’s not like a smartphone or a tablet where you can surf anywhere. She can surf/shop Amazon just fine and browse Wikipedia, but I don’t think she can get just anywhere on the Internet.

      Mike

  3. Troy says:

    Mike!

    Which iPad do you have?

    Memory? Wi-fi vs. wi-fi plus 3G?

    I might be leaning towards buying an iPad for multiple uses?

    How is it for surfing the internet?

    Can you print things off of the iPad?

    Just curious and thanks,
    Troy

    • Mike says:

      I’ve got the basic 16GB model, Wi-Fi only. It’s great for surfing the Internet (though no Flash) and has the same access to the apps store as the iPhone and iPod touch.

      It doesn’t print directly, but I think there are some solutions out there. It’s not something I’ve had to worry about yet.

  4. Troy says:

    Our Wi-fi is spotty at best….wonder if it is worth it to get the 3G low-end version but then again you have to fork out $25 per month for the 2GB monthly data plan. What does that mean “2GB” just access or downloading?

    Thanks,
    Troy

  5. Troy says:

    What do you protect your iPad with?

    • Mike says:

      Well, given I was at the doc’s office today and realized I hadn’t brought something over into my Dropbox and thus didn’t have access to it, I’d be very tempted to go the 3G model in the future to get access everywhere. I don’t know if there’s any kind of contract, but I figure worst case I’d deactivate it, and then reactivate it on trips or something if I didn’t use it very often.

      The 2GB is your total transfer. Add up the data transfer of files, emails, and surfing, and once you hit 2GB worth, you’re done. In other words, you won’t want to be watching movies or doing music streaming over 3G, because that would add up fast. 2GB would be enough for email, basic surfing, and maybe a couple of files.

      As for protection, I use the Apple iPad case. There’s a picture of it on my Flickr — it lets you prop up the iPad in two configurations. Nice, sturdy cover.

      Mike

  6. […] my own use, I’m not quite sold. I need something I can work on, something I can use to write. Access to my notes and being able to brainstorm via Evernote is one thing, but typing long-form on […]

  7. […] feeling cooped up in your office, leave. This is why it’s good to invest in a laptop, or to use an iPad for writing. It’s not uncommon for me to sit outside and write. I also don’t mind writing in a […]