December 31, 2012

writing workflow - iPad and PC

There are tons of posts and descriptions with workflows for iPad. If you don't believe me, try Googling "iPad writing workflow." Ok, the word "ton" might be overstating things a bit, but still, there are plenty of them. As you start to read them, you'll quickly realize that they are primarily for and by people who use iOS- that is these people have iPads and Macs. I'm not a Mac person and probably won't be one anytime in the near future for a number of reasons. So I needed a workflow that works with iPad, PC (running Windows), and ideally Android as well. In the absence of finding something online, I finally started this blog post…

Before we go any further, let me be clear, I am also an academic and this workflow is really about writing- different from a workflow for reading PDFs or other research. I was really interested in how I could go about writing in iPad and pick up we're I left off once I moved to a PC or Android. So here are the things I was looking for in a writing app:

Basic Requirements

  • Sync with Dropbox
  • Easy sync (meaning I could write, move to another platform and keep writing with minimal interruption)
  • Markdown
  • Supports images
  • Nice writing environment
  • available offline (for those moments when wifi is just not feasible)!!!

Additional Needs

  • Handle references
  • Handle research?

I know, asking for a lot, right? But you would think that in the 21st century, these needs would be pretty basic in a writing environment for serious writers, but you would think wrong. In fact, I (and many others) have found it akin to an entire quest to figure out the right system- as e evidenced by the large number of blog posts about "workflows." But it seems I may have reached the end of my quest or at the very least gone a long way toward that end.

At present my go-to app is Notebooks (where this post is being composed). Here's what the app looks like on iPad::

Not bad, right? It also has a desktop app for PC:

So what makes this app better than others? Well, it has all the requirements of my basic requirements and even meets one of the requirements of the second. In other words,

  • It works well syncing with Dropbox so that when you start something on the iPad, you can easily start writing again on a PC (with some caveats that I'll talk about in a moment).
  • It supports markdown and kinda has a preview mode (again, I'll discuss this in a minute).
  • It clearly handles images
  • And it has one of the nicest writing environments (meaning the screen editor actually takes advantage of the iPad's full screen in horizontal mode; many other writing apps (including PlainText and WriteRoom) do not- see images below)



iA Writer:

And here is Notebooks:

Look at all that wasted screen real estate in the first 3! The screen size thing is not just a little quirk of mine (or it may be), but the fact is that limiting the size of the screen real estate actually starts to effect the writing in various ways. For example, the small screen real estate in iA Writer means that you can basically only concentrate on the last few sentences that you wrote…(although to be fair, the image I have here is the app in a "focus mode")- I know of no one who writes that way; the last thing I want is to scroll endlessly to see what I wrote at the beginning of the paragraph! As for PlainText or WriteRoom, there just seems to be so much wasted space! In short, while a distraction-free writing environment is a great idea, when that distraction-free environment starts to get in the way of writing, it becomes an issue.

Additionally, the three apps are exactly what they say they are- basic, plain text editors and of course they don't sell themselves as anything but plain text editors. mostly for distraction-free writing (although I think PlainText may handle some markdown). None of them can handle images. And that might be fine and dandy, but working only in plain text can have its drawbacks. For one thing, if one only works in plain text, it seems like there's going to be quite a bit of fiddling later on– which seems to defeat the purpose. For another, they each seem to have quirks. While I love the tab feature in WriteRoom, it doesn't seem to translate well in editing on other platforms. Opening the same document in Word results in a the tab being off since Word automatically tabs un-indented new paragraphs written in plain text. Then there's the encoding issue I ran into with iA Writer.

Notebooks excels in all these areas. Although it's plain text, it handles markdown beautifully so it can handle images. Incidentally, it can also create RTF files (saved as HTML unfortunately). In addition, it also has a nice folder structure and files can be easily moved from one folder to another (one of the big limitations of PlainText). Finally, it has a few cool little features that make it different from other apps. For example,

  • you can merge separate files into a single file
  • you can turn anything into a todo list
    • To do this, choose "Process…"
    • Then "Convert to Task List…"
    • then choose whether you want to convert based on "By Paragraph," "By Line," or "Don't Split." For example, in the case of a blog post, choose "Don't Split," then the entire post becomes a task that you can check off later (your txt will still be there).

So those are some of the great things about Notebooks. There are some semi-cons, "semi" because so far, they're not deal breakers for me; all the good stuff far outweigh the cons. The cons include Notebooks' kind of hinky handling. In other words, things don't behave like other apps. For example, to get into the full screen mode, unlike the other apps that have a full-screen button in the right corner, you double-tap the document in Notebooks. Anther con is hinky complexity of deleting documents. If you're looking a document in the right hand pane, it can't be deleted until you move over to another document.

Working On PC
The trick to working on these documents on a PC is the right text/markdown editor. Opening these documents in things like WordPad or Notepad (Microsoft's default text editors is useless and while Word can handle txt documents, the formatting can turn into a mess). One of the greatest things about Notebooks is that the developers also created a PC version. So if you prefer to work in the same environment, you could download the app and just open the documents there. The PC version is in beta so it's not as polished as the iPad app (yet).

In addition, I've started using a great little markdown editor called MarkdownPad. It's a double pane markdown editor so you can see what your formatted document looks like as you write:

There's also a markdown text editor called Text but I haven't played with it.

Meanwhile, if you plan to just edit the plain text, here are some great plain text editors:

And for distraction-free writing:

So there you have it. If the length of this post doesn't convince you that writing a long post can be done in Notebooks, I don't know what will.

The short of it is that Notebooks is so powerful and has so many bells and whistles that it takes a little time and effort to figure it all out. Most people will not have the patience for it, but if you do, I truly believe that it's well worth it. And to be fair to the other apps mentioned here, they each have their pros. The reality is that the writing needs and environment for everyone is different. You have to spend a little time figuring out what you want in order to be figure out the best fit for you. I ended up testing out so many of writing apps because, frankly, I didn't really know what I needed or wanted in a writing app until I had done some writing in each.

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