Writing with the iPad

Written by Berlin Fang

In one of our recent surveys on iPad usage at Abilene Christian University, we found a good “word processing” app is what students want most from an iPad.   I do hope that someday someone can produce something like Microsoft Word for iPad, but I have already found iPad to be a great tool for writing.   To do this, we have to dispel a myth that there is one single app that does all you need to do with a writing activity.    No, there is not.  Instead you use a combination of tools.   Even on a laptop one uses for writing, a writer uses several applications, such as a web browser to do research, a PDF reader to read articles, some bibliography management software to manage references and a Word processor for the actual writing.

Cloud computing has made it possible for us to work fluidly across platforms and devices.   We can use applications on both a laptop and an iPad (or other mobile devices) for the production of a writing assignment.    Involving iPad as part of the process gives a writer certain advantages due to the voice input and touchscreen features that iPads have while many laptop computers don’t.   Here is a sample process how I write an article using both the iPad and the Laptop:

  1. Gather references with iPad.  iPad comes with the Safari browser, but you can download some other browsers for easier gathering of information.  For instance, you can use Diigo, a social bookmarking browser, to read and bookmark anything you read.   Using a Diigo account, you can access your bookmarks anywhere on a mobile device or on a laptop.   You can use Chrome to do something similar to this.

  2. Take notes with iA Writer, Evernote or CamScanner.  I take notes with an iPad app called iA Writer, which has an onscreen keyboard (with quotation marks, brackets) that is better than the one from iPad, for easier editing.    Evernote can also help you take notes, including notes in multimedia formats.   When you are reading a print book, iPad can be extremely helpful as you take notes in a variety of ways, including taking pictures of a paragraph, which you will refer to in your writing, if typing notes is slower.  Camscanner allows you to scan print materials which you can then turn into text using its OCR feature.

  3. Write with IA Writer.   After gathering the notes and references, I can then produce a working draft with IA Writer.  This seems rather counter-intuitive, as iPad is not best known for the ease of input.   This challenge can be addressed by purchasing a Bluetooth keyboard identical to the one you’d use for a laptop.  I also love writing on the iPad as it is possible to dictate using the voice input method of iPads.   The only weird thing about it is that I risk giving impressions of talking to myself.

  4. Syncing your draft to the Laptop for editing.  After you have finished writing your draft on the iPad with iA Writer, export it to Dropbox or Google Drive which you can then open on a laptop for editing and formatting.

  5. Minor editing on the iPad.  A piece of writing is never complete.   Once I have the bulk of editing done, I sometimes continue to proofread it through Google Doc.    This is most helpful as I carry the iPad/iPhone around and can use odd time for such purpose, for instance, when waiting during kids’ extracurricular classes.   Of course, it is not advisable for you to do that if you have rich formatting to preserve.   A word processing software would do better.

This may seem to be a cumbersome process, but it actually works extremely well once I am in the flow.   The combination of tools allows me to take advantage of the strengths of various devices (such as laptop for editing and formatting) and iPad for reading, notes and drafts.   People’s writing processes are personal or even idiosyncratic, so I assume you may find better combination of devices, tools, functions and features that work for your purpose.

Writing, whether for a class paper or for academic publication, involves both the consumption of information and the production of it.  iPad has been around for quite a while, but I noticed that many people use it predominantly to consume information, such as going to web sites, checking email, listening to podcasts, and watching video,  which are all fine.  However, the device can also be helpful for the “production” of things, such as notes, audio and video segments, and presentations.  Of course there are situations when the dichotomy between “production” and “consumption” is an artificial one.   The two can take place iteratively during the same project, such as the writing of a paper.  I hope this post gets you to think along those lines.