Can we write a novel on a smartphone, or edit a short story on a tablet? Simon Whaley connects with four writers who aren’t chained to their desks.
(Writing Magazine – July 2017 issue)
In July 2016, Literature and Latte, the company behind the popular Scrivener writing software, released their iOS version, making the programme available to writers on their iPads and iPhones. At first, I was sceptical. Who writes a novel on their smartphone with its tiny, cumbersome keyboard?
It all changed for me during a delayed hospital appointment. Instead of sitting there, wasting time, I realised I could review the first draft of an article I’d written earlier that day at my desk. Out came my smartphone, and I began editing. When I got home, all those amendments I’d made via my smartphone were reflected on my desktop version. Amazing.
In the business of writing, being productive means making the most efficient use of our time, and this is where writing apps for mobile devices come into their own.
Freedom and Flexibility
For New York Times bestselling author J.T. Ellison (www.jtellison.com), whose latest standalone thriller, Lie to Me, is published on 5th September, having access to all of her writing on her iPad has revolutionised her writing workflow. Being able to use the same writing software on all of her devices enables her to write everywhere. As a Scrivener fan, she couldn’t wait for last year’s launch of the mobile app.
‘I’ve been a devotee for over seven years,’ she explains. ‘I downloaded the first [desktop] version in 2010. Three laptops and two desktops later, I’ve written almost a dozen novels with it.’
The mobile Scrivener app has given her freedom. ‘Before, if I wanted to write while I was out for the day or on a trip, I had to take my laptop. Yes, there were other options, but I work exclusively in Scrivener, and prefer to keep all of my work in one file. Being able to take the iPad to the coffee shop, on a plane, on a trip – especially vacations – has untethered me completely. It’s very freeing – and, of course, easier to handle those moments of inspiration that always hit the second you’re away from your computer.’
To get the most from any mobile writing apps copies of our text files need to be stored online, in the cloud, via services like Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud, Microsoft’s OneDrive or Google’s Drive. All offer free versions, providing ample storage space for most of our life’s writing. However, some writing apps synchronise files via a preferred cloud service, so it’s worth investigating this before you buy.
Then there are fears about synchronisation difficulties. Not done correctly and files in the cloud can get confused or corrupted between devices. This can be avoided with some planning. Synchronise your devices at home before going out, and then synchronise again when you return, before switching on your desktop.
However, if your mobile device has Internet access while out and about you don’t need to do this. Syncing is automatic, as J.T has found. ‘When I make a change,’ she says, ‘it shows up throughout my ecosystem in the blink of an eye. Totally seamless.’
Ellison also recommends learning how to use the mobile app, before working on any big projects. She soon discovered a few minor differences between the two versions of Scrivener. ‘Give yourself plenty of grace and time to learn how to use it. The iPad version is sightly different from the desktop version. It’s written to be mobile-friendly. It has its own personality. It’s fun and colourful, and wants to help you. It’s designed to enhance your writing.’
While having access to the writing on your desktop machine is useful, not every writer has a dedicated desktop. Travel writer Jo Fitzsimons, who blogs as Indiana Jo (http://indianajo.com) and whose clients include Wunderlust and The Huffington Post, uses an app called Ulysses (Apple only). However, like me, she finds the keyboards on smartphones uncomfortable, so she invested in a tablet-sized laptop.
‘As much as I love technology,” she says, “I can’t handle the tiny keyboard on my iPhone for writing anything longer than a message to friends. That said, I pretty much always have my laptop on me. It’s a tiny 11” Macbook Air, so it fits neatly into my handbag. I have no qualms about pulling it out on a train, or a bus, or in a bar.’
Like J.T. Ellison, Jo likes having her writing all in one place. ‘I use Ulysses for everything from blog posts to short stories as well as keeping snatches of ideas for both. I like the simple, clean screen of Ulysses, with simple folders that are easy to organise. It’s just much more visually pleasing.’
Being a travel writer means Jo needs to think when she’ll next be able to charge her device, so she hasn’t completely abandoned traditional writing methods. ‘I use pen and paper to capture thoughts on the go, as well as for ‘to do’ lists. But as soon as I have my laptop open again I transcribe the notes into Ulysses so I have all my notes and thoughts in one place.’
Mobile writing has taught Jo one important lesson, and one that can’t be solved with a good old fashion pen and notebook either. ‘Back up, back up, back up,’ she says. ‘I didn’t once, and I lost everything. That was a sad day, but a valuable lesson learned.’
Cloud services can help here. Not only are our files stored in the cloud, but a copy is kept on our main device, such as a desktop or laptop machine. And even if we accidentally delete something, some services, like Dropbox, keep a copy of deleted files for 30 days.
Ditch the Laptop
Other writers have found writing apps for their mobile devices mean they can ditch their laptop for a tablet. Short story and article writer Beatrice Charles uses her tablet more frequently for writing. ‘In the past, my main tool for writing has been Microsoft Word on my desktop computer, or a rather old, and heavy, laptop used when travelling away from home. Writing on my iPad is something that I have used increasingly over the last 12 months.’
‘I do have a bluetooth keyboard,’ she explains, ‘which I use if sitting at a desk at the library. But for the most part I use the onscreen keyboard for convenience. It enables me to write anywhere, whether in the lounge, in bed and when out and about on the bus or train.’
Beatrice also finds her iPad ideal for those late night inspirational thoughts. It avoids having to fumble about for a light switch, as you would with pen and paper, and offers this tip: ‘Reduce the brightness of the screen. It isn’t as great an assault on the eyes and is less likely to disturb a sleeping partner.’
Beatrice often writes complete pieces on her tablet. ‘I do use the iPad to type ideas and drafts for stories. But I have also completed blog posts, and written and submitted short fiction and poetry directly from the iPad. For a longer piece of work, over 1,000 words, I am more likely to export it to my desktop for review, particularly as I don’t have a wireless printer. I find it easier to edit a longer piece of work when viewed as a hard copy.’
While dedicated writing apps like Scrivener and Ulysses make it easier to switch between different devices, it’s not necessary to use the same software on every device. What’s important is that you can save your work in a file type that is recognised by other writing apps. Word’s .doc and .docx formats are recognised by many writing apps, but most will recognise the rich text file format (.rtf).
‘I use Pages,’ Beatrice explains, ‘which I find simple to use. I simply type and go. It keeps me updated as to word count, has spell check and track changes functions. I can export the finished document as either Word, PDF, ePub, or Pages, which makes submissions easy.’
Writing apps for mobile devices could change the way you write in other ways, too. Awen Thornber uses her computer for larger projects, but finds her tablet ideal for shorter pieces. ‘I use Google Docs on my iPad for short stories. I can easily transfer it across to the PC later. The strange thing is, to write a novel I sit at my computer, but for a short story or poetry I use my iPad. Maybe it’s because I associate a smaller device with shorter work, or more likely, I can carry it around and write during short breaks in travelling, housework, gardening and holidays, etc.’
She’s also found a way of avoiding the onscreen keyboard. ‘I use the dictate facility on the iPad. It’s handy for getting down an idea, or choice of words. It’s quicker than typing, especially when on the move.’
There are numerous writing apps for each mobile platform, so it’s worth experimenting. Find one you enjoy using, because it will increase your productivity. If you don’t like a piece of software, ditch and switch.
‘For a while I tried Textkraft Lite,’ Beatrice explains, ‘which, although okay for note taking, I didn’t find as intuitive as Pages. I’m not tech-savvy, so I need an application that requires minimum effort. Pages more closely replicates Word, which is the programme with which I am most familiar.’
These writers have all found that writing on their mobile devices has enabled them to lever more writing time into their day. Perhaps you should try it too. Who knows? Your next magnum opus might be drafted on your smartphone while waiting for a number 42 bus.
Business Directory – Mobile Software
Scrivener for iOS – Apple devices only (but works with Windows desktop version):
Ulysses – Apple devices: https://www.ulyssesapp.com
Microsoft Word for Windows, iOS and Android devices: https://products.office.com/en-gb/mobile/office
Google Docs offers access to your text on all devices: https://www.google.com/mobile/drive/
iA Writer – Apple and Android devices: https://ia.net/writer/
Simplenote – Windows, Apple, iOS, Android: https://simplenote.com
Most cloud services offer some limited storage for free:
Apple iCloud: www.icloud.com
Google Drive: https://www.google.com/drive/