iPad for Writers – Part 2: Scrivener and Apple Pages

Before we get started, let me state right away that you can write a book in anything. Google Docs, Word, Drafts–it doesn’t matter. However, I’d argue that just because you can write in those programs doesn’t mean you should write in those programs. I can’t imagine writing a book in Word and the idea of trusting a browser app to hold 80,000 words gives me hives. But people do it and they are far braver than I will ever be.

There are dedicated applications designed for longform writing. One of them is called Ulysses. I know of several writers who swear by it, including authors Matt Gemmell and David Hewson. It’s available for Mac and iOS and it’s…fine. It seems to have a decent number of export options, including ePub, but it never sat well with me as a place to write something big like a novel or non-fiction book. I’ve tried it and I think of it more as a blog post editor. However, if you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to read Matt’s and David’s blogs, as well as this Macworld review.

For my fiction, I trust only the best and the best is and always has been Literature and Latte’s Scrivener, available on Mac, Windows, and iOS ($45 on Mac and Windows, $20 on iOS). Scrivener is the kitchen sink of word processors. It’s able to collect research, such as character bios, images, and webpages, it can export to all sorts of filetypes, including ePub and Kindle’s .mobi format, and moving scenes around is as simple and picking one up and dropping it where you need it to go.

On the desktop.

The iOS version, which I’ve been relying on more and more, does not share feature parity with its Mac counterpart. In some ways, that’s good. One of the biggest complaints about Scrivener is its high barrier to entry. Because it does so much, many writers find it to be overwhelming, choosing to rely on old standbys like Microsoft Word to do the job. Scrivener on iOS doesn’t have that problem, since the developers stripped out a lot of the power user features to give writers a simpler, cleaner interface.

Fonts and styles are tucked away under a separate button, so there’s less to fiddle with and you can focus on writing, not debating between Times New Roman and Cochin.

On the flip side, not having all the features of the desktop app makes tracking versions more difficult. As I work through edits on my latest novel, I like to take a "snapshot" of a chapter as it exists now before I start to make changes. Those changes can then be reflected in different-colored text on the page. Scrivener on iOS doesn’t have snapshots, so any edits I make can’t be tracked automatically.

I can still change text colors and highlight passages and make comments and footnotes, but all of that must be done manually.

Of course, the iOS version is still young and has a long way to go before it can be considered "complete." I’m hopeful features like Snapshots make it in soon.

The good news is many of the features I do use are present, such as Dropbox sync and the corkboard, which allows me to see each chapter displayed as an index card that can be shuffled around.

I can also see my progress as I write, including the word count for my current writing session, and I can set targets to hit each day if I hope to finish my first draft by a specific date.

For any writer who’s wanted to give Scrivener a try, but has been scared to dive into what they’ve believed is an expert-level program with a steep learning curve, I encourage them to take a look at the iOS version first. It provides a ton of features that can be explored at a steady pace, but without the clutter of the desktop versions.

In conjunction with Scrivener, I’ve also come to depend on Apple’s Pages app–a free download for iOS users. Pages has come a long way and what Apple has now is a capable word processor compatible with Microsoft Word. I recently hired a freelance editor to provide developmental edits for my novel, which he sent back as a .docx file. Since I work off an 11" iPad Pro, Word requires me to pay for a subscription to edit any documents and I already pay for way too many subscriptions.

Instead, I opened the edit document in Pages and was happily surprised to see all the tracking was still intact. The comments didn’t appear as little bubbles to the side like in Word. Instead, they popped up like little footnotes at the bottom of the window. Using the iPad’s split-window multitasking, I keep Pages on the left and Scrivener on the right at equal widths and edit my book side-by-side.

Also, a fun tip I learned from Jodi Hutchins on Twitter: adding "GOAT CHEESE" to your manuscript where you leave off in your edits makes it MUCH easier to find your way back to that spot later. This is especially true on the iPad, where apps are known to quit themselves and refresh spontaneously, stranding you at the top of your documents. Having to flick your way back to where you were near the bottom can take a while, so instead just conduct a search for any mentions of "GOAT CHEESE" and you’re right back where you stopped earlier. I add it to both the Scrivener draft and the edit doc just in case.

All of this is fine and dandy if you’re in the throes of editing, but what if you’re still drafting? Even on the Mac you can’t have multiple Scrivener windows open to the same project. If you need to stop writing to check your research folder for something, you need to bounce out of the active chapter, find what you’re looking for in the Research folder, then go back and pick up where you left off. It’s not a great system regardless of the platform.

On iOS, there are useful apps like Story Planner that can be flown in from the right side of the screen to give you quick access to character bios or research documents without taking you out of Scrivener. When you’re done, you can simply swipe them away and get back to drafting. I’ll be talking about Story Planner and other helpful utilities in a future article, but for more information on iOS multitasking, check out this helpful piece on iMore.

I’m not sure I ever would have written one novel, let alone six, had it not been for Scrivener. Its flexibility and robust feature set have made the act of writing not only easier, but also fun. But Scrivener, especially on iOS, is only the beginning. App choice is one half of the battle. The other half is in picking the right keyboard. Stay tuned for the next installment of this series where I’ll discuss the different keyboard options available. You’re going to be using the keyboard more than anything else, so choose wisely.

iPad for Writers – Part 1: Changing Behaviors

I’ve been a dedicated Mac user since 2003, though my history with the platform goes back further. My family had a terrible System 7 machine in the mid-’90s and before that, I was using an early Mac in the school computer lab to play the Oregon Trail and Math Racer.

I switched to PC in the mid-’90s, but no matter what I used, there was one constant among every machine: bulk. From big Macs to towering Windows machines to chunky PowerBooks and MacBooks, the computer I used was always large and in charge of my life. Of course, that was the limitation of the time. Laptops weren’t as slim and light as they are today, but they’ve always been heavy on the software and my tolerance for that bloat has waned over time.

I used to love having simultaneous access to the web and my music and my word processor and every other app I could get my hands on. I could rearrange windows so I was able to see four, five, six, or more applications at once.

And it was killing my productivity. Many people will throw constant notifications under the bus as the reason for their lack of focus, but notifications come and go with the flick of a finger. It’s the potential for procrastination that has forced me to rethink how I work and where my work gets done.

That browser window I have open behind Scrivener? I can watch YouTube. Or Netflix. Or read any number of websites that have nothing to do with the words I’m trying to write. Yes, there are ways to restrict access to certain apps and websites, but I’ll always be able to justify disabling them for one reason or another and then I’ll be back up to my old ways in no time. And the words? They’ll never get written.

What has worked for me, however, are boundaries. Whether self-imposed or hard deadlines set by someone else, I’ve always thrived by working within narrow confines. It’s not about locking distractions out, but locking myself into something I can’t get out of. I’ve written two novels by hand, I write for a popular podcast that requires a certain number of scripts per month, and I have goals I’d like to reach with my own novels, such as beginning the querying process for my latest by this June.

Writing a book in a notebook with pens and pencils was extremely frustrating, but it also taught me to be thoughtful with my words and to plan ahead so I wouldn’t get stuck wondering where I wanted my plot or characters to go. Unfortunately, the task was tedious and painful. I don’t plan on ever writing another book by hand again, but there are other ways to slow down and focus. The iPad has helped me in that regard.

I bought the first iPad when it came out in 2010, but the software and capabilities were pretty limited so early on in the product’s life. I eventually upgraded to an iPad 4. Again, it was hard to shift my workload to the tablet at the time due to a lack of proper file access and multitasking. I thought I might never use another iPad again, seeing as how they were always so hampered by glorified phone software.

Then I picked up a 9.7" iPad a few years ago. Technically a "Pro" model, the device allowed me to use two apps side-by-side and when paired with the Brydge Bluetooth keyboard, I felt like I was carrying around a compact laptop designed for focused work. I had Scrivener, Apple’s Pages, a browser to do research, I could disable notifications with a few taps, and BOOM — full-on focus mode to write books and scripts with minimal distractions.

And that’s what this all comes down to, isn’t it? Distraction. That’s what I’ve really liked most about moving my work over to the iPad: the lack of distraction. The multitasking is good enough without getting in the way or giving me too many options. There’s less to fiddle with. I can choose to work in one app and then move to another if I choose, but I usually don’t because it’s cumbersome, so I stay where I am and get my work done more quickly.

I’m going to use this series, as long as it runs, to explain my transition from laptop to iPad. I’ll talk about the apps and services, accessories, and shortcuts I use as a working writer to get the words down. Hopefully this will help anyone wondering if they can also make the switch. It won’t always be pretty or seamless–iOS is still quite limited in specific, crucial ways–but it will get better and with it, so will I.

The next article in this series will focus on apps, specifically Scrivener and Pages, as they are the two main word processors I use daily. If you have any questions about how I use them or problems you’re looking to troubleshoot, feel free to drop me a line on either my contact form or on Twitter.

The 333 Email System

Like most people, I struggle with email every day.

Wow, that sounds a lot like an infomercial. I mean, I guess this kind of is? Long story short, I got tired of a lot of the systems out there for managing my inbox because:

  1. I am my own man with my own hangups about people telling me what to do.
  2. I get a lot of email.

I tried Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero method, which is a great concept and for a while, it worked okay. I didn’t adhere to it as strictly as some, but I did take away a few things that have helped me cut down on what was sitting in my inbox.

That said, I needed something a little less…formulated. The problem with systems like Inbox Zero, or David Allen’s Getting Things Done, or even Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal method is that they are systems. They are prescriptive, despite their creators insisting you can "do it your own way."

So, I tend to pull bits and pieces from each, leaving me with a piecemeal conglomeration of half-solutions. I haven’t gotten around to reconciling my analog/digital note-taking problems, so I’ll hold off on the whole Bullet Journal thing for a while. Same goes for GTD.

But email? Email I can fix.

The concept is simple. I call it the "333 System."

  • Three questions.
  • Three folders.
  • Three seconds.

(I added the folders bit to make it sound like a complete "thing," but really it’s up to you how you organize your emails.)

The whole thing hinges on the three questions and three seconds. I’m not the kind of person who can set aside time to review my email at specific intervals throughout the day, especially at work. Unfortunately, I work at a company where the primary form of communication is email. It’s gross, but it’s how we do, so I need to be ready to jump in at any time.

That’s where the three seconds comes into play. I have three seconds to decide what to do with that email, which is why I ask myself three questions, which I refer to as the "three I’s":

  1. Immediate? Can this email be dealt with right now? If it just needs a quick reply or to be filed, I can take care of that and get rid of it.
  2. Information? Does this email contain information I’ll need for later? I can keep that info in a running Google Doc, or a Draft, or a note and delete/archive the email away.
  3. Item? This was the closest word I could get to the concept in my head that would give me the last "I" I needed. Basically, if this can’t be done right away, can it be added to my to-do list for later so I can process the email itself out of my inbox?

These questions are the first things I ask myself when I get a new email notification and they’ve been working. I’ve been able to be more productive and get in and out of my inbox more quickly because of them.

As for the three folders, this part of the system is completely optional. You can use as many folders as you want if you’d prefer to organize your messages differently, but I like using three. Mainly, I hate long sidebars full of folders.

I use a service called Sanebox, which automatically filters my email based on type into folders like "Later" for newsletters/retail alerts, and "Blackhole" for emails I no longer want to receive. There’s also my general "Archive" folder for things I want to keep, but don’t necessarily need to have categorized.

For work, I have folders for specific projects because I might need to find something from six months ago in a short amount of time and I don’t feel like using Outlook’s search function to sift through thousands of messages. The key is the time spent in deciding what to do with the email and where it’s supposed to go, not how many folders I use to organize it all.

But for personal email? I really only need:

  1. An Archive folder
  2. A Later folder
  3. And an Unsubscribe folder

If you don’t use something like Sanebox, you can manually drag your newsletters and retail emails into the Later folder and save them for processing completely when you have some downtime.

Same goes for the Unsubscribe folder. You can give yourself three seconds to decide if this is something you no longer want to get delivered to you and add it to the folder so you can address it when you have more time.

The Archive folder is really for email you’ve already handled and need to file away. Stuff you probably won’t need to go back to again after you’ve replied or taken the information out of it.

The biggest thing I try to remember is that it is not about eliminating the email from my inbox as quickly as possible. I mean it is, but it’s more than that. It’s about processing the email I get in a meaningful way so it’s not weighing me down later. A hastily deleted email I might need later is just as burdensome as one still sitting in my inbox.

And that’s it. That’s my email system. Pretty simple I think. It’s been working for me and I figured I might share it for anyone either drowning in email or struggling to use an existing system for triaging new messages.

Hope it helps.