iPad for Writers — Part 3: Keyboards

If you plan on doing any kind of longform writing on the iPad — you know, more than the occasional tweet or email — then it’s probably safe to say there’s a 100 percent chance you’re going to need an external keyboard. Before I got my iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard Folio, I tried a lot of third-party keyboards.

I’m going to discuss a few options out there that should hopefully help you find a sweet spot for your own needs, or at the very least, put you on a path to that one true keyboard you’ve been looking for.

Apple Wireless/Magic Keyboard

I bought the first generation iPad soon after its release in 2010 and at the time we didn’t have nearly as many keyboard options available as are available today. There was the keyboard dock, Apple’s own wireless keyboard used with its various desktop computers, and little else. We didn’t have Brydge, or Logitech, or Belkin providing all manner of keyboards at varying form factors and sizes.

Since it was cheaper than the dock at the time, I opted for the wireless keyboard and an Incase Origami workstation case to carry it in. The case unfolded into a kind of cradle where you could prop up your iPad as you worked. One advantage it had over the dock was that it allowed me to use the iPad in vertical or landscape orientation.

While the Origami isn’t really an option anymore given the Magic Keyboard’s redesign from the original Wireless Keyboard, there are similar products available that perform essentially the same function.

Studio Neat makes what appears to be the best solution and it comes the closest to what the original Origami offered. The Canopy is a $40 sleeve for your Magic Keyboard that kind of folds over on itself when closed, then unfolds into a tented stand for your iPad. the button strap keeps it closed during travel and holds the stand together when opened. I haven’t tried it myself, but Studio Neat is a very well-known and trusted company and at $40, it’s worth a look. One thing MacStories writer John Voorhees noted in his review of the Canopy:

Sliding the Canopy around on a table works well, but in my lap I’ve run into a couple minor issues. The added friction of sliding the Canopy in my lap sometimes causes the snap to come undone. In addition, when I use the Canopy in my lap, my iPad sits lower in it than it does on a table or in the Smart Keyboard Case, which can make it difficult to swipe up to activate Control Center.

Something to keep in mind if you’re looking into using your Mac’s keyboard as your iPad keyboard, too.

Brydge

One thing you’ll often hear from skeptics is "the iPad isn’t a laptop." On a fundamental level, they’re right — though that’s all changing with the upcoming iPadOS. However, there are ways to bring the laptop experience to your iPad and one way is by using a laptop-class keyboard. If you want your iPad to feel like a MacBook, look no further than Brydge’s own Bluetooth keyboard. When I still had my 9.7-inch model, I used a Brydge keyboard with it and I loved it.

Not only does it feel like typing on a MacBook Air, but the keys are backlit and there are dedicated function keys for things like the Home button, Siri, and volume and brightness adjustments — keys not found on Apple’s own Smart Keyboards. You just slide your tablet into the rubberized clips on each side, sync up the Bluetooth connection, and you’re ready to write. The screen is protected when closed over the top of the keyboard, just like a laptop.

The battery life on a Brydge keyboard is arguably the best of all Bluetooth keyboards, the company promising it will last 12-months per charge. I never let mine get that low, but even charging it once a week was more than okay considering I need to charge my iPad about once a day anyway.

The new Pro models for the 2018 iPad Pro allow for 180-degree viewing, meaning you can flip the iPad around and either prop it up to watch a movie, or close the back of it over the keyboard and use it as a chunky tablet. There’s even a magnetic cover for the back of the iPad as added protection. The 12.9-inch model comes in at $170 while the 11-inch version runs $150, about $30 cheaper than Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folios. Not bad, considering the Brydge options offer greater functionality and protection than Apple’s own keyboards.

For a deeper look, I suggest you check out Jason Snell’s Brydge keyboard review over at Six Colors.

But for many users, owning an iPad is all about portability. You might not want to lug another laptop around, no matter how good the keyboard is. You want something you don’t have to charge, that you can remove in a second without having to fiddle with bulky cases or rubber grips.

That’s when you turn to Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio.

Apple Smart Keyboard Folio

In a recent piece about keyboards on the Verge, Sam Byford threw a bit of shade at Apple’s offering, saying, "Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio is the best option if you value portability and don’t plan to use your iPad Pro as a primary writing machine."

While I agree on the portability aspect, I think it’s more than adequate as an option for people who plan to use their iPad Pro (or Air) for writing. I’ve been editing my latest novel on it and while I expected not to like typing on such rubbery keys, I got used to it pretty quickly. One thing I didn’t like about the Brydge keyboard was how bulky it made the iPad. The beauty of the iPad is in its form factor — thin, light, easy to carry. Not that my MacBook Air isn’t also light and thin, but sometimes I don’t need a keyboard and I don’t want to have to struggle with removing the iPad from the Brydge’s clips.

Since it’s attached using only magnets, the Smart Keyboard Folio comes right off and pops back on without a problem. Where I struggle with it is in its "lapability." The Smart Keyboard Folio offers two angles of working — a steep, almost vertical angle and a slightly more tipped-back inclination, which is where I usually keep it when I’m typing. I certainly can use it in my lap, but it’s not as stable as a laptop or when using the Brydge. Keep that in mind if you don’t often use a desk or table at Starbucks when typing.

Other Options

Logitech, Belkin and a host of other third party companies make all kinds of keyboard cases for the iPad. They’re designed to protect the device on all sides while providing a kind of laptop experience. I’m not a fan of these. They’re bulky and getting the tablet in and out of them can be difficult. Basically, once it’s locked into the case, that’s where it stays.

There are also folding keyboards from companies like iClever. I have one and it’s good in a pinch or if you have limited space in your bag, but the keys are cramped and I have difficulty typing on it with my big, fat fingers.

Final Thoughts

Just like with your choice in word processor, your choice in keyboard is entirely up to your personal preferences. I love the Smart Keyboard Folio and use it daily. It’s the most portable of all of them and I don’t mind typing on the thinner, rubberized keys.

To keep things simple, here’s a quick recap of possible needs and the keyboard that would best suit them:

Apple Bluetooth Keyboard + Stand

  • You often write at home
  • Don’t travel much
  • You demand the same typing experience on the iPad as you get on the desktop
  • You want to be able to type in any orientation (portrait or landscape)

Brydge Keyboard

  • You want a laptop-style typing experience for your iPad
  • You want dedicated iOS function keys
  • You want backlit keys
  • You often find yourself typing with the device sitting on your lap
  • You’re looking for a cheaper alternative to Apple’s Smart Keyboard covers

Smart Keyboard Folio

  • Size and portability are your biggest concerns
  • You don’t mind getting used to the feel of a new keyboard
  • You often type at a desk or table, rather than with the iPad on your lap

Keyboard Case

  • You want ultimate protection for your iPad
  • Looking for laptop-like experience
  • Price is an important factor for you

Good luck in your search for the perfect keyboard for your needs. Hopefully this piece saves you the heartache and walletache I’ve gone through in finding what works for me. And if you haven’t caught up on the other pieces in this series, I invite you to check them out below:

iPad for Writers — Part 1: Changing Behaviors

iPad for Writers — Part 2: Scrivener and Apple Pages

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.

On Literary Journal Submission Fees and Why Submittable is Bad for Writers

I’m a fierce defender of small businesses. My family has owned a music store and studio in New Jersey for over fifteen years and I hope to one day open my own small bookstore, so when I hear independent operations are closing due to low sales or high rents, it scares me. I already see the toll increased rents have taken on New York City, where small mom-and-pop delis and pizza places have been conquered by the invading armies of Pret a Mangers and Starbucks.

The city seems to be actively trying to push these stores out with the help of predatory landlords and holding companies. It’s not the businesses’ fault. They didn’t ask for higher rents and many have closed because they didn’t pass those expenses on to their customers.

The same cannot be said for the publishing industry, specifically literary journals. Journals often operate at a loss and the very successful ones manage to break even. No one starts a journal or magazine for the money. They do it to publish their friends and colleagues, or they want to give a platform to marginalized voices, or they want to dip their toes into the industry as a way of building up their own resumes, for example.

Many journals are run by volunteers who love the work and love working with authors enough that they don’t mind giving up their free time to put out something great. Others are run by a skeleton crew barely making enough to pay their internet bill. This is America and sadly still a capitalist society, so those bills must be paid. It’s not too much for someone running a business to say, “Hey, I’d like to be paid for my work.” I agree. The question then becomes, “Who’s going to pay?”

If you’re The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, or Ploughshares, three of the most popular and widely read literary journals in America, the answer is simple: the writers.

To submit a work of short fiction to the Iowa Review, the writer is expected to pay a fee of $4. For the Missouri Review, it’s $3.50, and Ploughshares charges $3. Mind you, these are all for digital submissions. Writers who want to print their stories, stuff them in an envelope, and submit them for potential publication can do so for the cost of shipping without incurring an extra fee from the magazine. You might be wondering why mailing physical documents that take up space doesn’t cost extra, but uploading a digital file suddenly requires you to pull out your credit card.

Blame submission managers. These online filing systems are used by literary journals and even some literary agencies to collect and organize the deluge of submissions they get each day. Fill out a form, upload a document, and you’re suddenly a new, easily searchable record in their database. The most popular of these software services is Submittable, which boasts The New Yorker, NPR, and Glimmer Train as users of their platform.

I’ve used it as a writer and I do enjoy the experience. I can see all my current submissions and get notified about acceptances and rejections all on one page. No more digging through emails or maintaining a spreadsheet. Very convenient. But that convenience comes with a cost. According to Jane Friedman back in 2015, Submittable had several tiers to choose from depending on an operation’s size:

Professional Plan
300 entries/month and 8 staffers/readers
$160 per year

Premier Plan
800 entries/month and 20 staffers/readers
$325 per year

Enterprise Plan
2000 entries/month and unlimited staffers/readers
$1100 per year

That was 2015. If prices haven’t stayed the same, they most certainly have gone up.

However, as I said before, Submittable is very convenient. So convenient, in fact, it has had negative consequences for smaller journals. Jane Friedman again:

This efficiency and frictionless submissions process has come with a cost: submissions can be made with very little effort by the writer—which increases the volume of submissions that journals receive—and publications have to pay to use Submittable.


So a journal that was originally getting by on the Professional Plan can suddenly see its inbox growing into an Enterprise-level plan in a month to accommodate the influx. $1100 per year (plus tax) comes out to about $100 per month to license Submittable. A steep fee for a journal struggling to pay its authors and artists as subscriptions dry up. And with many magazines turning to the internet for first publication, those stories are often read by audiences for free. The only ways to make up the costs are to run ads or put everything behind a paywall, which doesn’t work.

But journals have found a third option in their bread and butter. The writers are the ones who cover Submittable’s onerous fees by tossing a few bucks into the journal’s open guitar case upon submission. Three dollars here, four dollars there. A latte. A premium phone app. Nothing, right?

Is it still “nothing” if the average income for a writer is $6,080? That was the case in 2017 according to a recent Author’s Guild survey. That’s “down from $10,500 in the guild’s 2009 survey.” With authors living WELL below the poverty line to “do what they love,” why are journals forcing the most vulnerable demographic to forego their hard-earned money to gamble on submissions with no guarantee of success? What about LGBTQA+ and writers of color, many of whom see even less in their pockets from their work and are already at a disadvantage, both financially and in what outlets will accept their work?

(And I know some magazines will work with authors in financial straits to waive those fees, but it shouldn’t be on the author to negotiate that. It’s a shitty thing to force someone to announce their financial status just to submit a piece.)

A story that sees a handful of rejections before finally being published might cost that author a week’s worth of food, or make them short on rent, and there’s no guarantee they’ll get paid upon publication. But at least they’ll get the exposure.

I don’t know about you, but my bank doesn’t accept exposure in lieu of a mortgage payment. Hell, people die of exposure.

So, who’s to blame for all these fees? I don’t think it’s fair to lay it all at the feet of the journals who are just trying to get by while also making things easier on themselves. Labors of love are still laborious. Digging through a mountain of email to find a single diamond is no easy feat. However, dragging a hulking system meant for The New Yorker into your operation and then making writers pay for it is also unacceptable.

There are donations. There are grants. There are Patreon and Kickstarter. There’s the possibility of taking a print publication online and eliminating the costly overhead of printing and distributing a physical magazine. So many options, none of which involve forcing the writer to pay to play.

I am a firm believer in the philosophy that money should always flow to the writer, never from them. A $3 submission fee is not insignificant when one is trying to build up their writing credits while destroying their financial credit. Maybe journals would get fewer garbage submissions if they went back to the old ways. There are also free alternatives in the form of WordPress plugins and Trello (Trello won’t manage or collect submissions automatically, but makes triaging them easier from an editorial perspective).

What’s most important is understanding that if something is making your life easier while negatively affecting the lives of the people you depend on to make your living, it’s not worth the convenience.

Oh, and remember how I mentioned Glimmer Train was a Submittable client? Despite their numerous contests and steep fees, even they couldn’t survive. Their last issue comes out in October.

Find Your People

I have a small group of writers I talk to every day. We have our own digital space to shoot the breeze, shitpost, and share our writing for feedback. I trust them implicitly with my words and their guidance is the most valuable resource I have for improving my writing.

Find people like that. People who will be honest and supportive. People you can trust. I always joke about how I hate everyone and prefer a life away from humanity, but in all honesty, if I didn’t have this group, I’d be lost. They’ve improved my life in immeasurable ways and I’m grateful to know them.

Cultivate those relationships. I’m glad I did.