An iOS Shortcut to Make Querying Easier

I’d thought about posting this as part of my “iPad for Writers” series, but I felt it spoke to a larger piece about automation I plan on writing eventually, so instead I’m just publishing it as kind of a how-to for anyone interested.

The more I use the iPad to do my daily driving, the more I find myself looking for ways to simplify the tasks I perform each day. When compared to the Mac, the iPad seems limiting in what it’s capable of, but I’m finding the opposite. It’s not that it’s limiting, it’s that we’ve been doing things one way for so long, anything different seems wrong.

Which brings me to my current dilemma. As with every book I’ve written, I now find myself emailing literary agents my query letter, as well as any other materials they request, including sample chapters and/or the dreaded synopsis.

My previous process worked thusly:

  1. Find an agent I’d like to query.
  2. Start a new email.
  3. Look in my Sent folder for a previous query with some or all of the materials they’re requesting.
  4. Copy/paste from the old email to the new email.
  5. Change all identifying information (agent’s title and last name, what’s been included below the query).
  6. Verify all formatting is correct.
  7. Go back to website for agent’s email address.
  8. Copy/paste into TO field of new email.
  9. Check it again.
  10. Send.
  11. Realize I made a typo in the agent’s last name.
  12. Curl up under my desk and cry like the failure I am.

Okay, maybe those last few steps were a bit melodramatic, but my old process did leave a lot of room for error. I once realized I hadn’t included my name and address at the top of the query after I’d sent it because I hadn’t copied it. I even forgot to include the pages I’d said I’d included and had to resubmit the query.

The whole process was tedious and prone to mistakes. I had dabbled with automation here and there on my Mac. I dumped my query letter into a TextExpander snippet so I could populate an email with it just by typing ";query" into the message. It had a place to fill in the agent’s name and select what was included at the bottom. Unfortunately, TextExpander is limited on iOS, forcing me to open up Drafts, start a new draft and invoke the TextExpander snippet, then share the draft to an email or copy/paste it into a new message.

There had to be a better way.

Enter Shortcuts. In my previous experiences with Shortcuts, I’d installed a few pre-made shortcuts that calculated tips and set alarms for specific times. I’d never really explored the capabilities of the program. Then I had an idea: what if I could automate the querying process using a shortcut? Nothing existed already that would accomplish the task, so I set out to build my own solution.

Here’s how it works:

  1. I find an agent I want to query and copy their email address from their website.
  2. The shortcut asks the title of the agent I’m querying (Mr. or Ms.)
  1. Then I enter their last name.
  1. Those values are dumped into the query letter at the top ("Dear Mr./Ms. [LAST NAME]").
  1. I’m prompted to enter the number of chapters/pages I’m including (or I can delete that line entirely if I’m just sending the query).
  1. I select from a menu what I’m including (Query, synopsis, up to three chapters)
  1. A new email message is generated with my selections, a pre-populated subject line, and the email address I’d copied at the beginning dumped into the To: field of the email.
  1. I do a quick look-over of the message and once everything looks okay, I send it–all from within shortcuts.

No more copying/pasting. No more hunting through old emails for submission materials. I spent about an hour and a half configuring something that will save me roughly 10-15 minutes per query I send. Well worth the effort.

Here’s a link to a version of my shortcut where you can replace the stock text values with your own query letter, synopsis, and chapters. Then add it to your homescreen and/or your share sheet so you always have access to it.

DOWNLOAD QUERY EMAIL SHORTCUT

Hope this helps other iOS-focused writers and/or anyone looking to make the query process that much less painful.

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.