With National Novel Writing Month approach­ing in November, it’s hardly sur­pris­ing that inter­est has picked up in writ­ing apps for iPad. Within this group there’s a sub­set of demand for “distraction-​​free” writ­ing programs.*

I’m not entirely sure where this trend toward min­i­mal­ism is com­ing from, though Pages may have a lot to do with it; it’s a lovely portable lay­out pro­gram, but as such it offers a fea­ture­set that’s usu­ally too elab­o­rate for straight-​​up text crunch­ing. It’s essen­tially Pages (the desk­top pro­gram) or MS Word adapted to a touch­screen envi­ron­ment. Thus many of its func­tions, such as auto-​​formatting, are either unnec­es­sary most of the time, or down­right inva­sive. (I don’t usu­ally want auto-​​bulleted lists, for instance.)

To this we can add Pages’ some­what clunky file han­dling inter­face. Its orga­ni­za­tion of mul­ti­ple files (such as chap­ters) is essen­tially nonex­is­tent; if you’re a writer like I am in terms of mechan­ics, you don’t write out long works in one sin­gle, lin­ear doc­u­ment. Rather, you use a pro­gram such as the out­stand­ing DevonNote to orga­nize your chap­ters into indi­vid­ual files, con­tained within fold­ers. This is — for me, at least — a far bet­ter way to break down a book-​​in-​​progress into man­age­able sec­tions. Switching back and forth among these chap­ters in DevonNote is sim­plic­ity. It’s much harder to do with the desk­top ver­sion of Pages (or Word), and even more frus­trat­ing on the iPad Pages.

Many soft­ware devel­op­ers have been work­ing to fill the need for a sim­ple text edi­tor that exists pri­mar­ily to let you com­pose on the iPad with­out hav­ing to muck around with too much for­mat­ting, with­out hav­ing to worry about stor­age and retrieval on desk­top machines, and with the abil­ity to orga­nize your work into a bite-​​sized, sen­si­ble set of files and fold­ers. Some apps pro­vide sync to Google Docs, oth­ers to pro­pri­etary servers, and still more to cloud sys­tems such as MobileMe and Dropbox. Some have oblig­a­tory net­work reliance — you effec­tively can’t work if you’re not in range of a wire­less net or don’t have a 3G iPad — and oth­ers offer a lit­tle too much of a distraction-​​free envi­ron­ment in that they lack real orga­ni­za­tional con­trol such as nested fold­ers within fold­ers. Most of them seem to have most of the fea­tures I want in a portable writ­ing envi­ron­ment, but only one seems to com­bine them all into a sin­gle, coher­ent package.

I came across Notebooks some­time in early August. I was look­ing for an iPad text edi­tor that pre­sented me with an envi­ron­ment sim­i­lar to DevonNote, which is the only desk­top pro­gram I use for writ­ing. (Layout and for­mat­ting hap­pen in InDesign. Word and any other sim­i­lar DTP pro­gram always strikes me as a poor hack, nei­ther a work­able text edi­tor nor a lay­out envi­ron­ment.) After look­ing over the iTunes reviews and com­par­ing it with other apps, usu­ally by blog com­ments, I decided to take the plunge and put out the $9 for Notebooks.**

It wasn’t a choice I regret­ted. The ini­tial setup took some time, mostly spent in choos­ing a decent iPad screen type­face (I set­tled on Verdana), get­ting the col­ors on par with what I wanted (a sim­ple color back­ground that looks like cream-​​laid paper with black, 20-​​point text, though I have made a cou­ple of wood­grain back­ground pat­terns for it), and set­ting up my sync (Notebooks sup­ports both MobileMe and Dropbox, with desk­top sync avail­able wire­lessly via the free Apple server SyncDocs or by iTunes’ file shar­ing). This took me all of twenty min­utes or so to do. After that I was up and running.

The biggest sin­gle hur­dle to typ­ing on the iPad is its quirky auto­cor­rect. I’ve read of one writ­ing app that dis­ables the func­tion when it’s run­ning, though Notebooks doesn’t do that just yet. The next biggest hur­dle is the glass screen; if you’re a touch-​​typist, iPad will take some get­ting used to. (Irony: the home keys on the screen have lit­tle graph­i­cal notches on them, even though you can’t feel them. On the plus side, the iPad key­board is full width in land­scape ori­en­ta­tion.) Finally, iPad’s default key­board doesn’t have arrow cur­sor keys; you have to tap on the screen to place the cur­sor where you want. Also, drag­ging to select large blocks of text becomes tedious very quickly.

Thus the iPad, while over­all a nice device to use, still needs a few more iter­a­tions to its UI before it’s really as com­fort­able to write on as a typ­i­cal desk­top text edi­tor; but that hasn’t stopped me from writ­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of words on it already, vir­tu­ally all of them in Notebooks, includ­ing this blog entry.

Notebooks, like all writ­ing apps for iPad (except Pages), does not allow you to for­mat your text as you might in other pro­grams. There is no option for bold or italic, for instance, and you can’t change type­faces in selected areas of a doc­u­ment. This is because Apple hasn’t released an API for RTF edit­ing, which means iOS devel­op­ers would have no option (presently) but to write their own. Plausible, but dif­fi­cult and costly in terms of dev time.

The app includes some nice lit­tle extras, such as the capac­ity to cre­ate password-​​protected “hid­den” files (which are not invis­i­ble in your sync items, by the way), a live char­ac­ter count for the file you’re edit­ing, the abil­ity to get a word count on a file you’re not edit­ing, a dis­play that lets you choose a colum­nar or full-​​screen for­mat for the edit­ing inter­face, the abil­ity to rename files, options to set indi­vid­ual file choices for col­ors and type­face, and a few other gad­gets and goodies.

Notebooks can read — but not edit — a pretty decent vari­ety of for­mats. I know it can read PDF, RTF, and HTML, and the newest release includes a “sketch” fea­ture that allows you to cre­ate some­what rudi­men­tary image files in PNG format.

All of these func­tions are use­ful, but where Notebooks really shines is in its edit­ing and file-​​organizing capa­bil­i­ties. Notebooks uses a folder/​file inter­face for orga­niz­ing your work. You cer­tainly don’t have to use it, but the app is really opti­mized for this approach. Documents con­tain­ing more than 40,000 words or so start to show a lit­tle lag when you’re typ­ing; and any­way, that’s not how I write. My method, as I men­tioned, is to break down books into indi­vid­ual chap­ter files con­tained within a folder.

This sys­tem orga­nizes well on the iPad, and when you sync your files you dis­cover that it’s main­tained in the struc­ture. That is, if you have a “note­book” called Novel Draft 1 and it has files in it called Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and so on, your synced items will include a folder called Novel Draft 1, with your files named Chapter 1.txt, Chapter 2.txt, etc. Changes you make to the synced files on your desk­top get writ­ten across to Notebooks when you sync, and vice versa.

Notebooks will rec­og­nize .txt files cre­ated in other pro­grams. Copy the files to your Notebooks sync folder, and it’ll pick them up. You can edit them nor­mally in Notebooks, with the changes synced back. Notebooks does not require you to sync, nor does it do it on its own; you choose when to run the sync, and you aren’t lim­ited to a default method. If you have files in Dropbox and on a desk­top machine some­where, you can sync to both locations.

The long and short of it is this. If you’re look­ing for a word cruncher which is more or less “distraction-​​free” after ini­tial setup, and par­tic­u­larly if you like to break your work down into chunks of fold­ers and doc­u­ments, Notebooks is already a good choice. Add to it the range of edit­ing and export fea­tures and its abil­ity to work with sev­eral dif­fer­ent kinds of file sync, and you’ve got a pretty damn well-​​rounded writer’s app that works well in con­junc­tion with the full fea­ture suite you find in your desk­top pro­grams. For $9, it’s by far the best iPad app pur­chase I’ve made, and it is the one app I use most often on my machine.

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* There’s irony to be found in this rush for a distraction-​​free pro­gram that’s intended to be used by peo­ple who are often in cafes or sim­i­larly bustling envi­ron­ments, but I don’t think it’s worth a full-​​blown rant at the inher­ent silli­ness of the demand. For an opti­mally distraction-​​free writ­ing envi­ron­ment, get a pen and paper, a pair of earplugs, and a closet.

** Another mini-​​rant: just how asi­nine is it to be will­ing to spend $500 and up for a portable com­puter, then balk at an app that costs more than two or three bucks? Get a sense of per­spec­tive, folks.

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