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.
* 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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