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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Quick review of a few paid apps for iPad writing

When last I set about to help the #CloudAgeAuthor find their way in the sea of iPad apps for writing, I was about to look at a few of the apps that are not free (as in beer; that is, they cost money to download or cost money to use in a way that is useful for an iPad writer). As things go sometimes, I was wrapped up in some school work (finishing up my A. A. S. in Paramedicine) and trying to get my children's picture book published (alas, still a work in progress), and was not able to get around to putting out that blog entry. Without wasting any more time, however, here are some of the more common apps and my brief review of them.

iaWriter:

Price: $0.99 (promotion currently running on iTunes Store, normally $4.99)
Kind: plain text editor




  • Pros: This app is very minimalistic, making it a great option for pulling into your local coffee shop or even just sitting in the park (with or without wifi or cell access), and typing. It is Universal, meaning that it will work on both the iPhone and the iPad (and, I believe, the iPod Touch) exactly the same, with the same access and input, permitting you to write even when you find yourself stuck in line at the MVD without your iPad. It has a "writing-only" mode (called "focus mode") that allows you to not only turn off the very minimal toolbar, but to also dim all but the two lines above your current insertion point, as well as the current line (again, determined by where the insertion point is). It makes it very easy to write without most of the distractions of other editors. It supports using Markdown, very minimally; I will go over Markdown in an endnote to this blog posting but for now understand that it's a non-RTF and non-HTML way to mark text to be bolded, italicized, underlined, and such. This makes it useful for basic markup, and can be imported as such into various other applications. It will save documents both in the iCloud or to Dropbox (but only Dropbox), making it useful if you also need to edit or access these documents on your iPhone or home computer. It offers a word count, which seems to be a rare feature, and also offers an estimated "time to read," where it makes some guesses about how long the average reader will need to read from the beginning of the current document to 1) the cursor, and 2) the end of the document (another feature some will find more useful than others).
  • Cons: As useful as the Markdown stuff might be, it's can be distracting to have to use different markup in your iPad writing when you compare it to your home computer; if, for example, you use most any RTF-enabled app on Mac or Windows, you likely use CMD-I or CTRL-I for italics, and switching to the Markdown method (using *italics* by typing the word or phrase in between single asterisks) can get in the way (other people may not find this as annoying as I do!). It doesn't sync to SugarSync, Box, SkyDrive, Google Drive, or any of the other Cloud options, which may limit its utility for some people. Will require an additional step to be useful in Word or many other applications on your home or laptop computer (Word, based on my understanding, does not know anything about Markdown, though there apparently is a plugin available on the Microsoft Developer Network that will allow MS Word to edit Markdown files). iaWriter is really just a writing app; if you need research or links or other features, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Verdict: for the promotional price of $0.99, it's an excellent way to just sit down and start writing, wherever you happen to find yourself. The addition of the Markdown syntax improves its utility a little, definitely more for certain writers than for others (I, for example, find it less useful than will many of you, and more than some!). If you 1) use Dropbox, 2) need to be able to pop open an app and write in like nothing flat in a 3) very non-distracting app, that 4) supports minimal formatting via Markdown, and 5) offers word counts (or, time-to-read), then this app is for you (and at less than a dollar plus any applicable taxes, is a right steal for many of the people in that group!). It is also recommended if you already have the iaWriter on your home Mac (currently at the promo price of $4.99, normally $9.99). Seriously, for a buck it's hard to go wrong, and I have it for the occasional "Heck, I have four minutes to spare and a gnawing need to put something down on paper ... " moment where it proves very handy.

Pages:

Price: $9.99
Kind: Word Processor



Pages, a full-featured Word Processor from Apple (and part of the iWork family of applications, which also includes Numbers and Keynote), is an actual, full-fledged, Honest-to-the-heavens word processing application. It supports all of the normal word processing features you would think (or, at least, most of them, and certainly all of the ones that I myself have needed so far), including spelling and grammar checking, formatted text, placing images, headers, footers, tables, charts, lines, shapes, and comes with a host of templates for various kinds of writings, including letters, proposals, cards, fliers, and so forth.


  • Pros: As a full-fledged word processor, it really has everything you'd need for just about any writing project, as long as you are comfortable with the linear writing style that nearly all writing and word processing apps force (most of us have adapted! LOL). It really is a monster of an app, but even then doesn't take very long to open up and get to the writing. As a WYSIWYG word processing app, you get to see and format your writing as you go. It syncs over iTunes and WebDAV.
  • Cons: As a WYSIWYG word processor, it may be just as distracting to some writers as are desktop/laptop word processing apps like Word, Pages, or Open/LibreOffice. If you find yourself distracted by the ability to make pretty colors and fonts and bullets and whatnot, this might not be for you. It does not directly sync to Dropbox, Box, SugarSync, Google Drive, or SkyDrive, and so will likely not be as useful as many other applications will be for many writers, but it can be made to work with these applications  It is not nearly-free, though $10 plus applicable taxes is not a lot of money to pay for the features it provides. It saves in a proprietary document format (.pages), though it can save output to both Word document (.doc) and PDF formats.
Verdict: Though a bit on the pricey side for an iPad app, Pages can really come in handy for the CloudAgeAuthor. Though it does not directly sync changes to Dropbox or most other forms of Cloud storage, through the ability of the iPad to register apps with "Open In..." it is fairly straightforward to go into the Dropbox app, select a .pages or .doc (or .docx) file, tell the iPad to "Open In" Pages, edit or otherwise work with the document, then Share->Open in Another App the document back to Dropbox (I also show Pages able to send these documents to Box, SugarSync, Google Drive, SkyDrive, Box, DocsToGo, Evernote, and several other applications). So, though you can't simply use Pages to directly open documents in your non-Apple Cloud storage, you can use it with those documents. I recommend this application to any CloudAgeAuthor when they have a spare $10 floating around, the ability to do WYSIWYG document editing can be invaluable.

Storyist:

Price: $9.99
Kind: Writing Platform



Storyist is a lot more than a simple editor, or even a word processor (which it is, kind of): it's a Writing Platform. It has a companion app on the Mac, and is really a writer's tool chest in addition to being a WYSIWYG rich text editor. As an example, it supports non-linear editing (meaning, you can parcel out your writing's scenes, or chapters, or whatever, into pieces, and edit them in whatever order), and you can easily re-arrange, add, insert, or delete writings, and keep track of things like your characters and locations, and other research, all in the same app.


  • Pros: Multiple view options for your work, including outline, page, and index card (which shows documents as movable index cards, which can have non-printing metadata as well as being able to be dragged around ad hoc to reorder your writing). Supports WYSIWYG text editing including fonts, bold/italic/underline, bulleted and numbered lists, defined styles (such as for Chapter Titles, section titles, etc.), and so forth. Instead of simply allowing "document editing," Storyist uses a project metaphor. What this means is that each novel, short story, screenplay, or what have you, is its own project, full of folders of text documents, images, character and location profiles, and etc. It allows you to do a lot more free-form organizing; if, for example, you prefer to write your novels as chapters with scenes in them, you can set aside a folder for each chapter and put each scene in its own "file" within the folder for that chapter. This permits huge freedom in how you write and edit, since you can work on each scene individually without having to also wade through the other six chapters that existed before it. You can do all of these things with multiple documents in folders on your hard drive while writing in Word, or Pages, that is true; Storyist just does all the organizing for you, and permits you to switch back and forth from writing to planning to outlining to editing and back, in whatever order and fashion fits your style best, while staying within the app. Supports iTunes or Dropbox syncing.
  • Cons: more expensive than most other options. Not for everyone; if all you are doing with your iPad is occasionally editing a text or RTF document here and there, or capturing your occasional writing as-the-mood-strikes while out in the world, this app would be to your writing as a bazooka would be for killing flies. Doesn't support Box, SugarSync, SkyDrive, Google Drive, or other Cloud storage options other than the two listed under Pros. Stores documents in proprietary format.
Verdict: I like the concept of Storyist a lot, and if you are already using Storyist on your Mac ($59.99, not an insignificant investment for many of us!) then this is kind of a no-brainer. If you are thinking about shifting your writing from Word, Pages, or Open/LibreOffice on your home computer to this kind of a system, I would hold off for the release of Scrivener for the iPad. The Scrivener app for both Mac and Windows is less expensive, and more full-featured, than that of Storyist, and the iOS version is likely to be not much more expensive (if any) than Storyist, and probably will offer at least as much as, and likely much more than, Storyist does. However, the iOS version of Scrivener does not yet exist (though, it is in development). So if you must have something now, Storyist will fill in this gap very nicely.

There are a few other apps for writing out there, which I have not reviewed mostly because I do not own them, and in the research I have been able to do they either are way more expensive than their equivalent from my list (WriteRoom, for example, is a rough equivalent for iaWriter, and is $4.99, so I don't see any reason to buy WriteRoom. Since WriteRoom appears to be a rough analogue of iaWriter, when iaWriter's price goes back up, they'll be a 50-50 so far as I can tell), or cost about the same and do about the same thing. Since I'm not made of money, I can't afford to go out and buy every single writing app on the App Store just to test them out.

Two additional things before I depart. First, is that promised endnote about Markdown. Markdown is essentially a shorthand way to mark text for special treatment, in a way that does not require learning a coding language (such as HTML). As you might recall, HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language (so, Markdown is labelled as a kind of an opposite of HTML), which is a standardized language for describing how documents should be displayed, including things like font colors, sizes, faces, bold, italic, underlining, and a whole host of other options. Markdown, on the other hand, uses a small set of symbols to describe how to change the characteristics of certain words or phrases in a text document. These symbols are not officially standardized, but do seem to have evolved some common characteristics. Commonly, the symbol set of *word* translates into word and **word** into word, but there are also symbol sets for lists, font sizes, and so forth. The implementation of Markdown is not widespread, however, and should not be the make-or-break for a CloudAgeAuthor, in my opinion. 

Second, I mentioned Scrivener in my review of Storyist. On my Mac, I own a copy of Scrivener (and, have for several years). It is a truly outstanding platform for writing; I have ghostwritten an e-book, written an academic paper for my paramedic program, and am working on several other projects at the same time. Storyist and Scrivener cover much of the same kind of ground, but my experience with Scrivener is that it's a more robust and much more feature-complete app, and is what I recommend for any writer on either Mac or Windows. I am hoping for an iOS version of this app, at least in a beta form, soon, so that I can sync my desktop writing directly with my iPad in Scrivener, and for me that will likely make much of the other apps that I use redundant.

Next blog entry will be a thorough review of Scrivener for Mac, including some CloudAgeAuthor-specific utility this Writing Platform already has even without an iOS version.

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