Writing with the iPad

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Susan Orlean, New Yorker writer and author of The Orchid Thief, did a long interview with Macworld about using her iPad both for her work and personal life. She's clearly a fan of using it as a laptop replacement for reading and working on drafts, which made me think more about my own experience with the iPad so far.

I too, envisioned the iPad as a laptop replacement. I have an iMac desktop at home with a nice, big monitor, so I didn't need to worry about having a portable with the horsepower to manage photos, a music library, etc. I just wanted something I could carry around the house for reading online, using Twitter, responding to email, and doing some light writing and editing. It excels at the first three of those things--in fact, I prefer using it for reading anything online. Where I start to hesitate and find myself running downstairs to use the big boy computer is when I have to type more than a couple short paragraphs, or if I need to refer to notes, web pages, and source material when I write (which is a big hindrance for the kind of link-based blogging I do here).

I can probably overcome the first of those obstacles with practice. I remember how hesitant I was to type anything on my iPhone when I first got it, and now I happily type away longer emails with it. The iPad’s keyboard has a different feel, of course, and some of the function keys and punctuation are in different places. It’s just a matter of practice before I gain more confidence. I can also use the old full-sized Bluetooth keyboard I had left over from a long-ago eBayed computer and type away like normal. But carrying an extra keyboard kind of defeats the purpose of packing a slim wonder tablet. I want to keep it simple.

The second issue has to do with the way the iPad switches between applications. You can say it’s hobbled because it doesn’t multitask in the technical sense of the word, but even if it did run multiple programs simultaneously, the screen size means you can only look at one thing at a time. Most of the apps keep your place, that is they keep an active document or email you’re composing open when you switch to another app so when you come back you can pick up your work. It’s tedious to do this too much though. I’ve been spoiled by huge desktop monitors where I can line up notes and manuscripts side by side.

There’s no reason the iPad can’t be a fine writing device for first drafts, especially if you’re working on fiction, personal essays, or poetry where you don’t need to refer to a lot of reference material. It’s also very effective for editing manuscripts, especially if you use an external keyboard. Once I transcribed my interview with Ben Greenman, I did most of the edits on the iPad with the external keyboard just to see how it would work. I found myself using the cursor keys a lot more than I normally would, because taking my hands off the keyboard to touch the screen and move around felt awkward, but it did just fine. The trick was that I only needed to work in one window on a single document.

When you think about it, the way I’ve been able to use the iPad makes sense. It was never meant to replace laptops or desktop computers completely, though it’s tempting to try. For most uses it’s perfectly capable of doing everything I need, but for more complex documents, flipping back and forth between a lot of sources for repeated cutting and pasting, etc, you still need a proper computer. The tablet metaphor is appropriate, because for a writer, the iPad can serve as an advanced notebook. It’s good for starts and working on drafts, but at some point you need to return to home base to finish.