Category Archives: Writing


Gathering your Thoughts and Information on the iPad – Best Apps

OK, you’ve brainstormed to get a sense of the possibilities for your project and you’re ready to get going. The next logical step in the process is to gather everything you’ve already done and all the clippings you have saved in anticipation of this day. It would be great if the iPad could help you gather what you need into a single work area so you could then draw upon those materials in your project and add things as you find them as you go along.

The iPad is currently limited in its gathering functionality. I think and hope these limitations are temporary while Apple comes up with their new Finder replacement and iCloud services. Meanwhile, the show must go on. I’ll go through those limitations first and then talk about what I think are the best ways to go about gathering on the iPad, the best apps to use while doing so. The Mac doesn’t share any of the limitations found on the iPad, so unless you have no choice, you’ll want to include it in your gathering work flow. I’ll make some recommendations here as well.

My Mac dictionary has this to say about gathering in general: “bring together and take in from scattered places or sources“.

Gathering: How the iPad Stacks Up

  1. Search – a way to locate relevant items quickly. If a lot of your info items tend to be tagged, you’ll want to take advantage of tag searches. Spotlight search is severely limited on the iPad. There’s no way to search the entire device.
  2. Ability to combine information items, notes, images, media with a variety of different file formats, created in a variety of apps. If you have your Mac handy, you can hook your iPad up, run iTunes, select the Apps tab, scroll down, select the app you want to make a file available to and drag it into the iTunes app window. My favorite app for combining is Circus Ponies Notebook ($30) but you need to use iTunes and a Mac to load the files you want in. This is far from ideal. Even though many of the documents you want may be on dropbox or already on your iPad in other apps, you will be stymied in moving them over to CP Notebook. No dropbox support as yet. No emailing the document from another app to yourself and then using “Open in…” to get it into Notebook. Not yet. Another way to go with Notebook is to start the Notebook on your Mac if you have CP Notebook for Mac ($50), and load it up with goodies from your Mac. Then transfer the file over to your iPad via iTunes. That works. You can insert images directly from your photos on the iPad at least.
  3. Some sort of space on which to position or collect these items. You’ll need a digital location to assemble what you’ve got in one place. In the old days, you might work on the living room floor or on a table, putting everything you need in that place. But most of our assets are digital these days so working analog will slow you down. You could arrange them in the order you find them, but you might be able to group them a bit as you go along even though that grouping is far from final. The ideal space exists in Circus Ponies Notebook except for the need to use a tethered Mac and iTunes to make combining work beyond copy and paste or inserting images from your iPad photo library.
  4. A way to preserve this collection and order over time. Since you don’t have all your stuff spread out on the floor, desk or conference table, you have digital room to keep what you’ve gathered. Circus Ponies Notebook does great on the preservation of order in a notebook with the caveats just mentioned.
  5. A way to organize this collection as we see opportunities to do so or a simple way to export what we’ve got to a second tool that works really well for organizing. Based on an outline at its core, Circus Ponies Notebook wins here. There are other options like Notability, I just prefer the greater robustness of Notebook.
  6. Mobility if we can get it. It would be great to be able to gather while on the road and then take that collection of gathered items along with us when we go out. You can take your Notebook with you on your iPad, if you’ve loaded it up prior. You just can’t gather at full tilt while out. You can manipulate what you’ve got but that’s really organizing now isn’t it? And that’s a separate post.

Other Gathering Gambits

Dropbox. This dire need in the gathering stage has been addressed in a piecemeal way by the dropbox app. Dropbox is a place in the cloud that can sync to your iPad, Mac and iPhone. There’s a free Dropbox app that lets you go in and grab things. Some files like plain text can work well here and some apps are good at accessing and saving to dropbox.

Plain Text. Dropbox has been used best with plain text files. There are scads of plain text notes apps that support dropbox. Some of them give you the ability to access all of dropbox not just a single folder. If you like working in text and only text, you are in business. You can gather your text notes in a big project folder with subfolders perhaps. Simplenote allows tagging but not folders. Nebulous Notes lets you gather your notes together in multiple folders in dropbox. Unless you’ve embraced this plain text for everything method, you’ll be far from happy. If you are a Mac user, you expect more. Much more. However, if your writing projects are destined for the web, plain text rules and you can learn Markdown to make it pretty. Apps like Nebulous Notes (powerful) or Elements (elegant) will preview for you so you can see what you’ll get when web-published. I see Nebulous Notes now has a way to export your text to PDF which may work well sometimes when you want to go through a copy of what you’ve written and annotate it to note where changes should be made.

Evernote. If you keep all your notes and web clips in Evernote and tag religiously, you could create an Evernote notebook for a project. Simply give all relevant notes the same project identifier as a tag. The beauty of Evernote is that you can search all your notes from iPad and iPhone as well as the web or your Mac (or PC). Gathering could be a reasonable option for this. The few drawbacks I see are that (1) Evernote is kind of slow for quick note-taking, (2) is plain text only on iPhone and iPad, (3) there’s no outlining capability and (4) Ordering is pretty rudimentary – limited to putting things in a notebook and tagging. The slowness issue can be addressed with a new third party universal iPad/iPhone app called Quick Ever ($1). Evernote is one of the better options. You will need to be monogamous about putting all your notes, web clips, PDFs etc. into Evernote for this plan to work, though (some like me find that difficult). A Premium Evernote account ($5/mo or $45/yr) will allow you to add more file types to Evernote including office docs.

Outliners. A robust outliner that can hold the digital items you gather would help right now. The reason I like an outliner is that it gets us ready to organize by putting our items into a tool that allows you to drag things up and down, insert and hierarchically order without difficulty and with speed. There’s little to no friction in the process, so why not gather in the tool that will also facilitate organizing when you are done.

We’ve talked about my favorite gathering outliner, Circus Ponies Notebook, above and noted its shortcomings. Rightly, I think, Circus Ponies has focused so far on moving its great functionality over from the Mac and postponed trying to make up for the file management shortcomings that currently exist on the iPad. Surely Apple would deliver the goods and save Circus Ponies the work of doing file management from scratch like Good Reader has done. I think an outliner is a whole lot better place to gather your thoughts and ideas than a set of plain text files is. An outliner lets you move things around. Even if you can’t do much inserting of different document types on the iPad, just being able to re-order things gives you a jumpstart on the next step in the process – the organizing step.

Two More Top Outliner Apps to Look At

The truth is that, the ideal tool is not yet available for the iPad. There are the best in class tools but the real limiting factor for gathering on an iPad is the lack of a file management system. Because each app has its own sandbox and has very limited ways of moving data to and from other apps, you’ll have to compromise and piece together a strategy.

OmniOutliner. OmniOutliner for iPad ($20) rocks if you can limit yourself to styled text. It’s sexy and you can add extra columns to your outlines which is kind of cool. You can add outline items easily and move them around as you please. But try to get information into the outline and you find it very limited. You can paste a graphic file in from the clipboard. But once it is in, you can’t change its size. There is no Insert… command which will let you select an image from your photo library. What would be even better is a way to select from any image on your iPad no matter which app created it. There is no dropbox support so forget about the images that might be there. However, there is an awesome OmniOutliner for Mac ($40-60) that would allow some upfront gathering there and then transfer of the outline to iPad for on-the-go gathering and organizing later on.

Thinkbook. Step down a notch from OmniOutliner and give up styled text. But in its place, get a cooler outliner, to do items (which CP Notebook has), a very slick way to re-order items fast with Bitolithic’s slider. And, keep all your notebooks together and quickly accessible via the home page. Outlining like no other but limited to text for now. Thinkbook is very new. If you can live in text you can get outlining and text together with importing of text and exporting of text with dropbox support. They already have images on their to do list. This is a thinking tool that I like a lot in its early days. Bitolithic makes Comic Zeal, so they know all about images and layout. Keep an eye on this app!

When all Else Fails, Use Scrivener

There’s a Mac in your life somewhere, I’ll bet. If you are writing at any length and aren’t married to Microsoft Word, consider using Scrivener ($45) for the heavy lifting in the Gathering step. The Literature and Latte folks know about gathering – see the banner they use on their site above. Here’s what I’m thinking. Get all those goodies you have on your Mac and from your web surfing and stick them into Scrivener. It has a Research section and a Draft section. Put previous excerpts from writing into the Draft part and your images, URLs and other documents into the Research side.

The cool thing about Scrivener is that it can represent all the little pieces of the puzzle in both the Drafts and Research sides as index cards on cork boards. It can do almost anything. Has tons of keyboard shortcuts. You can print out the index cards and play with them on the floor if you want. It has a really good outliner as part of its fundamental character. It has lots of import and export options. There’s a Windows version in Beta.

You can have Scrivener be home base. Now use the iPad as your home away from home. Print a PDF from your Scrivenings from time to time and annotate that in GoodReader or your favorite PDF annotator. Some like iAnnotate, PDF Expert, Readdle, Noterize or Note-taker HD. PDFs from your Mac can be dropped into Dropbox. Dropbox on iPad can use “Open In…” to route the PDF to your favorite PDF app. You are better off with GoodReader but that debate is for another day. Annotation fits the iPad like a glove right now.

Also, on your iPad, you can sync pieces of your Scrivener that you are working via dropbox to your iPad if you use a number of good apps like Simplenote, Index Card or plain text apps like Nebulous Notes, Elements or Plaintext. There are cool videos on the Literature and Latte site to show you how to sync in both directions to your iPad app and roundtrip back to Scrivener. It can be done!

There are lots of ways to gather your thoughts and other info items on your iPad. Your Mac might be of help for the time-being at least. Have fun. We’ll go into organizing next time out!

Brainstorming on the iPad – Best Apps

This is my second post about iPhone and iPad apps as viewed through the prism of essential knowledge functions. My first post provides some background so if you haven’t read it, you may want to start here: Information Capture on the iPhone – Best Apps. Brainstorming is an essential knowledge function and often the first step when undertaking a knowledge project.

There are many brainstorming techniques. The four that I spend the most time using are all done fast: diagramming, mindmapping, outlining and putting ideas onto index cards and stacking/rearranging them. Plain freewriting is a fifth that is a mainstay but is something that can be done in any writing or notes app. More on that in another post.

Diagramming is often the first thing I try when in the definition phase of a creative project. I want to see the subject so I can figure out how to deal with it. I’ll start trying to diagram it and usually accompany those initial drawings with words that come to mind. Which app helps you do something like this on an iPad? I got started early with Penultimate and have kept coming back to it.  I favor the simplest, quickest app that acts like paper and gets out of my way. Right now Penultimate is the 19th paid app in the app store. That’s saying a lot!

Penultimate is all you need for brainstorming and doesn’t have extras that will lure you down sidetracks to make your brainstorming look prettier. Pretty is almost a drawback in this phase of creativity. We are looking for speed of output to capture things without the critical faculty censoring and limiting your outside-the box-thinking.

Mindmapping is my favorite technique when in the getting started phase of a creative project. I can type fast and get a bunch of nodes branching off of my project name or subject. Right now there is one clear winner in the iPad Mindmapping category: iThoughts HD. This app came out when the iPad was released and has been upgraded extensively.

Why iThoughts HD is at the top mind mapping tool on iPad:

  1. A full range of import and export options that will help tremendously as you move back and forth between knowledge functions and apps.
  2. Great integration with the cloud via Dropbox, MobileMe, WebDav and
  3. A little sister app for the iPhone that will allow you to create new and see your existing mind maps and tweak them when you are without the iPad.
  4. A powerful tool that reminds me of the premium quality swiss army knife of mind mapping tools on my Mac: Mindjet Mindmanager. The extras aren’t really important in brainstorming, but they come in handy for the presentation-quality versions you’ll want when putting the finishing touches on your masterpiece.

Outlining is another key brainstorming tool. Dash off lists of things that come to mind. With the aid of the outliner you can list items under items and group them as you go or later. I’ve been using Carbonfin Outliner for over a year with few complaints. It does the job for $5 and there’s an iPhone version for $5 as well. There’s also web access with additional functionality. Excellent value. But now, there’s a new luxury outliner that cannot be denied.

OmniOutliner. There are many outliners for the Mac, but OmniOutliner 3 has ruled the roost for years. Every upgrade was free – this is years we are talking! Now we’ve got the junior version for iPad which is actually better than the Mac version. Yes, better. Omnigroup spent a long time learning how to take advantage of the iPhone and the iPad and released some other apps: Omnifocus, OmniGraffle, and OmniGraphSketcher. Now they’ve released OmniOutliner and it is splendid. It is like a Rolls Royce compared to a Honda Civic. Both will get you there. You’ll need to pay $20 to get this one. But, then if you are a smart knowledge professional, you’ll want to avoid being pennywise and pound foolish. There’s already a Mac app. There’s sure to be an iPhone app. And we know Omnigroup keeps tweaking their apps.

You need an outliner for not only brainstorming but also for gathering and organizing – two other important knowledge functions. Don’t skimp here unless you have to. For the time being, you won’t get Dropbox support and the file management is pretty basic. Omnigroup has promised file management upgrades and looking at dropbox support. They are loving iCloud and I expect iCloud to soon trump Dropbox for Omnigroup and for the rest of us. iCloud is much more powerful than a simple service like Dropbox. On the plus side, you can import OPML files (like the ones you can export from iThoughts HD), interchange files with OmniOutliner 3 on Mac, export to MobileMe, use rich text styling and add extra columns to your outlines. This is the power outliner of choice. One last thing, you can insert graphics into outlines.

Index Cards. Another way to brainstorm is to write your snippets of ideas onto index cards. Paper index cards are the favorites of researchers and writers and have been for many, many years. They are small. They are interchangeable and stackable.

Index Card. This is my index card app of choice. Its big brother – a full scale writing app – is Scrivener for Mac ($45). Index Card may be the only pure index card app on the iPad. Drag cards around. Color them. Write on the back sides of cards. And, if that isn’t enough, put them into stacks. Stack cards one level deep. This is a lovely app. Also view cards as a list. $5. It’s an inviting way to get a handle on what you need to do or what the main pieces are in a creative project. Stacking and coloring let’s you organize these things as you progress beyond brainstorming. Limited syncing to Scrivener which has unlimited levels and images attached.

13 Work Reasons to Buy an iPad

Updated with Photo of iPad 2

Six Months In. Here’s what makes the iPad so great for students and knowledge professionals of all categories:

  • Affordable quality. The iPad is a jewel of a device. Great design. Minimalism with power. And cheap considering its construction, capabilities, screen, speed and storage.
  • Amazing battery life. Makes the hassle of trying to keep your laptop alive for more than a few minutes go away. No worries. It just keeps working all day long if need be.
  • Lighter, smaller and easier to deal with than a laptop. 1.5 lbs. A whole different experience. Greatly increases the chances you’ll have it with you when at home or out and about. Sure you’ll break out the laptop for serious work sessions, but what about all those other brief opportunities to record a thought or check a fact? Yes, the iPhone might have you covered, but it may also be too much work to write much down. Valuable thoughts and knowledge go uncaptured.
  • Big enough for reading. If you are going to read for more than a few minutes, you’ll prefer a book-sized screen. The iPhone is too small for a lot of people – especially anyone who prefers larger type. The iPhone 4 does have more adherents due to the awesome 960 x 640 pixel display. Larger pages work great on iPad, not so great on the small screen. There’s a reason most books are bigger than an iPhone and smaller than a laptop.
  • A Better Alternative to Paper in our Digital Age. Rather than committing your thoughts or notes to paper, why not capture them easily in some digital form on your iPad? As our media goes digital, there is less reason to interact with paper. Paper starts seeming rather limited in its capabilities. Enter iPad.
  • Internet access. The large bright screen, fast processor and iPad version of mobile Safari make for an awesome web browsing experience. There may be an occasional Flash video you miss out on but the trend to replace Flash with HTML 5 continues. And you aren’t annoyed by intrusive flash ads.
  • In Meetings. An iPad is sociable and unobtrusive as it sits flat on the table. It’s great for sharing info with a couple other people on the screen or for taking notes and even recording audio while doing so.
  • Touch-based. More human-friendly, less abstract. Direct manipulation at its finest.
  • Very functional. The vast number of apps means you can do all sorts of things with it. And there might be an app for your special hobby or interest like say bird-watching or star-gazing. Not to mention even more specialized applications like a one-handed clipboard in the field or as an information pad for aviators.
  • Simpler to use than a laptop. Dumbed down a lot and simplified compared to a full-blown computer. Makes it effortless and more fun to use.
  • Travel and errands. Just as the lightness and simplicity of the iPad makes it something you’ll carry with you around the house. You’ll be carrying it with you when you walk, run errands and travel if you can possibly figure a way to avoid all the hassle of a battery-sucking, heavy laptop.
  • On the couch – comfy. A lot of people were keeping their laptops open while watching TV. The iPad is worlds better for that function. It’s less conspicuous too. Kind of fits like a magazine would. You may squeeze in a little more work on the couch when you can’t face cracking open your laptop. See? I told you these were work reasons.
  • In bed – comfy. If you want a big screen in bed, this is it. Beats the Kindle when you have little light. You can do some of your professional reading or actual work in bed. A lot of people like working in bed – makes it a little less like work!

I’m sure I haven’t thought of every good reason here. But this should get you started.

Writing with your iPhone 4

I just hooked up my bluetooth keyboard to my iPhone 4. Saw a guy at my local Starbucks doing it and he raved about it.

All this is wireless — no dreaded cables at all. Ever. Just 3 AAA batteries to power the keyboard which is surprisingly light at about 10 ounces. Lighter than carrying an iPad.

Here I am at the Caffe Acri in Tiburon writing a brand new blog post. I’m using the WordPress app which has crashed a couple of times already. Not to worry, though, it saved all my work anyway.

If you have an iPhone, you may want to get on this brand new bandwagon. It started after a recent iOS4 update that enabled bluetooth keyboards to work with iPhones, not just iPads.

I’ve got my iPhone 4 in a vertical position tilted up against a coffee cup. I guess I will photograph it with my iPhone 3GS that’s still kicking around. The keyboard is on my lap where it belongs. It works on the table but isn’t really very ergonomic that way.

The reason to have a keyboard with your iPhone is to do some serious keyboard input. It’s not for twitter, but when you want to write in paragraphs, this keyboard is a godsend. I didn’t realize how light it is.

It is a lot more comfortable on your lap than a laptop — even a MacBook Air! Even an iPad which is more than twice it’s weight and fiddly — you don’t want to drop your iPad.

So, what can you do? You could write email if you must. But I would suggest writing in your journal or simply writing in Momento, 3Banana Notes, Awesome Note, Simplenote, Evernote or even the built-in Notes app.

I love the 3Banana Notes app for its responsiveness, ability to add a photo to your note and the excellent hashtag keywords feature that lets you make keywords in your notes on the fly which subsequently act as hotlinks to all notes containing that keyword. I think 3Banana is better than Simplenote. Evernote lags from my point of view because it tends to be sluggish and sometimes that looks like unuseable if you need to get your note entered without delay.

I have greatly enjoyed the Momento journaling app for its great tagging, photos, UI and more. It works great on iPhone but a big upgrade has been in the works a long time and many of us are getting impatient for the promised new features.

In all these apps, all you need to do is type and won’t find it difficult to occasionally touch your iPhone screen when you need to press a button. I found a list of keyboard shortcuts at theappleblog:

You can find detailed instructions on how to pair the Apple wireless keyboard in the iPhone User Guide PDF. See page 48. I’ve heard other keyboards work with the iPad, so I’m guessing they will also work with iPhone now. If you want to write and travel light, this combo can’t be beat!