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IA Writer 5.6: Better than a word processor

IA Writer is a text editor. A stripped back, race-tuned greyhound of a writing app. There’s nothing fancy or complicated. That is its attraction.

You can start putting words together within minutes of installing the software.

It is the most productive writing tool I’ve used since learning to type on manual typewriters. It could be the software you are looking for.

You can keep your fancy, feature-rich word processors. They have their place, but they are not always the most productive tools.

I keep a copy of Microsoft Word on my Mac to stay compatible with clients and co-workers. That way there’s no chance of anything slipping between the cracks in a complex editing job.

iA Writer first

Yet when it comes to writing a newspaper feature, a blog post or commercial copy, iA Writer is my first choice. Every time.

That’s because iA Writer’s minimalist approach gets out of the way. There’s no temptation to mess around choosing the right font for this communication. You won’t wonder if the crosshead typeface you’ve chosen is a good fit with the body.

You don’t have choices. There’s nothing to tinker with. Or, at least, not much.

Instead you can focus on your words.

Over the years iA Writer has evolved. It does more today than it did when I started using it about five years ago. Yet you couldn’t accuse it of feature bloat. It remains simple.

Works everywhere you do

One advantage of keeping the software simple is that you get a near-identical experience whether you are writing on a large screen desktop Mac, an iPad or an iPhone.

For years iA Writer was an Apple experience. Today you can get versions for Windows or Android. The cross platform experience is almost as smooth as staying in Apple’s walled garden. This makes it an excellent choice for people moving between Apple, Microsoft and Android.

Text editors in general tend to be a form of lowest common denominator. IA Writer has this to a T.

iA Writer 5.4

Earlier this year iA Writer moved to version 5.4. That added features such as local storage, new export options and context menus.

If this was an ordinary product review, at this point I’d run through how these feature work in practice. But I won’t because I find I never use them all. My understanding of them is abstract. I’ve tested them and seen they work as advertised, but they don’t get a second glance in the heat of battle.

You can do something complex with blocks of copy, which you can insert as content blocks in your document. Again, I’ve tested, but never needed this. It may be the feature you’ve been looking for.

Made for cloud

The new feature that I do use is the ability to make local copies. In normal use iA Writer stores documents in your iCloud account. Because each document is tiny, files are tiny. You won’t chew through iCloud storage the way you might with word processor documents.

For a while iCloud integration was buggy. At times you couldn’t be sure they document was where it should be. Having local backups meant you never faced losing an afternoon’s writing brilliance.

In May iA Writer moved to version 5.5. In part the upgrade brought the software in line with the new features in iPadOS. You can now use a trackpad or mouse with the software on an iPad. Not that I’d want to do that.

Markdown

We’re 600 words into this post and there has not yet been any mention of Markdown. This is a simple markup language that lets you format your text. Type a * symbol either side of a word and it will show up in italics. Put two * around a word and it is in bold.

There are a handful of these Markdown commands to memorise. It doesn’t take long and it means you can keep your hands on the keys without reaching for the mouse or trackpad.

That way you can type faster. It’s more efficient. As a bonus, you are less likely to get a repetitive strain injury. The commands soon become hardwired in your fingertips. Yet I must confess there are times I have to look up the more obscure ones.

In iA Writer 5.5, there’s a new Markdown code. Two equals signs around a word will highlight it. That’s like the yellow marker you find in word processors. It’s hard to miss.

You’re either going to love Markdown or hate it. It works for me. I recommend giving it a try before deciding. There are free trial versions of iA Writer 5.6.

PDF viewer

The other 5.5 upgrade was the addition of a PDF viewer. When I write for my website1 I can publish text direct to WordPress. All the formatting comes with the words. If I work for a client who needs a Word document, yes that is almost every client, I can save my iA Writer document in a docx format.

Adding the ability to save in PDF format takes this further. Yet, like many new features, I don’t use it. Or, more accurately, I haven’t used it yet.

That’s not the point. Each feature upgrade expands the software’s reach to users who need more than basic text editing but not as much as a word processor. IA Writer rolls out a few new features every year, but you couldn’t say the software is bloated or even on the road to bloated.

iA Writer 5.6

We’re now at iA Writer 5.6. It’s been around now for a month. The latest version adds a style checker. It could help improve your writing. The checker looks for cliches, fillers and redundancies. When they appear in your text, they are grey.

You can choose to edit them if you wish.

I don’t always agree with the software style decisions. Journalism relies on short simple language. While that can get hackneyed, it’s a way of getting a message over fast.

And there are words iA Writer 5.6 doesn’t approve of, like also or too, that are useful for journalism.

Good housekeeping

The remaining updates in iA Writer 5.6 are all background housekeeping things that developers do and casual users may not notice. Files now open faster, but that was never an issue for me. The noticeable background update is that huge iA Writer files don’t slow down.

IA Writer’s price has climbed over the years. When I first bought the software I paid NZ$3. It was a promotional price. Today the software costs US$30 for the Mac and $9 for the iPad or iPhone. You can get it from the relevant app store. There are free trial versions.

You have to buy both if you plan to use the software on a Mac and an iOS device. I don’t begrudge it.

Compared with the alternatives it’s a bargain. You have to pay roughly four times that amount every year to use Microsoft Word.

Other word processors can cost more. This is important. Journalists and others who write for a living get paid in ways that make it hard to budget for a regular subscription. A flat one-off fee is better. You know where you are and you know for certain there will never be a month where you face not paying the software subscription or skipping a meal.

Critics

You’ll see critics complain that iA Writer doesn’t have collaboration tools. In part that’s because the idea of collaboration doesn’t sit well with distraction-free writing. Nothing is more distracting than someone jumping it with an annoying, pedantic edit while you are crafting your next perfect piece of prose.

Collaboration is important. It is not the be all and end all of working with others.

The upside is that it’s easy for iA Writer to work in with collaboration tools. At times when I’m asked to work with, say, Google Docs, I will write first in iA Writer, then load the text into a shared Doc for the editing party to begin. I’ve been known to pull paragraphs or sections from the shared document, paste them into iA Writer, make my edits and return the text.

IA Writer isn’t for everyone. Many people feel they need the handholding they get from a product like Word. Or they feel comfortable using the same thing as everyone else. There are companies, clients and individual managers who will insist you use Word.

When I was thinking about this idea earlier, it occurred to me there is an analogy with music. IA Writer is to a word processor what, say, a fretless string instrument is to a guitar or keyboard. If you are on top of your writing game and confident, you can get better results without the guiding baggage. If that’s not you, then fine. You have alternatives.


  1. As an aside, I’m using iA Writer 5.6 now and there’s a neat set of Markdown codes for creating footnotes. ↩︎

iA Writer 5.2: Simple text editor, great writing tool

iA Writer 5.2 Macos white screenLeft to my own devices I prefer to use iA Writer over any other writing tool. It’s been my main word processor for the past seven years.

This might sound odd because iA Writer isn’t a word processor. It is a simple text editor app that runs on both iOS and MacOS. I have installed it on my MacBook, iPad and iPhone.

Late last year the software was updated to version 5.2. While iA Writer was already my favourite writing tool, the newest version makes for a better experience.

That’s because the update addresses the one aspect of the software I wasn’t comfortable with.

Stripped down

Unlike word processors and other fancy writing tools, iA Writer has a stripped down interface. I’m using it now to write this post on my Mac.

All I can see on the display is the Mac’s built-in menu bar across the top. A blank screen that I’m filling with my words and a small status bar at the bottom of the display. It’s the nearest digital equivalent to writing with a manual typewriter on a blank sheet of paper.

If that’s too much, you can enter a full screen mode and the menu bar disappears from sight. There’s also a focus mode that can hide everything except the paragraph or sentence you are working on.

No fiddling with iA Writer

This simplicity allows me to focus on writing. There’s a wonderful passage of text written by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams where he describes the creative ways he prevaricates with his work. It involves tinkering with fonts, type sizes, widths and so on.

The mere presence of all those options can be a distraction. iA Writer does away with it. As every long-term Apple user understands, restricting your options can boost productivity.

While, on one level, this iA Writer approach has always worked well for me, it has, at times been a problem. In the earlier versions of the software those choices were too restrictive. The text size was fixed and there was a strict monospace Courier-like typewriter typeface.

Legibility

Good in theory, but in practice we reached a point where I was struggling to read my text on the screen.

I have an eye problem and every so often have restricted vision, to get around it I need larger, clearer typefaces. When that wasn’t an option with iA Writer I found myself using different writing tools. The, now apparently defunct or neglected Byword was a solid alternative with variable fonts and text sizes.

iA Writer addressed these issues with the last two releases of the software. Version 5.2 builds on version 5. There are now three typeface choices: Mono, Duo and Quattro. As the names suggest the first is monospaced, the second uses up to two spaces and the third can use as many as four.

There’s a lot of nerdy material on the iA Writer website about fonts. It all boils down to the newer options making it much easier to read your words on the screen.

Uno, Duo… Quattro

The most recent typeface, Quattro combines the benefits of fixed and proportional spaced fonts. It is particularly easy on my eyes. Better still, it is legible if I need to read or write on a smaller screen, say an iPhone.

iA Writer has always done a good job of exporting to Microsoft Word. The latest version improves this functionality. If you want you can write documents with footnotes, tables or even inline images and convert them to Word .docx format. This is essential for my work as almost every client expects to see a Word document.

The software also integrates with other services. The only one I use all the time is the post to WordPress option. This was sometimes a little tricky with earlier versions of iA Writer but has been good since version four.

Sharing an iA Writer strength

You can also save documents as HTML, which is powerful when fixing web copy. As you might expect with a made-for-Apple app, iA Writer deals brilliantly with the internal Apple sharing functionality. They work well with the iOS Files app and on both operating systems with iCloud. One neat aspect of this is that I can draft a post on my Mac and then edit on an iPad or iPhone later. You can also link them both to Dropbox.

When I first purchased iA Writer for iOS, the price was, from memory, US$3. That was an introductory deal. It later moved to $5. Today it is US$9. The MacOS version has increased more in price, today it is US$29. Get it from the app store. You have to buy the app again when there’s a major upgrade, but the price is low enough for this to not be a deal breaker.

There is a US$20 Windows app and a free one for Android. There are trial versions at the iA Writer web site.

One last thing. iA Writer stores documents as plain text, but it uses Markdown formatting. This is a simple way of adding headers, bold, italics, hyperlinks and so on to you text. These show up in the text editor as punctuation marks. You can then create a preview to show how the document looks after converting it to HTML, Word format or whatever. It might sound off-putting, but in practice it’s easy to use.

iA Writer 5 review: When you want words without fuss

Is iA Writer 5 a text editor? Or is it a minimal word processor? The software is both and neither at the same time. It’s an elegant stripped down writing tool that’s perfect for 2018.

iA Writer starts from the premise that some writers focus on their words, not how they look on a page.

There are no distractions. The software has almost no moving parts. Words on a screen, that’s it. iA Writer feels the nearest thing to using paper in a typewriter and yet it is as modern as the iPhone X.

If you like your writing software flashy and complex go elsewhere. If you need to do tricky typographic work or lay out pages, this is not for you. It is a writer’s tool, pure and simple.

MacOS and iOS

There are versions of iA Writer for iOS, MacOS and Android. It works best with Apple kit. If you don’t use Apple hardware, the software is a good reason to change. If you have an iPad Pro, this would be a good time to invest in a keyboard, although iA Writer is fine if you write on a glass keyboard.

That’s because cloud is central to the software. You can store documents locally on a Mac, iPhone or iPad, but why would you when you can save them the cloud and have them sync between devices.

This works so well that you can type away on, say, a MacBook, race out the door and pick up from where you left off on an iPhone.

The app-OS-hardware integration has only improved with Apple’s recent move to iOS 11.

iA Writer a breeze compared to Word, Pages

Of course you can do much the same with, say, Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. Up to a point.

Word is a hefty MacOS app. It rarely starts without checking to see if there is a software update — usually once a week. Often you’ll need to wait 15 minutes or so before working while Microsoft handles the latest updates to all the Office apps.

Even when there are no updates Word is not instant on. iA Writer is ready immediately. Often a Word work session starts with something other than jumping straight into writing. Maybe you need to find the right fonts or styles. There are always things to fuss over.

With iA Writer you are ready to go almost from the moment you click the app’s icon. There is nothing to fuss over. Almost no possible choices to make.

IA Writer 5 screen shot

Focus

The idea behind iA Writer isn’t new. A decade ago there were minimalist word processors and writing tools for Macs and PCs. You may recall WriteRoom or Q10.

There were others. And if you didn’t want a special app, there were the basic text editors shipped with operating systems and tools derived from the Linux or Unix text editors. Even the MS-Dos versions of Word Perfect were minimal in this way. So were older programs like WordStar.

All of them attempted to keep out of your way. In place of a fancy user interface and menus full of esoteric commands, they relied on the user learning a few standard codes. These were embedded among the words to handle things like bold text, heads and so on.

Markdown

iA Writer uses Markdown to do this. Markdown is simple and keeps out of the way. Type a single hash # character at the start of the line for a top level head, two hashes means second level head and so on. It takes seconds to learn a days to master.

One key difference between iA Writer and earlier simple writing tools is the beautiful integration with the hardware, software and cloud services.

It’s as if the the software developers digested the entire Apple less-is-more credo and spat it out as a perfect writing application. Perfect is not too strong a word here. Although this style of perfection may not be to your taste.

iA Writer 5 rival

Only one other application comes close to iA Writer’s elegance and simplicity. The excellent Byword has its own minimalist aesthetic. It too is lightweight, simple and stays out of the way.

Unlike iA Writer which offers next to zero choices, Byword gives you some options. You can change a few things.

This may sound like a cop-out. It isn’t. I have a medical condition which means my eyes sometimes don’t work well. When I’m having bad eyesight days, I can’t adjust the iA Writer type to a bigger size, I can’t alter the font or screen colour to make reading easier. With Byword you can make these changes.

Subtle difference

The result is the two similar minimal writing tools have distinct personalities. They work for different types of use. iA Writer is all about the writing and precious little else. You can use it for complex writing jobs, but it works best for blog posts, putting down thoughts and things like journalism.

Byword is a touch more sophisticated. You can write a book or a 3000 long-form feature in either app. If you want something more, Byword is the first stop on the road from iA Writer to more complex tools like Apple Pages or Microsoft Word.

Efficient

There’s something else important about iA Writer and Byword. The two apps have an impact on the way you write. I find I can sit at a Mac or iPad and zip through a thousand words or so in quick time. This blog post will take less than an hour to write.

Between the minimal software and the Markdown editing language there is almost no reason to move your hands from the keyboard. That’s when you have one on a Mac or say with your iOS device.

With, say, Word, the composition part of the writing process takes longer. There’s more scrolling up and down the page. More distraction. Sure, you can make the words look pretty as you go, but that’s a barrier to getting the right words written efficiently.

iA Writer 5

In November iA Writer reached version 5. It was a free upgrade to those who had earlier versions. There are changes. First the iOS version now works with the new iOS file system.

There are other changes which added functionality without adding complexity. One is that it is now easier to create tables in text.

iA Writer’s other big change is there is a new duospace font. Since the software first arrived there has been no choice other than a standard monospace, typewriter-style font. Now you can choose monospace or duospace.

This sounds like a big deal. In many ways it is. And yet, you’d hardly notice it. I knew I had set the new font in my preferences after downloading the update, but had to go back a moment ago to check I was using it. That’s how subtle it is.

Indeed, while typing away you hardly notice any of the improvements in the last seven years and five versions of iA Writer. That’s the whole point of a minimalist application.

You can find iA Writer 5 in the app stores or visit the company’s website.

Review: LibreOffice 5.2 — solid, unpolished alternative

LibreOffice 5.2, the free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office gets the job done. Yet there are compromises.

At a glance

For: Free. Open source. Feature rich. Runs on old hardware. Can open most document formats.
Against: Not as polished as paid-for alternatives. Lacks cloud integration. Inconsistent user interface.
Maybe: Comes with graphics app, equation editor and database. No Outlook-like mail client.
Verdict: All the power of Microsoft Office without the price tag or the polish.

What is LibreOffice?

LibreOffice 5.2 is an office suite that rivals Microsoft Office yet costs nothing. There are versions for Windows, OS X and Linux along with a portable edition that works from a USB drive.

If you’re on a tight budget and have a Windows PC, LibreOffice is by far the best alternative to Office. It is more complete than Google Apps and leaves Apache OpenOffice for dead.

OS X users have a good alternative free option. Apple’s iWorks suite is free with new Macs. Even so, you might prefer LibreOffice because it has better Microsoft Office compatibility.

LibreOffice looks and feels more like Microsoft Office than iWorks. If you know Microsoft Office, moving to LibreOffice will be less of a wrench. It also includes a database unlike either the OS X version of Microsoft Office or iWorks. If you need a simple database and have no budget, LibreOffice would be ideal.

Some Linux distributions include LibreOffice either as standard or as an optional download. It’s a more straightforward choice than using a tool like Wine to run Microsoft Office.

Free alternative

Because LibreOffice is open source there is no business model behind the software. You can donate — money and Bitcoin accepted — on the download page, but this is optional.

Other “free” software suites often extract a price from you in subtle ways. You may have to pay to unlock key functionality. With Google Docs, you agree to accept advertising and being a data collection source.

iWorks is free, but only when you spend well over $1000 on an Apple computer. That’s stretching the meaning of free. Some other free apps extract money from you later. There’s none of this with LibreOffice.

A full office suite

LibreOffice is among the most complete office suites, free or not. It includes more apps, functionality and features than every free alternative. LibreOffice almost matches the most popular paid version of Microsoft Office 365.

It doesn’t include a mail client like Outlook and there’s nothing like OneNote. That’s hardly an issue as there are good free alternatives from other sources.

When you download LibreOffice, you get all the apps in one package. There’s no piecemeal adding of components. Installation is straightforward. Office 365 installs components as separate apps. There is only a single LibreOffice entry point.

Writer:

Office suites include plenty of tools, but the word processor is fundamental. It’s the app everyone uses sooner or later.

Most people considering LibreOffice wonder about Writer’s compatibility with other word processors. It’s an understandable concern, but if anything, it’s misplaced. Writer is compatible with almost every popular word processor format. It reads everything. There are more converters than Microsoft Office including obscure and forgotten formats.

The other misunderstanding is that Writer doesn’t have all the features found in Word. Again, a misplaced concern. Few users come close to scratching Word’s surface. If there is a function missing in LibreOffice Writer, it is something almost no-one uses.

Clutter

While there’s nothing missing in Writer, the user interface isn’t as elegant as Word’s. It still looks old-fashioned in comparison.

Or perhaps we should say it looks desktop Linux-like.

Both Windows and OS X have made huge strides in their user interfaces over the past decade or so. The focus is on productivity and getting distractions out-of-the-way. Most Linux apps still have long menus. Sometimes nested menus. At times finding commands is hard until they become familiar.

Writer’s display shows clutter around the edge of the document. There is a top display of icons and a sidebar. There seem to be more menu items than in Word. The interface is busy. Perhaps too busy.

LibreOffice far from minimal

With Word you can hide almost everything to have clean, minimal workspace. That’s not the case with Writer. Not everyone prefers minimal displays. If you feel they help your productivity, you might do better elsewhere.

No doubt Linux fans reading this will wonder what the fuss is about. The technical ones will be more concerned about feature sets, more willing to learn and, well, more engaged with their software. They may think things are fine the way they are.

Yet if LibreOffice is to break out of this niche then it needs to improve in the UI department. Until that happens, everyday users are going to feel more comfortable with Microsoft Office. If LibreOffice doesn’t want to break out of the Linux niche, that’s fine too. There is a demand for its approach.

Calc

Every usability point made about Writer applies to LibreOffice’s spreadsheet. There is the same clutter. And the same functional richness. Excel fans and power users may find favourite features are missing. Yet Calc has all the necessary functions for most people’s needs.

While you can drop any Word document into Writer and know you’ll be able to work, that’s not true with Excel and Calc. There are small incompatibilities. A Word user can be productive in Writer straight away. An Excel user will take time adjusting to Calc and some won’t like the experience.

That said Calc is complete. It handles large, complex spreadsheets with ease.

Impress

Impress follows the pattern of Writer and Calc: plenty of functionality, the same screen clutter. Like Calc and Excel, loading complex Powerpoint files into Impress can disappoint. In testing it struggled with some Microsoft fonts. There are workarounds, but newcomers to LibreOffice may find this frustrating.

Base

Like Microsoft Office for Windows, LibreOffice includes a database. Base compares well with Access. Again, the user interface is not as polished. In performance terms the two are similar, experienced Access users could start working on Base projects immediately.

One reasons a Mac user might want LibreOffice is to run databases. Microsoft does not include Access in the OS X edition of Office 365.

While Microsoft Access has a proprietary feel, it integrates well with other Microsoft products. Base seems closer to open source databases like MySQL. It also appears to be a good, free way of getting into basic database development.

LibreOffice also includes Math an equation editor and Draw a graphics app. There is no Microsoft Outlook-like mail client. That’s not likely to bother most LibreOffice users. If you need a heavy-duty mail client, you should look elsewhere.

User interface

For years the user interface has been LibreOffice’s weak spot. Microsoft ironed out the inconsistencies in Office a decade ago. LibreOffice’s developers say the latest 5.2 version has brought interface improvements. But there are still places where things don’t work as you might expect.

This is clear the moment you open LibreOffice. The first screen you see is something called the StartCenter. Thumbnails of recent documents appear in the main windows and a list of folders and app icons appear in a left-hand column.

Click on Writer, Calc or any of the first five create document icons and a blank new document opens. Click on the sixth, for a Base database, and a wizard opens.

This may make perfect sense, but it’s not a consistent user interface. Close the document you’ve just created and the Startcenter is no longer there, you have to open it again from the main menu.

Missing polish

None of this is terrible. You’ll get by just fine. Yet it illustrates just what you pay for when you subscribe to Microsoft Office 365: you get polish.

That polish may feel cosmetic. Some readers may dismiss it as unimportant, but it’s the polish that makes many everyday users who spend a lot of time with office software more productive. It makes less confident users feel comfortable. Yet, many LibreOffice users will never notice.

There are some other odd or less than perfect behaviours. On a Mac, OS X will add LibreOffice as an option to the Open With menus. So you can right-click on, say, a text file in the Finder and open it in LibreOffice. Except it takes a long, long time to open. This happens regardless of the file format you’re opening. It seems the operating system is opening a new instance of the entire LibreOffice app.

Nothing to lose

Despite a handful of annoyances, LibreOffice has all the features most people are likely to need from an office suite and then some. The few missing features are for specialists.

It may lack surface polish, but under the hood the code seems solid and reliable. Performance is, on the whole, good too. There are annoyances, but not many and given the price, it would be churlish to complain.

If you don’t like Microsoft Office, are strapped for cash or have a philosophical objection to commercial software, LibreOffice won’t disappoint.

Typing on a glass keyboard

screen keyboard

David Sparks writes about writing with iPad screen keyboards after years of touch typing. Much of what he says resonates:

“It started with the iPad Air. On that machine I got quite good at thumb typing in portrait mode. It’s nothing like touch typing but still pretty great to sit on an airplane and thumb my way through an outline or a pile of email.”

Like Sparks, I started with light thumb-typing on my iPad 2. Nothing more than tweets and simple return email one-liners. When the lighter, slightly smaller iPad Air arrived I graduated to thumb-typing for longer stretches.

Using a real keyboard with an iPad

For anything more than a paragraph, I needed a physical keyboard. At least I thought so. Either I’d attach one of the many sample keyboards people had sent me to the iPad Air or I’d use the MacBook keyboard.

Sparks goes on:

“Speaking of airplanes, I recently took a flight where I was seated right between the window and a big guy that made pulling down the tray and using my iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard cover impossible.

“I had four hours on that plane and was determined not to thrown in the towel. So I placed the iPad on my lap and started typing. I then went into one of those hypnotic work-states that I often feel on airplanes and before I knew it the pilot announced we were about to land.”

This echoes my first serious glass typing session. I was on a plane. While crammed in economy I tapped out an entire feature on the iPad Air screen keyboard. Like Sparks I hit the writing zone and tapped into a familiar well of productivity but in an unfamiliar setting.

Phoning it in

Something similar happened with an iPhone 6 Plus. Although it worked at a pinch, the iPad is a far better writing device, even in a cramped space.

Unlike Sparks who found himself writing on screen with the larger iPad Pro, my typing-on-glass-while-flying epiphany was thumb-typing on an iPad Air held in the portrait position.

I’ve used the 12.9-inch iPad Pro in the way Sparks describes. It works for me. At a pinch I can also do the same on the 9.7-inch iPad if I lay it flat in the landscape orientation and use the larger size keyboard.

Trains and boats and planes

Yet, I’ve become so adept at portrait orientation thumb-typing, it’s now my preferred way of working on an iPad. I find it is perfect for planes. I’ve done the same on railway journeys, the Birkenhead-to-Auckland ferry and, less successful, while riding in an airport bus.

It works for me in airport lounges, cafes and even when I’m sitting in an office reception before a meeting or in a quiet room at a conference. Sometimes I’ll write this way sitting at home on the sofa. When I was recently in bed with ’flu, I managed to type a long-form newspaper feature this way.

I wouldn’t say it trumps writing on the MacBook Air using a full typewriter keyboard, but it isn’t far behind. By the way, I’m writing this blog post using the thumb and portrait mode technique on my 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The iPad keyboards are gathering dust.

Natural born killer technique

Writing this way on the iPad or iPad Pro now feels natural. At first thumb-typing was slow. Now I’m almost as fast as on a real keyboard. I’m a long-time touch typist, so my speeds there are good. Achieving something close on a glass keyboard surprised me.

Typing on the iPad screen is more, not less, accurate. The iPad’s built-in spell checker almost never comes into play. I’ve no idea why I mistype less characters on the glass screen, but it’s real.

Another observation. As a touch typist, I don’t look at the typewriter keys when writing. My focus is on the screen. When thumb typing on glass, I do look at the keyboard. The distance from the on-screen keyboard to the text is only a few millimetres, so I can check my output as I go.

Application independent

iPad thumb-typing works well with all writing apps. I wrote this blog post using Byword, now my favourite writing tool. I could equally have chosen Microsoft Word. Pages or iA Writer. They all work just fine.

In his post, Sparks says he still has pain points:

“Text selection is still far easier for me using a keyboard. Also, typing on glass at least once a day my finger accidentally hits the keyboard switch button which brings my work to a screeching halt. On that note if I were in charge, I’d make the keyboard selection button something where you had to press and hold to switch between keyboards.”

From manual typewriter to glass keyboard

I don’t have either of Sparks’ problems. I almost never use text selection during writing. I learnt to type on manual, paper-based typewriters. That means I’m disciplined about not constantly moving blocks of text.

My technique is to write, almost as a stream of consciousness. Years of experience mean I can structure a story in my head before starting. I write, then walk away for a breather before returning to edit the words. This, by the way, is a good technique. Unless you are pressed for time, do something else before self-editing.

I’ve not had Sparks’ problems hitting the wrong keys on the iPad screen keyboard. This surprises me, the individual keys on a 9.7-inch iPad screen in portrait mode are tiny, just a few millimeters square. And yet I rarely mistype.

There are no pain points for me. I’m more than ready to give up attaching a keyboard to the smaller iPad Pro. It’s reached the point where I can now attend a press conference or interview armed with nothing but an iPad and come away with clean copy.

For me, the iPad screen keyboard is a productivity boost. The story you’re reading now is around a thousand words long. I wrote the first draft on my iPad in relative comfort in about 45 minutes. I doubt I could do better on the MacBook with a full keyboard.