Writing on the iPad Just Gets Better

Did you see the post I published last week on Guernica’s interview with Mary Gaitskill? It was an experiment.

My favourite posts on this site are the long ones, the detailed examinations of a topic. But given that life happens, I don’t always have time for two-thousand-word essays, and I dislike the blog being silent for very long.

So I wanted to create a quick method of writing new “link” blog posts, quick comments on an article or webpage. This wasn’t to help me produce a dozen posts a day, but rather to remove some of the mental friction that goes into posting.

I’m discovering new writing-related things all the time, but I rarely post them here, because to do so requires that I find a relevant image, pick a category, navigate the WordPress system. If you compare the creation of a blog post to the creation of a status update on Facebook, the former requires a lot more mental work.

This friction starts to seem like a bad thing when it keeps me from posting. And if it’s a problem for professional journalists, it’s clearly an issue for a part-time blogger like myself.

So, using a lot of help from other iPad productivity types, I created a workflow, via the iOS app Workflow, to reduce as many steps as possible. It works equally well for iPad and iPhone. Click the image, below, to download it.

The workflow -- extension post
The workflow allows you to create a new WordPress post that quotes and comments on any webpage in Safari. Once the workflow is installed, you simply need to highlight the text you want to quote (selecting is enough: you don’t need to copy it), and run the workflow as an action extension.

The workflow then creates a post with the text you highlighted as a block quote, gives you a textbox in which you can write your comment, concludes the post with a link to the original article, and gives you a choice of images from the article to use as your post’s header image.

If the image is very big, the workflow reduces its width to 800 pixels. I hate grainy images, so the workflow does not enlarge small images, but I might change that later (a thumbnail image picked up by the workflow will still be a thumbnail in your post).

In the interest of speed, the workflow also titles your post with the linked article’s title and gives you a choice of only three categories to choose from (I picked my most frequent three).

In the interest of safety, the workflow defaults to a “draft” setting (to give you the chance to double check the post before it goes up), but it ends by sending you to the WordPress iOS app for any extra editing and scheduling — and, if you want to add any more links, it also takes the precaution of copying the original article’s address to the clipboard, ready to be pasted in.

Now, you will notice, if you download the workflow, that it is effectively stealing and posting an image from the original article. I personally would only use it for generic images, publicity material, and so on. The workflow does turn that image into a link back to the original article, and perhaps this counts as an image credit of sorts.

Because of these concerns, the workflow includes the option prompt to not use a picture, so you can cancel that part of the process if you realise you can’t get anything suitable from the workflow’s automated scan.

So. You arrive on a webpage and want to blog about it. You highlight some text, run the workflow, write your comment in the text box, pick your image from the list, pick your category, and the post goes to your blog, ready to be edited and posted.

It’s five quick easy steps from web page to post.

Writing on the iPad

To me, this sort of functionality nicely describes the benefits, and also the drawbacks, of using iOS over a traditional desktop or laptop computer.

The truth is, I haven’t logged on to my desktop computer in quite some time. My iPad Pro is my primary computer for almost everything I do. There are some things that I simply cannot do on an iPad; there are some things that probably don’t work as well as on a desktop.

Against these limitations, however, the iPad’s operating system, its software “philosophy,” and its approach to multi-tasking are just so much more elegant and streamlined, so much more conducive to how I work.

Whenever I do use the home desktop or my wife’s laptop, I’m unpleasantly reminded of the need to manage a bunch of windows, to check what is saved and what is not. I’m required to not be distracted by the mass of programs gathered in the dock and the menu bar, as well as the windows peeking out from under the app I’m actually using.

I mean, it’s not a huge problem. I’m not such a fragile flower that I can’t use a laptop. And, indeed, often the best apps on an iPad require a bit of work to set them up right. iOS productivity apps are often more complex to start using than Mac apps. As shown above, using the best iPad productivity apps like Workflow or Drafts take a fair amount of fiddling to set up. Workflow, for all its brilliance, becomes a little unwieldy when a particular workflow gains too many stages: one finds oneself spending way too much time adding more “select variable” and “get variable” actions. The drag and drop interface quickly gets cumbersome after the tenth action.

(If the Workflow or MacStories team is reading this: how about a keyboard shortcut to insert a fresh “set variable” or “get variable” action into the current workflow?)

To use an iPad to its fullest powers, you pretty much need to have all your work files saved on Dropbox, need to understand action extensions and document providers thoroughly, need to teach yourself a little Javascript to set up the Drafts custom keyboard, learn Workflow’s visual coding logic, and probably need a few “helper” apps like Linky, Transmit and so on. This is not a small amount of preparation.

Now, there are tasks still impossible on iOS —

  1. “full” photoshop
  2. desktop publishing
  3. coding
  4. multi-input sound recording

I would be surprised, however, if by the time iOS 10 comes out in the autumn, all of those four problem areas were still standing. If, tomorrow, someone released an iOS version of Adobe InDesign, and Apple were to enable better sound recording, I might well move the house desktop out of my office.

And there are a number of areas where the iPad is already better, where the software seems far more advanced. An app like Linky, for instance, which helps you create better tweets and facebook posts, once it’s set up (and this is kind of a fiddle), is a remarkable tool. 

Microsoft’s email app, Outlook, is just such a clean, well-constructed app. It helps you focus on the key messages in your inbox, and it provides easy access to your files and received attachments: it just seems years ahead of the Outlook app for the Mac.

Another example: the way that the iOS task management app 2do integrates with one’s inbox is just genius. I have set up Outlook on my iPad so that, looking at my inbox, I just need to swipe an email right, and it automatically appears in my to-do list.

Have a look at the Canvas podcast for detailed advice on using an iPad for one’s work. Probably you can do more on an iPad than you realise. One of the hosts, Fraser Speirs, is a teacher, school supervisor, public speaker, and network administrator: if he can do all his work with just one iPad, it’s likely a lot of other people can.

See the amazing Viticci’s essays, too, for more tips.

(Games, sadly, are still pretty poor on iOS: most of the ones I want to play are simply not available for iPad. This seems to be the result of bad policy from Apple, rather than any limitation of the hardware: the best games are developed for other platforms and don’t always make it over.)

For writing my novel and my academic papers, I rely on Omni Outliner to plan the story, Ulysses to create the actual text, and I shift over to Word for the final, readable version. At every stage, everything is backed up to the cloud in real time.

Ulysses is the iOS app for writing longform. It seems so far ahead of all competitors that it’s not even fair. Even if Scrivener finally makes it to the iPad, I worry that the platform’s ship has sailed.

Ulysses’s central power is that it allows you to compose a novel or long essay in smaller chunks — whether that’s scenes or chapters — and compile the whole thing as one file when you are ready to share it with someone. For my current novel draft, I have been composing each chapter in a separate “sheet,” and when I get to the end of that chapter, I type four dashes to make a page break, so that when I export the file to Word, each chapter begins on a new page.

Yesterday, Workflow announced some very exciting capacities for Ulysses. I’ll describe them as soon as I can get a good workflow written. Additionally, the current Ulysses beta is testing posting to WordPress: I haven’t used the functionality so much, because I still prefer Drafts for blog writing.

Unlike novel writing, blogging relies much more on the use of repeated actions and pre-set text: what slows you down is not the typing, but the finding of images, adding HTML, formatting the post and so on. I use Drafts to do some of that work for me.

I noticed, for instance, that when I write blog posts, I tend to refer to a few key posts over and over, and it’s annoying to have to track down their addresses each time I want to link to them. I created a custom keyboard button called “Frequent Blog Links,” which pulls up a menu of often-referred-to links, and copies to the clipboard whichever post I select.

I’ve also downloaded from the directory a custom key that inserts copied web addresses as links, and a key that launches my image uploading workflow.

I also have a whole list of text actions set up, but I don’t use all of them as much as I probably should.

It’s a pretty great set up.

What do you think?

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