Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Mobile Author, Part Five: Writing

Setting up the world's greatest mobile office, getting organized, and planning a story are of very limited value if you don't actually sit your butt in a chair and write. Only, for a mobile author, that chair could be a beach towel or a quiet corner in a cafe.

For most of the history of tablets, they were OK for writing, but not really that great. Recent advances in the tablet world have changed that. Now you can pretty much do anything writerly on a tablet, or even a phone (if you have the eyes for it), that you can do on a laptop.

As I did in the first article in this series, I highly recommend that you buy a Bluetooth keyboard if you're going to do any serious writing on a mobile device. You need real keys and something approaching full size if you're going to be typing for any extended period of time. Because there's such a wide range of keyboard styles, you'll want to find one you like at a store, if you can, even if you actually buy it online. I like my Perixx keyboard because it has full-sized keys and folds into a convenient hard-cased package that's great for a backpack or bag. And, it works with all of my devices.

You might prefer a cool keyboard case made specifically for your tablet, which essentially turns your tablet into a little laptop. Or, you might like one of the compact keyboards, trading full-sized keys for the convenience of a small package.

A keyboard is to the writer what shoes are to the runner. You want something comfortable and durable that's not going to kill your joints. If your feet hurt after typing, you're probably doing it wrong, but the hand is a delicate thing.

Once you have your keyboard, you're ready to start writing. When it comes to word processing, you have a wide range of options.

Note Apps

A note app like Evernote is great for writing early drafts. In the early stages of a project, formatting doesn't matter. Styles don't matter. All that matters is getting words on (virtual) paper. You could use one of the note apps we recommended in an earlier article, or you can download any of several distraction-free text editors that block out everything but the page. The app stores are full of note apps. Turns out that many classes that teach app programming include a notepad lesson, and many of those eventually find their way to the app stores. There's a wide range in quality and usefulness, so you'll have to find something you like. But if you followed the earlier recommendation, you already have Evernote. It's great, easy to use, and syncs everywhere.

Web Apps

There are several Web apps for writers out there. The best known (and for good reason) is Google Docs. Google Docs gives you a word processor with most of the features you'll ever need for all but the very final draft of your masterpiece. For that last draft, I still recommend Word or LibreOffice for final formatting. But when you're just writing, Google Docs is sufficient. As of April 30, Docs has become an even better option for writing. There are now apps for both iOS and Android that enable you to work in Docs right on your device, even if you are not connected to the Internet. When you connect again, your files are automatically saved online. These new apps eliminate the biggest obstacle to using Docs as your mobile writing tool, the requirement to be online.

As an added benefit, Google Docs works great for online critiques. Simply share a link to your document with your critique partners and they can easily leave their comments.

I love Google Docs. I was skeptical at first, but after I used it a few times for my day job, I recommended that my writing group start using it for online critiques. Now I use it a lot. The web interface is good, and there are apps to make it easy to use on any mobile device. One of these days, maybe I'll write a series of articles about using Google Docs and some of the cool tips I've picked up over the last couple years.

Office Suites

If you want to do some serious word processing, web apps aren't your only option. Full office suites are a growing category in the app stores.

If you have a recent version of Microsoft Office, you can use the Office app available for iPhones and Android phones. It's not yet available on tablets, though, so you'll have to go to your favorite app store to find an office app to your liking. 

A Microsoft Word file in OfficeSuite Pro 7

My favorite is OfficeSuite Pro 7 from MobiSystems. You can use OfficeSuite to create or edit Microsoft Word files. Other parts of the suite will handle your Excel and PowerPoint files. OfficeSuite integrates with several cloud services, including Google Drive, SkyDrive, and Dropbox, among others. That means you can edit files stored on those cloud services. As long as you're connected, anyway. Now, you can't really say it's fully compatible with Microsoft Office. If your document has complicated formatting, you might run into issues in OfficeSuite Pro. 

There is one other issue with this suite. It's not free, and I really love free. It is usually $14.99 on the Google Play store and the Amazon App Store, although both occasionally discount it and Amazon sometimes offers it as the Free App of the Day. On the day I'm writing this, the Apple App Store has it on sale for $1.99. But that's not the Pro version, which is, as far as I can tell, available only on Android. Fifteen clams is pretty pricey for an app, especially if you've never used it and don't know how you'll like it on your device, but it's not much to pay for an office suite that you'll use just about every day. On May 21, they released a free version that is missing a few less-essential features and includes ads, but it's a nice way to test it out before you buy.

There are several similar suites available in the app stores. I'm not as familiar with the offerings in the Apple App Store, so I don't want to sound like I'm recommending any of them. iPad users I know use Pages ($9.99 in the App Store), and seem happy with it. But on Android, I've played around a little with a few free apps, and they work, although I like OfficeSuite Pro for its syncing and its interface.

One popular free suite that's really pretty good is Kingsoft Office. It too can sync with popular online services and provides good editing tools on Android. Kingsoft has recently been released for iOS, but as of this writing it can only open and read Word files, not edit them.

Other free suites worth trying on Android are Google Quickoffice, Olive Office Premium, and Polaris Office. All three are also in the Apple App Store, but I haven't tried them so I can't recommend one as better than the others on that platform. 

One interesting Android App that I don't think is ready for prime time yet but is worth watching is AndrOpen Office. This is a full port of OpenOffice to Android, an idea that I love. But so far, I find it slow and awkward to use. It's promising, but to be worth considering as a daily writing tool, an all-new tablet-oriented user interface would be nice, rather than simply bringing the OpenOffice interface over to Android. This app is being updated, so it might become a better choice in the future.

To summarize this important category, I recommend OfficeSuite Pro for Android and Pages for iOS. But workable free options are available, at least for Android.

Next Step

Once you've written and revised your masterpiece, it's time to submit it to agents and editors. Next time, we'll look at using your mobile office to track your submissions.

The Mobile Author, Part Six: Submissions
The Mobile Author, Part Seven: Managing Your Writing Life

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