Research Workflow with an iPad: Writing 3/3

This is the final instalment detailing my research workflow using an iPad. Previous posts dealt with reading and research/bibliographic database. This post deals with writing workflow.

Digital Preservation

Over the past year I have become more concerned with digital preservation. A couple times within the last year I have tried to open something I wrote 10–15 years ago, only to find the files were in a format that I could not open or could only open with some difficulty (RIP Wordperfect!). If all goes well, I plan to be in the same career area for the next 30 years or so, and I want to make sure that I can always access everything I have written. I have made the choice to use plain text as my main file format for everything I do. If I need to work in another program, I make sure that I can export my work into plain text. Why plain text? Simply put, it is hard to imagine computers without it and the files contain no extra ‘junk’ (ever opened a Word file in a text editor?). However, the humanities still rely heavily upon Microsoft Word, so any workflow needs to take that into consideration. In the past year or so I have done my writing primarily on an iPad. I have written several conference presentations, a book chapter, and edited (still editing!) a book manuscript (my Music and Ethical Responsibility, coming out with Cambridge University Press next year). I will go through details in the sections below, but first, here is a list of the main apps I use:

  • Byword (ios and mac)
  • Pages (ios and mac)
  • Scrivener (mac)


Writing on an iPad only works with a decent keyboard. I primarily use an Apple bluetooth keyboard, simply because it is what I use on the computer and I am used to it. I sometimes set up using the Incase Origami case/stand, but sometimes I set up my iPad higher on the desk for better ergonomics. For this post (which I am partly writing on the plane) I am using the Logitech ultrathin keyboard cover, which works fine but has smaller keys. I like the distraction-free setup of writing on an iPad. I usually leave issues of formatting and cleaning up references until the text is complete, as a computer much better suited for these tasks. In the following sections I go through my workflows for three different types of projects: a conference paper, a book chapter / article, and a book manuscript.

Conference Paper

Conference papers are usually under 4000 words, and (depending on the topic) I often write them in a few sittings and edit them in a few more sittings. I do not print presentations anymore and instead present from the iPad. It has really lightened my paper load, which I find helpful.

I write conference papers in plain text using markdown. Markdown is easy to learn (I’ve written this post in markdown and have written both a book chapter and several conference paper with it). With multimarkdown you can also include footnotes. I generate a bibliography with Bookends and insert them into the file.

I use Byword for writing in plain text on Mac and iOS devices. Byword has some clever things to help with writing in markdown, and has worked very well for me. It syncs nicely with Dropbox. If you want, you can set up Byword to sync to the same folder in Dropbox that nvalt also monitors. However, there are many other great plain text editors out there (I also like plaintext for iOS. This process ensures I can write from anywhere, and means there are backups of my work in several places. I also use textexpander, which helps writing speed. For example, I write ‘phen’ and it expands to ‘phenomenology’, ‘levs’ expands to ‘Lévinas’, ‘iow’ expands to ‘In other words,’, etc. When I have completed writing, I export from Byword into the appropriate format and do any layout necessary. When presenting at a conference, I often export a PDF from Byword into Goodreader on the iPad and present from there. I also use this process on a daily basis for lecture notes.

Book Chapter /Article

Book chapters are often more complex than conference presentations. If the chapter is adapted from a conference paper, I might just edit a copy of the single plain text document. Once it has reached the final stage, I can then move it to either Pages, Word, or Open Office, do the formatting and send it off.

If writing a book chapter or article from scratch, I start in Scrivener (Mac and PC). Scrivener has lots of options and extras to work with. For example, you can collect all sorts of research into your Scrivener ‘binder’. Here I’ll just deal with the actual writing. You can outline your paper, and make each section a separate file that syncs with Dropbox and can be opened in Byword on iPad. Reordering is easy, and then each file can be 500 words or so depending upon section length, rather than having one long file. When complete, you can then render the whole thing into one Word document and send it off.

When comments and edits come back (often via Word’s ‘track changes’) you can either make the changes in Scrivener and then render the file again, or use Word or Pages (on iPad or Mac) to make edits (Pages now has redline editing and the ability to accept or reject edits. Pages for ios, however, does not support comments). Last time I wrote a first draft in Scrivener and then did all edits in Pages. I am quite new to Scrivener, so there are more Scrivener tools I still need to learn.

Book Manuscript

For my next book, I am planning to do most of the writing in Scrivener (I have already started outlining and collecting research in a project file for what may be my next book). My current book is based on my PhD thesis, which was written in one giant Word document (which I will not do again!). Since I started with one Word document, I decided to keep it as one document. I imported it into Pages, and the file syncs between iPad and Mac via iCloud. I emailed a copy to my Kindle (easier reading on the eyes), read and annotated, and then have done one full edit using Pages for iPad. I’ll repeat this process again, and then hopefully be complete! I’ll likely need to do a bit of formatting using Pages on the computer before sending it off.

I hope that this series on workflow with an iPad was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions – I am always open to finding something that works better!


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