Why Ernest Hemingway Would Have Loved the iPad

Why Ernest Hemingway Would Have Loved the iPad

Remember when people used to say that the iPad was a “content consumption device” useless for real “content creation”?

It’s a weird thing to say about a gadget offering a gazillion content-creation apps, but people said it. People still say it.

Pundits and writers say the iPad sucks for “real work” in general and writing in particular. I have come to believe the opposite: To me, the iPad is the best writing tool I’ve ever used.

And I think Ernest Hemingway would agree. 

What Is Writing, Anyway? 

Writing is organized thought recorded with language symbols.

Writing is both an act and a craft. As an act, writing happens any time you scribble or type words. A shopping list requires the act of writing but not the craft.

As a craft, writing involves a lot of activities beyond the act of writing: Thinking, for example, as well as reading and engaging in conversations. But mostly thinking. Writing takes place less on a screen and more in the mind. That’s why mental state is so important to a writer.

A Moveable Craft

In his memoirs of life as a starving writer in 1920s Paris called A Moveable Feast, Hemingway returns again and again to the craft of writing.

He writes less about style and grammar and structure, and more about which cafes to write at (the Closerie de Lilas was such a good place to write that it was worth the risk of interruption by acquaintances), what to drink while writing (café crème) and when to write about a place (after you’ve left).

He obsesses, as many writers do, over which circumstances help the mind write well.

In the 20s, writers like Hemingway wrote and re-wrote and edited and revised with paper and pen, then banged out the final draft with a manual typewriter.

For initial drafts written outside the home, in fact, writing on paper was the only real option. So the art of getting into the right mindset to write was mostly environmental — when and where to write — and metabolic — what to eat and drink.

The Fun Also Rises

Nowadays, our options for writing tools are many. We can write longhand on paper or a tablet with a stylus. We can write with a laptop, netbook or desktop. We can choose from a range of platform and application combinations from the most complex (Microsoft Word for Windows) to the simplest (iA Writer for iPad).

Ten years ago, most writers used a desktop PC or Mac running Word. Nowadays, most use Word on a laptop, which frees the writer to work outside the home. Writers often choose laptops even though they have smaller screens because they’re “moveable.” And that’s an advantage because it offers more options for environment.

People used to say the iPad was lousy for writing because it lacked a built-in physical keyboard. I think most people have since learned that Apple’s regular Bluetooth keyboard works great with the iPad.

Now you hear that the iPad is no good for writing because you can’t place source or reference material side-by-side with a word processor as you can do on with a desktop or laptop PC. Never mind that plenty of iPad apps exist (PaperHelper, for example) that place word processor and web browser side-by-side.

I suspect that most anti-iPad writers are just stuck in their old way of doing things and present their inflexibility as wisdom. And they’re focusing on the wrong set of problems.

What is the biggest obstacle to good writing? It’s probably not the difficulty of accessing source information. I mean, how many documents can you read at the same time? How advantageous is it to be able to refer to things by turning your neck rather than switching to another app?

I think most writers would agree that the Mother of All Barriers to writing is the world of distractions generally. That was true even for Hemingway, and he didn’t have to struggle with the lure of social networking, online gaming, e-mail, pop-up chat and YouTube videos.

Just like in Hemingway’s Paris, there is fun stuff all around us. Except now it’s much quicker and easier to get to and there’s a lot more of it.

This is one reason why the iPad is such a great writing tool: Because apps are full-screen, it narrows your gaze.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my 27-inch iMac. If Apple sold a bigger one, I’d buy it. But when I’m in writing mode, all that space works against me. I’m trying to focus. I don’t need a universe of distractions dangled in front of me like some kind of sadistic NASA astronaut stress test.

I think Hemingway had it just right: The best environment for writing is a cafe where you don’t know anybody and you can be alone with your words and a café crème. And a clean, well-lighted interface.

Yes, I know: You can full-screen any word processor on a laptop and even write in some kind of minimalist mode that many applications offer. But it’s just not the same.

A Farewell to Distractions

Leaving a laptop behind and using an iPad is the writing tool equivalent to leaving the house or office and going to a coffee shop. There’s less “stuff” there to pull your attention away, to temp you into losing focus.

The iPad is the best writing tool because it puts you into the best frame of mind for writing. At least that’s been my experience.

And the new iPad is best of all. The improved appearance of typefaces on the iPad’s Retina screen creates a subtle psychological effect conducive to clarity of mind. And I absolutely love that Apple Bluetooth keyboard, even more than the USB keyboard that came with my iMac.

Look, I would never tell another writer how to write or what tools to use. But I would suggest a consideration for the primacy of mental state in that decision.

Don’t tell me you need a supercomputer with a giant screen to write well. Shakespeare wrote all his works with a sharpened feather. What you need above all is whatever tool frees your brain to think.

And to me, that tool is the iPad.

  • baby_Twitty

    Ernest Hemmingway is a gem! His short novel ‘Oldman and the sea’ is a masterpiece and one of my favorite reads!!!

  • bfred_it

    You’re talking about writing. A piece of paper and a pencil are suitable for writing.

    Exactly today I considered getting rid of my MacBook to try to work on my iPad instead, but… I develop websites, I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to make one on it although it would greatly slow me down, especially for its lack of multi-windows and its awful text editing features (that selection video showed us how much it really sucks)
    Typing? Fine. Everything else? Consider a big time increase.
  • kimberlin

    Hey Mike, you’re right. What matters is the words; good ones and preferably in order. The best hardware gets out of my way. As for apps these days, it’s plain text for first first drafts, then Word. I love WriteMonkey. Desktop and laptop, so Dropbox is essential.

    There are days when it’s all about a table by the window in an unpretentious coffeehouse, my Moleskin and a good pen.

    I haven’t tried an iPad yet, but I have a hunch I’d like it.

    Excellent article, well written. Thanks.

  • Kendall Tawes

    I still sometimes type on an SE/30 simply for the complete lack of distractions and excellent ADB keyboard I own. Clicky like IBM model Ms but far less bulky and since the Caps Lock key is down where control usually resides I don’t start typing in caps lock by accident.

  • KurtErlenbach

    I need to write – and I write a lot – where there are no distractions, like noise or people coming and going. A Mac Mini with two big screens in my quiet office is how real work gets done. An iPad in a cafe is for doodling, Facebooking, and light blogging.

  • mr_bee

    I write a lot, and I’m usually writing a couple of novels, a couple of essays and juggling a few outlines at the same time, then I have files of ideas as plain text notes.  I switched all of this to the iPad about three months after the first one came out and never looked back.  

    Another great thing about the iPad that Mike doesn’t mention is that as long as your not addicted to MS Word, you can basically put *all* your writing on the iPad and carry it with you wherever you go.  The documents are synced *as you write them* to the cloud and you never have to worry about losing anything ever.  If an idea occurs, you can take out the iPad, instant on, jot it down and put it away again before the person next to you can even open their laptop.  
    You can do this at the beach, the coffee shop, on the train or bus etc.  
    Absolutely the best writing tool there is IMO.  
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  • Tris Hussey

    Mike I completely agree! I’ve taking some cues from Charlie Sorrel and focused on doing a lot of my writing on my iPad and save using my Mac for the touch ups and posting.

    Since I’m lucky enough to live in Vancouver, I have almost infinite choice of cafes to try. There are six within 4 blocks of my house!
    I think people who struggle with getting writing done, really should try writing on an iPad in an new location. Maybe a sunny kitchen or the porch or a cafe (noise canceling ear buds really help) will get the words flowing.

    Of course there is also Hemingway’s own advice: “Write drunk, edit sober.”
  • Adrian Werner


    Yes, I know: You can full-screen any word processor on a laptop and even write in some kind of minimalist mode that many applications offer. But it’s just not the same.”


    Indeed. it’s not the same, because laptops actually have decent sized screens and comfortable keyboards.

    Honestly, this whole article is bassicaly “I like writting on iPad, but I’m afraid to admit I simply like it, so I will try to make a lot of convulted and ridiculous arguments just to make it all seem like more than just preference.

    Seriously, if you can’t get over distractions laptops offer (which aren’t any worse than iPad) then you lack necessary discipline to actually ever become a decent writer in the first place, so might just as well give up early and save yourself some time.

  • mr_bee

     …  laptops actually have decent sized screens and comfortable keyboards. 

     if you can’t get over distractions laptops offer (which aren’t any worse than iPad) then you lack necessary discipline to actually ever become a decent writer in the first place, so might just as well give up early and save yourself some time. 

    How relentlessly negative of you! :) 


    So a “real” writer is never distracted by things like the tools they are using?  Wow, thanks for letting me know. 

    If you want to be a real writer yourself one day you might want to avoid the excessive use you make of the word “decent” which is hardly descriptive and really just a pop-culture dodge.  No one can argue with you because whatever the heck you mean by “decent” is entirely in your own head.  

    For instance you say the iPad doesn’t have a “decent” screen like a laptop, but in fact the iPad screen is both clearer, higher resolution, and easier to read than any laptop ever made.  

    Just to throw in a Hemmingway-related curve-ball … Hemmingway wrote most of his stuff standing up, which is how I like to write as well.  On an iPad this is trivially easy and almost preferable.  It’s pretty much an impossible feat with a laptop.   :)
  • Dolly Charles

    Ernest Hemmingway is a gem! His short novel ‘Oldman and the sea’ is a masterpiece and one of my favorite reads!!!

    Yeah, I love Gary Oldman too.  One of his best roles.

  • HickmanByron

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  • jdizzl

    All you need is word… Typing on an ipad? Why not just get a real computer. Best for a writing… I agree with Kurt… 2 or more big screens for drafting and research, copy pasting, etc., real keyboard so you can type fast, i.e. 100ish or more words per minute… I also run a mac mini, but pc would work as well, doesn’t really matter.

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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