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.