Best Apps for Academic Writing on the iPad

This year has seen significant changes to the iPad. Changes have either explicitly relevant to education users, or favourable by virtue of the way developments to both hardware and software suit the various use cases for students, teachers, and researchers alike. With the upcoming release of iOS 11 about to address a number of long-standing usability issues, the iPad is becoming a serious choice for getting your college work done.

I find the inane arguments that do the rounds pitting the iPad against the Mac, or PC, to be mostly pointless. But, to the question of whether or not you can now use the iPad as your primary device for your college or university work, the answer is a resounding of course you can. In fact, in a lot of ways the interaction model and user experience of working on an iPad is not only a good choice for some people, but the best choice. For one, although there has been a quiet evolution of multitasking on iOS, the iPad remains a uniquely focused device for singular tasks. The advantage to such a focused user experience is an especially obvious when it comes to writing. Given that so much of the academic work is writing, embracing a device that, in its design, has a tendency to encourage less distraction can only help.

I would go further, however, to say that the iPad is uniquely enjoyable as a writing device, and continues to improve in this regard all the time. It has seemed obvious for some time that the tablet is an ideal form factor for other academic tasks – namely note-taking and presentation – but if you haven’t yet used it for serious writing, there is no time like the present. With that in mind, I thought I could offer a leg up on the best apps to use for writing on the iPad.

Word processors

These days I prefer not to work in a standard word processor, but that doesn’t mean I can avoid them altogether. Access to all the usual suspects for word processing is just as good on the iPad, if not better in some cases. Microsoft Word, to my mind, has always been a bloated mess that I can’t get far enough away from. Fortunately, if you absolutely have no choice but to use it, the necessity of paring it down for iOS has resulted in an infinitely more useable piece of software. Although, if you do feel you have to stick with a standard word processor, then you are probably better of sticking with Apple’s own Pages. Not only is Pages compatible with Word, it has all the advantages that come with being a native app. Pages has also had some intriguing updates lately, adding LaTex support for mathematical equations for example.

Beyond Word and Pages, there is always Google Docs, which has admittedly improved on iOS since the inclusion of multitasking support. Google has also sown up deals with universities everywhere, which often means unlimited file storage is available. While Apple has started adding collaboration support to their iWork apps, Google Docs remains the standard bearer for simple collaboration.

If you are looking for something different in a word processor, Mellel is developed with features specifically designed for academic work. Most of these things exist in other word processors, but Mellel has made them design features. This means the document outline, footnotes, bibliography and so on, are part of the workflow rather than an afterthought. As I cover below, I do my own long form writing in Scrivener these days, but Mellel is a solid choice for anybody looking to break away from the big names while keeping with a classic word processor.

Markdown Apps

A large amount of the writing I do is in Markdown these days. I briefly outlined a case for why I think that is a good idea for note-taking here, but the portability and future-proofing are just as relevant to all forms of writing. If you're not already writing in Markdown, this is not the kind of article that will persuade you to start. If you are already a Markdown convert, you are well served by the text editors available on iOS. As for my preferred app, I have a couple.

Ulysses iPad Writing
Ulysses remains the most obvious choice for most new users of Markdown

I have already praised Ulysses a couple of times here.  It is one of the best writing apps available period, so ideal for writing essays and research papers. Ulysses is an excellent combination of a lean and distraction free text editor with a more integrated writing tool. It includes subtle features to bridge the gap between rich text and plain text writing. Along with built-in tutorials, this also makes it ideal for coaching new users into using Markdown. The syncing between Mac and iPad is seamless. The universal app on iOS also means that should you wish to indulge in note-taking, or even more detailed writing on your iPhone, your text will all end up in the same place.

Ulysses has also embraced iOS automation. Integration with Workflow has essentially made the app extensible, allowing users to adapt their own automations for getting text in and out of the app. I am mot the most proficient Workflow creator, but I have managed to hack together some simple workflows that allow me to gather and annotate links for posting to this site. For example, throughout the week I gather links for the regular Week Links post. I store them in Drafts as I collect them, but that is idiosyncratic, you can go straight to Ulysses if you would prefer. You can download a copy of the workflow here, if you want to see how it works. At the end of the week, I process the document from Drafts to Ulysses using this Workflow . Granted, these are workflows specifically for web writing, but there is no reason you cannot adapt them for academic needs. Workflow can do practically anything, provided your imagination and patience can drive it to do so. Formatting citations, for example. This is something I intend to come back to in detail, very soon.

If you write for the web, Ulysses has publishing integration for WordPress and Medium. This feature alone has been enough to pique my attention, and start tempting me away from Editorial, a long time favourite on iOS. These are all great things to have in an iOS tech editor, but the real power of Ulysses  is in its capacity to organise text on the fly. Breaking down sections, merging them and moving them around is factored into the DNA of the app. What you end up with is an app that has all the elegance of a minimal text editor with the extremely clever ability to manage serious writing projects.

Best Writing Apps iPad
iA Writer's elegant, minimalist design

As an alternative to Ulysses, if you want something even more minimalist, an app I have always liked is iA Writer . An example of opinionated design, iA Writer provides a wonderfully spartan, and focused writing environment. The app is the product of two things. First, an obsessive attention to detail in responsive typography. And second, the design principle that form follow content. The result is an app that remains deceptively powerful, while getting out of the way of the writing process. Right down to the inclusion of content blocks for managing embedded media. It was iA Writer on the Mac that first converted me to Markdown. The iOS app is not only faithful to the look and feel of the desktop app, but a pleasure to use on the iPad. As more and  more apps smuggle in price rises as they push into the world of subscriptions, the contrast in value is stark with an app like iA Writer that you pay for once.

Next Level Automation

Despite my enthusiasm for these other apps, as I mentioned above, most of the writing I do on the iPad is in Editorial. The main reason is that Editorial includes powerful workflow automation through its Python engine. Not only can I automate a number of tasks, but I can manage citations from a plain text bibliography file. This is something that Workflow could handle with Ulysses, but ultimately Editorial's Python capabilities are even more powerful. The details of how I mange that are something for a later post, but if you have an inkling of what I am referring to, you can do much worse than pick up a copy of Editorial. Despite my enthusiasm for these other apps, as I mentioned above, most of the writing I do on the iPad is in Editorial. The main reason is that Editorial includes powerful workflow automation through its Python engine. Not only can I automate a number of tasks, but I can manage citations from a plain text bibliography file. This is something that Workflow could handle with Ulysses, but ultimately Editorial's Python capabilities are even more powerful. The details of how I mange that are something for a later post, but if you have an inkling of what I am referring to, you can do much worse than pick up a copy of Editorial.
If anything, managing citations is major halting point for academic writing on the iPad — unless you do it manually, like an animal. It is easy enough to hack your way around it for shorter works, but the more in depth the referencing required, the more tricky it becomes. Most, if not all of the major referencing management  conceive of the iPad as a companion device. At best this means apps are designed for reading and annotation, and not for referencing per se. I currently use Papers, which is fine app on the Mac, but is bereft of options on iOS. Luckily, the one thing it can do is export a citekey, and Editorial can do the rest.

Best iPad Text Editors

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. If you are interested in how long the list of iOS text editors has become, take a look at Brett Terpstra's iTextEditors project. Quantity is clearly no obstacle. Quality is another matter. I have put some stock in both design and automation as delimiters. On that basis, 1Writer is the final app I will mention in this category. 1Writer is another well designed app with its own automation engine. If you have any JavaScript chops, you can bend it to your will.

Scrivener for Long Form

Finally, this brings me to Scrivener. If you are working on any kind of long form writing, there is really nothing like it. I mentioned the way that Ulysses can cleverly organise text above. While that is true, it does meet with some limits were complex projects are concerned. I put this down to a consequence of maintaining some of the strengths of that app, adding certain features would interrupt its design.

Best iOS Writing Apps Thesis

Scrivener on the other hand, is a kind of self-contained writing studio.  It has unparalleled features for organising long-form writing projects, including the gathering of research materials and a plethora of tools for mapping, contextualising, and annotating text.  Originally developed for novelists, Scrivener has also steadily gained an academic user base of both students and researchers. As far as I can tell, the only people not using it for manuscript work either haven’t heard of it, or haven’t given it sufficient time to grasp its incredible usefulness.

If you are working on a dissertation or thesis, or a book of any kind, then you will be hard pressed to find a better tool. Although designed for longer work, that doesn’t preclude its usefulness for other kinds of writing. As you can probably tell, I have a penchant for separating writing tasks in specific tools, but I wouldn't advocate indulging in that kind of madness if you can help it. Scrivener excels at any kind of text that requires organisation but it is also on the surface of it a text editor. You can use it to write what you like.

As for using it on iOS. While it started life as desktop only software, the iPad version has near feature parity now. In fact,  it was selected among the App Store best of 2016. Again, this is something I have in mind to cover in significant detail here, time willing.