In the last edition of Focus Sounds, I mentioned electronic music was once a form of torture for me. Much like rap music for John McClane. Of course, I knew nothing. I still do, but at least I have widened my appreciation for different music. Nowadays finding just the right electronic music is often the key to facilitating focused work. Of all the sounds I turn to for getting work done, the most productive music is electronic. Recently I have been exploring the variety of sounds in Steve Hauschildt’s back catalogue. It has turned out to be a treasure trove of music for writing, reading and anything in between.
Hauschildt’s former band, Emeralds, produced a lot of atmospheric music of their own. The band was eclectic though, so perhaps more an acquired taste for creating a working environment. Nonetheless, if you’re disposed to minimalist electronic music for concentration, Hauschildt’s work is worth exploring, whether solo or otherwise.
Subtle Differences Between Music for Reading and Writing
I have more success finding music for writing than for reading. Especially if we’re talking about the intensely focused reading for academic work. Studying a text is as different to leisure reading as race walking is to rambling. To do it right the pacing is deliberate and careful. I envy anyone who can maintain the level of concentration required with lyrical content in the background.
My only option for concentrating is instrumental music, and even then the intangibles of cadence and tone require careful selection. Emeralds is a good example. I can happily write with Just to Feel Anything in the background, but when reading, the Casiotone arpeggios and distant rasping guitar is too much for my easily heckled attention.
Hauschildt seems to have slowed the tempo since the split from the band. A couple of post Emeralds albums have quickly become some of my favourite electronic music for reading. I find that both Where All Is Fled from 2015, and Strands of the following year can shape the right kind of atmosphere.
On the other hand, the most recent album Dissolvi has been better in my experience for writing. Dissolvi is supposedly minimal techno, whatever that means. I would hesitate to call it techno — then again that word is tainted for me by all those bell bottomed trippers I couldn’t avoid in the nineties. A couple of tracks include vocalists, but they are of the instrumental kind with no lyrical content. The subtlety of Hauschildt’s compositions make that work better than I would anticipate.
If Dissolvi doesn’t work for you, Hauschildt’s been prolific since the demise of Emeralds, and the variety in his former band’s discography is worth exploring in itself.
For this edition of Focus Sounds I can’t go past another Erased Tapes artist, Despite to the connection with the previous recommendation, I couldn’t turn this one away. But, don’t let the label fool you into presuming this is more of the same. Erased Tapes’ specialty is defying genre, so this is an entirely different mood to Tag Eins Tag Zwei. The album in question is the recently released Persona, from Rival Consoles.
I know some folk prefer a relative sameness for a writing environment. I find that doesn’t work for me. Different tones are appropriate to the distinct kinds of writing I’m doing. Where certain moods need to be carried, or gently maintained, others might benefit from being interrupted. The nuances of cadence can maintain the pace, or even slow one down where necessary. Writing can be like that, and with academic work there also is the reading to consider.
Persona, the latest album from Ryan Lee West — aka Rival Consoles — is aptly reflective for kind of work I’m focused on right now. At the same time, it has the kind of insistent metre that encourages output. By West’s own admission, Persona is sonically diverse. If at times the soundscape is evocative, it isn’t overwhelmingly so. I find this characteristic of the best music for concentration. It can’t distract too much, but neither should it be utterly boring.
A criteria I stand by in selecting music for working, it has to merit listening to regardless. In other words, I want more than just background music. I’m not riding an elevator, I’m trying to create something I’m proud off. It helps to know I’m sharing the space with something thought provoking in itself, Persona is this kind of record. As the liner notes from Erased Tapes explain:
The title ‘Persona’ was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same name, specifically a shot in the opening credits of a child reaching out to touch a woman’s face on a screen, which is shifting between one face and another. This powerful image struck Ryan and it inspired the album’s main theme — an exploration of the persona, the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us, the spaces in between; between states, people, light and dark, the inner persona and the outer persona.
Not all that long ago I was all but viscerally opposed to most electronic music. Mores the pity that it took me so long to come around and discover artists like Rival Consoles. I can’t presume to offer writing advice; not for the battle I undertake to get things done. What I can do is pass along anything that helps. Persona falls squarely in that category.
As ever, you will find the album everywhere you would expect.
Read enough of my posts and you might start to pick up on the little jokes I make here and there about attention madness. Music is always helpful, but finding the right music can be part of the problem if you’re not careful. This is one area I get value from Apple Music. Between curated playlists, and curious browsing I have discovered, and rediscovered some of my favourite music for concentrating. With that in mind, this is the first of what I hope will be regular posts recommending Artists, albums and playlists of instrumental music for focus, and concentration.
Instrumental Music for Focus
This week’s album is Tag Eins Tag Zwei By F.S. Blumm, Nils Frahm, a collaboration between two brilliant instrumentalists. Nils Frahm is one of my favourite contemporary composers, and F. S. Blumm is the pseudonym of german artist Frank Schültge, a musician worth exploring in his own right. This is a collectors item on vinyl, with only 450 copies ever pressed. The album is a kind of minimalist conversation between Frahm's singular piano style, and subtle responsive guitar from F.S Blumm. It almost does it a disservice to consider this background music, at the same time it has the kind of cadence and space I find perfect for writing. You will know immediately if it's for you.
Initially, it was touch and whether I would hang on to Apple Music after the initial 3 month trial. However, the 50% student discount was enough to persuade me, and it also means I can hang on to years of meticulously maintained iTunes Match data. It is fair the say the service has improved significantly. That said, I also have access to Spotify via my mobile carrier, and in my experience it still has a superior discovery algorithm. The distinction I would make between the two services is this. If you want curated discovery, and you have mainly Apple devices, then use Apple Music. If you want more automated discovery, and you want to connect your music beyond the Apple sandbox, go with Spotify. Either way, if you're a student you get a discount on both.
I have been impressed by Lighten. One would expect the folks at Xmind know what they are doing, but honestly that doesn't always result in a decent mobile experience. Lighten is, as the name hints, a lightweight mind mapping app. It has simple feature set, but is a nice looking app with an intuitive workflow. For anyone looking to get into mind mapping on the iPad without fronting the expense for one of the more feature rich apps like MindNode or iThoughts, Lighten is a really good option. At the moment, with a back to school special still running, Lighten will set you back US$0.99. That is a serious bargain.
The one notable omission at this point is the inability to export to OPML, but there are still a range of export formats that should make that a moot point or all but the most steadfast workflows, and I would suggest that anyone with such a rigid mind mapping regime will probably be well past a gateway drug like Lighten One woudl expect the folks at Xmind. You can export to a Text file, Markdown, image, PDF, and of course both Xmind and Lighten file formats. Most mind mapping apps will parse the map successfully from one of those formats, and converting a mind map to an outline can be done with either Text or Markdown. I tested the transfer between Lighten and MindNode in a silly variety of ways and every time the mind map came out looking just like the cruft that made it from my mind to the so-called map.
If you are looking for a simple, aesthetically pleasing, and competent app to start mind mapping with, I suggest you take a look at Lighten. Xmind have not only done a good job with the app to date, but judging by the release notes the app is a going concern that will continue to receive love and attention. There might come a time that the 99 cents you put down here pays you back tenfold.
Whink Notes is a relatively new app —at least compared with similar, more well known apps — that I haven't had the chance to dive into properly yet. For a cursory introduction I would call it direct competition for Notability, as it has almost the exact same feature set, right down to the the inclusion of audio recording — albeit for some subte differences. Like Notability, the most glaring ommision to my mind is OCR for searchable handwriting. From the brief play around I have had with the app so far I can say it is a very tidy app with everything you would expect from a modern, mobile notes app, making it a viable alternative to the more well known apps in the handwritten notes category, such as Notability, GoodNotes and Notes Plus. The current discount is available until the 13th of September
Setapp has a growing collection of apps for education users, with few gaps in the collection the service is becoming a compelling option for students and academics alike
Setapp shows no sign of slowing down, as it adds more quality apps and essentail services. Not that long ago, powerful FTP client and Finder alternative Forklift was added to the stable. For science students and researchers, they have added the wonderfully designed digital lab book Findings, and I recently mentioned the addition of 2Do. In the past couple of days Setapp have announced the addition of third-party Gmail client Boxy.
These are all excellent additions to an already compelling service, but the development that I find most pleasing is the service being translated into Spanish. Not only is this a boon for the Mac users among the more than 400 million Spanish speakers worldwide, but it is a sure sign that Setapp is here for the long haul. If you haven't already checked it out, you have nothing to lose, there is a 30-day trial — no credit card required. If you decide to roll with it from there, you can either pay US$10 per month, or grab the educational discount by paying US$60 annually. With the growing trend toward subscriptions, this is starting to look like a serious bargain.
It is getting harder to see where the gaps are in the collection for education users, unless you are wedded to mainstream giants for your work, like MS Office. The one obvious omission at this point is citation management. Otherwise, from mind mapping to timeline generation, your choice of world class texteditors, and the dedicated Studies App, it is safe to say they have you pretty well covered.
To be clear, I'm not affiliated with Setapp in any way, this is genuine enthusiasm for an approach to the app market that I feel is promising for everyone.
If you are interested, you can Download the trial here: Setapp
When I started this, earlier this year, I had in mind a friend who was heading back to school and setting up an iPad for the first time. That was at the start of the first semester in the Southern Hemisphere, so it is fair to say I have been a little remiss in getting this more substantial collection together. Nonetheless, it is finally here – and in time for a new school year for that other hemisphere, no less. To my mind, these are the best iOS apps for both students and academics.
Most of the apps on this list are universal – i.e., they work on both iPhone and iPad, and come as a single purchase. That said, certain workflows tend to suit one device over the other. For example, it is a good idea to use the device with the better camera for scanning and applying OCR to documents. I would also add that like everything on this site, what follows might be pitched in the direction of study and research, but most of these recommendations hold well for all manner of creative and project work. So, fill your boots nerds.
Communication, Administration and Planning
Airmail – My preferred email client, for the simple reason that it includes an unrivalled list of integrations. Adding tasks to any major task manager, clipping emails to DEVONthink, managing attachments, adding notes and so on, it’s all trivial with Airmail. A sound alternative is Spark by Readdle.
Fantastical – My favourite calendar app across all platforms. Fantastical has the best natural language engine of any app that I have come across. Even though I love the design of Timepage, I can’t give up Fantastical for the utility and ease of use when it comes to adding events.
Todoist – I have covered task-management here. I use Todoist for a few reasons. The clean, minimal design is easy to work with, and like Fantastical Todoist operates on natural language input. Todoist’s web API also means powerful automation options – for example, with Zapier and IFTT.
Due Reminders – Because sometimes it is not enough to have the singular reminders of a task manager or calendar. If there is truly something you cannot forget, Due is designed to pester you until you do it.
Taskmator – An iOS version of the excellent lightweight, plain text planning app Task Paper. The unique blend of outlining and task management is particularly helpful for planning writing projects. Being plain text, getting information in and out of it is a cinch.
PDF Expert – There are a number of excellent options for PDF viewers on iOS, including the free PDF Viewer that will be enough for many people. PDF Expert remains the standard for the fact that you can go further than annotation and actually edit PDF files. I am yet to find fault with its search capabilities, and unlike many apps that create document copies, PDF Expert will edit your files in place.
Documents by Readdle – It is possible that iOS 11 will make this app almost redundant, but I suspect it will retain a certain amount of utility. Fo awhile it has been the de facto file management app on iOS, but it also includes local sync services, a Wi-Fi drive, and a download manager that have made it something of a problem solver.
Scanner Pro – The last of a Readdle triumvirate. The OCR functionality of mobile scanning apps has improved steadily with the advancement in camera technology to the point where actual hardware scanners are unnecessary for most people now. Scanner Pro is not only one of the most accurate scanning apps, but includes some light automation features. Between scanning articles or books, and digitising forms, either this or Scanbot are very handy.
Focus – Productivity Timer – When I first heard of the Pomodoro Technique, I thought it was daft. I have come to realise it continues to gain in popularity for a reason. If you have a dopamine deficit, are easily distracted or given to procrastination when the pressure is on, this is something than can bring a little order to your endeavours. I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to use it to order an entire day, but intermittent use can be helpful. I settled on Focus as the app for the job for its clean layout, and timer synchronisation with macOS. There are many other apps that will do just as a good a job, just don’t go drinking the productivity guru Kool Aid.
DEVONthink to Go is meant as a companion app, but iOS only users will still get a lot of mileage from it for data management
DEVONthink To Go – There are a lot of people who ditched the iOS version of DEVONthink after the release of the first version – which was a bit of a mess – but the app has come along way. Although technically a companion app, even if you don’t use the Mac apps this is an excellent means for data management.
Papers 3 – My choice of citation managers on the Mac is also the place that houses my largest reading database. It includes a sound compliment of markup tools, and with a little help from an Editorialworkflow makes adding reference material to written work almost as straightforward as it is on a Mac. I also tend to do most of my PDF markup work in Papers, as it does a decent job of holding annotations together. The markup tools are not as comprehensive as something like PDF
Oxford Dictionary – This should be self explanatory, but there are choices to make here. In terms of functionality, Terminology is a much better dictionary app, giving users access to URL based automation and spotlight integration. Unfortunately, non American users might struggle with spelling. It is also worth pointing out that the native iOS dictionary has come a long way, and could well be all you need.
Pinner is the best iOS app for Pinboard.in
Pinner for Pinboard.in – One of the subscription services I have no hesitation recommending is Pinboard.in. If you have never heard of it, it may look like much, but it is unmatched for archiving bookmarks. Pinboard saves a copy of everything I bookmark as a complete archive, so even if sites disappear I will never lose important content I wish to keep a hold of. Pinner is the third-party app I use as a front end to the service on iOS
Pocket – Eagle-eyed readers will probably notice I have both Instapaper and Pocket on this list, it is true that you only really need one of these apps. My reason for using both is simple, I like to bookmark multimedia content seperate to online reading. I find Pocket best for audio and video.
Notebooks – This is one of those apps thats almost hard to categorise. I’m putting it under research, because ultimately that is how I use it, but it is really a note-taking app first and foremost. Notebooks allows me to set the content it contains as tasks, so if I have a project that requires a specific reading list I will add the documents to Notebooks and setup a reminder schedule. It obviously means I can mark material off as I have gone through it, this feature makes it a unique app for research and study. I covered it briefly here
The Kindle App is one of the best reading experiences on iOS
Kindle – If you are a Kindle user, the iOS app is surprisingly good. I still find the Kindle itself a better reading experience for long sessions than reading on the
Marvin – It is true that iBooks has come a long way, it still can’t rival the customisation of Marvin. If you use Calibre on the Mac, Marvin can sync with it too. My ebook collection is split between epub and mobi formats, so even though I prefer to read on the Kindle, I have a lot of books that the Kindle can’t decipher. Anything I can’t read on Kindle, I entrust to Marvin.
Zinio – If you’re a magazine reader, this is the app you want. If your library has newsstand access, you may be able to access untold free titles via what used to be Zinio for Libraries, but has recently become Rbdigital. The new app doesn’t have the polish of Zinio for discovery, but the reading experience is comparable.
Instapaper – I use Pinboard.in to archive everything I want to keep , but Instapaper for more immediate reading. Pinboard can automatically archive Instapaper articles too, if you want to set that up. Apple’s Reading List is getting better all the time, so that might be enough for many people. For research purposes, Instapaper gives you a log more control and a better reading experience.
I find Feedly’s RSS service to be the most user friendly
Feedly – A little while ago I went on a misguided quest looking for the best RSS tools. Ultimately, I ended up back where I started. To my mind, Feedly has the best user experience of all the services and apps I have tried. The free service is great, but you can hook into all kinds of automation and filtering if you want to part with some spare change. A more powerful option is Inoreader, but their apps leave a little to be desired so you would be best served by using it with a third-party client. My pick of clients is the excellent Reeder app that is available on both iOS and macOS.
Nuzzel – If you want the links and articles from twitter and/or Facebook, but don’t want all the noise, then this is for you. It has some annoyances of its own, but I find it to be a valuable source of material.
I recently covered writing on iOS, in terms of word processors and text editors, but as you know there is much more to writing than where you put the words. Along with my preferred text editor, what follows are utilities that help with the process – whether that be thinking, planning or editing.
Editorial – As I write most often in Markdown, Editorial is ideal not only as a text editor, but for its powerful automation engine. For academic writing, Editorial allows me to format citations as universal citekeys.
Outlinely is one of the best available outlining apps for the iPad
Outlinely – A purpose built outliner creates structured documents, and by design helps in the organisation and planning of writing. An outliner is useful for all kinds of sequential planning, but shines in the structuring of academic papers. The opinionated, minimalist design makes Outlinely my preferred app for this on both iOS and macOS, but there are other options. At the high end, OmniOutliner tends to get most votes – it is hard to argue with that.
MindNode or iThoughts – For mind mapping on iOS, I find it hard to choose between these two. I once read that iThoughts is for ‘power-users’ , but aesthetics is probably the most crucial factor here. Mind mapping is an entirely visual thought process, so you have to like what you are looking at. Mindnode is a very clean, slick app – iThoughts is more customisable. A third option is the very tidy Lighten.
Day One – I am a late comer to this, but I have come to accept the value of journalling on the development of a writing practice. Writing as close to everyday as possible is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing, and the journal format is liberating. I am yet to find a better app for keeping a digital journal than this. Day One has balanced all the necessary features with nice interface design, but the Markdown support clinches it for me. This one of many apps to take up a subscription model lately, but you can access all the functionality you need to get started without throwing down more coin.
This is another area I have already covered in relative detail. Despite that being a fairly recent post I have made some changes since it went up. I’m, holding out hope that Brett Terpstra’s Bitwriter is not only forthcoming, but will include an iOS app. There are also interesting changes on the horizon with Appple Notes in iOS 11, most notably with searchable handwriting. Otherwise, the following options remain worthy alternatives.
GoodNotes – For a straight up handwriting app that works well no matter what kind of iPad you are running – pro, standard, or mini – GoodNotes is going to be up there. I prefer the design of Notability on the whole, but functionality matters when your notes are as crucial as they are for academic work, and GoodNotes has the killer feature for handwriting – searchable notes.
Nebo – If you have an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, Nebo’s handwriting recognition and ink engine is next level. Not only does Nebo use a contextual engine to correct word choice and spelling on the fly, but it will render diagrams, manage LaTex calculations, and even export text as HTML. The MySCript folks who make the app are the masters of handwriting recognotion, and the app can read 59 different languages. This is a truly remarkable app – all the more so when you consider it costs less that USD$3
Drafts – Keeping with the plain text rule, Drafts is usually my first point of capture for text, especially on the iPhone. If you are an Apple Watch user, Drafts has an excellent complication for dictation. The real utility of drafts, however, lies in its automation engine – something I couldn’t do justice to here. The screencasts on the Agile Tortoise website can get you started.
Just Press Record – The native iPhone Voice Memos app does a great job of capturing audio on the fly, but accessing it on other devices can be a nuisance . Just press record solves that problem with an added bonus. It can also do some on-the-fly audio to text transcription. The results are better than expected, although I wouldn’t rely on it to transcribe entire lectures – we are not quite there yet.
Notability – If it had optical character recognition for searching your handwriting, Notability would be the killer app for lecture notes. It gets pretty close with the ability to capture audio while note-taking; thus its appearance in this section. For students especially, the utility you can get from this one app will make it easier to bump a couple of others of your list. Handritten and typewritten notes, PDF annotation, and audio recording all rolled into one. Last I check it was still pretty cheap too.
Ferrite – If you ever need to record interviews, this is hands down the best, most feature rich app available on iOS for the job. Designed specifically for voice recording and editing, it can manage anything from capturing audio presentations to producing podcasts and other broadcasts. There are some truly excellent audio recording tools on iOS these days, but most of them are aimed at musicians. With features like ducking, and silence removal Ferrite stands out as the singular app for audio voice work.
VLC Player – A lot of people seem to prefer the more polished Infuse, but VLC for iOS is just as good as its desktop counterpart. There is nothing it cannot play, and unlike its aforementioned rival, it is free.
Pixelmator – If you need photo editing software, the iPhone’s camera technology has encouraged a huge amount of development in this area. Pixelmator has stood out for some time as an app that goes beyond many of the filter and fix apps designed as mobile only utilities. If your needs are modest in this area, and you want an easy to learn, no nonsense app, this is it – and it is cheap.
Affinity Photo – If you have more serious needs, there is only one app that can claim to be a truly professional photo editing tool to rival desktop applications. Affinity is next level stuff.
Workflow is the singular automation utility for iPhone and iPad
Workflow – Acquired by Apple, Workflow is not only the singular automation utility on iOS, but one of the biggest leaps forward in the evolution of iOS as an operating system for serious productivity. If there is anything you can’t already do on your iPad or iPhone, chances are Workflow can help you out. No programming required. Stay tuned for more on this app in future.
TextExpander Keyboard – The sandboxing design of the operating system means TextExpander is not quite as useful on iOS as it is on the Mac. Yet, the Text Expander Keyboard is still well worth installing. The real value to installing TextExpander on iOS is to be found in the apps that include built-in support. Smile maintains a list of TextExpander enhanced apps here. Elsewhere snippets can still be expanded with the third-party keyboard.
1Password – Still my preferred password manager. Not only is it the best user experience, but features like Travel Mode make it an ideal choice for travelling researchers. Password management should be a no-brainer for anyone working on a university network, really it should be a no-brainer for for anyone period.
Soulver is part scratchpad part calculator
Soulver – Part scratch pad, part calculator, Soulver is a uniquely useful utility. The interface operates is a text editor that parses numbers for multiple mathematical operations, including currency conversion. This means you can work things out like you might on the back of a napkin. Adding notation to my scatterbrain calculations helps me make sense of numbers in a way that a traditional calculator can’t. If you need a powerful, more traditional calculator that includes scientific notation, then Pcalc is what you need
Copied – Advanced, cross platform, clipboard management. Copied can do all kinds of neat things, including customisable text transformation, and synchronised clipboard history across devices. A comprehensive URL scheme opens up all kinds of automation possibilities, and a keyboard extension provides easy access to media rich clippings. Other clipboard managers exist, but nothing comes close to Copied for functionality.
Prizmo to Go – There are times when you need to grab a section of text from a book, a journal article, or some random document. There are two apps that I know of that do this well, the other is Textgrabber. While they won’t capture the text perfectly every time, they come pretty close. It can seem like magic when they save you serious time.
Who doesn’t need accurate weather data?
Weather Underground – Weather apps are something of an iOS playground for user interface design, but where the actual weather data comes from is another story. The majority of weather apps on the App Store hook into the Darksky API, which can be hit and miss for accuracy. Weather Underground’s unique selling point is a vast network of local weather stations providing accurate real-time data. I also know of at least one sea captain who uses Weather Underground, so it must be good, right?
That’s a wrap…for now
I decided not to get too crazy here by starting into categories like entertainment, although I may revisit that at some point. One area I intend to delve into is audio production on iOS, but that can wait. For now, I would wager you will find on this list everything you need, and more to get serious work done. I have already said I believe there is no question the iPad can be a primary device for study or research, this should serve as sufficient evidence to support that claim. As ever, if you have any questions, if I can help in any way, hit me up via the contact details over on the left.
Pinboard has a basic bookmarking service, or for a little more it can save web archives of the pages you bookmark. This means you are never in danger of losing material to dead links ↩
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.