Thursday, February 14, 2013

iPad at Work - Writing

This is the first of a series of posts about using the iPad at work. I'm not going to be writing about the iPad as a calendar tool or as a way to look at your email. That's just so fundamental that we'll take it as read that you already do that.
What I want to talk about are the more interesting uses of iPad at work.


Writing

This is pretty fundamental as well. We nearly all need to write at work and many users of iPad will be heavy users of the writing capability. So here are some thoughts about writing with the iPad.

Get a Keyboard!

Seriously you can't write more than a quick note without a keyboard. There are lots of options out there from keyboard cases to Apple's very nice wireless keyboard. Whatever your choice get it and make sure that you are comfortable touch typing on it before you shell out your hard earned.

Go Markdown!

On the iPad most of the tools for working with Word are, in a word, kludgy. They are overweight and limited in their functionality. It's just not worth it.
Markdown is the only sensible way to write anything other than notes on your iPad. Don't be put off by the first paragraph saying that "Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool..." it's much more than that. It's the way you want to do your documents because:
  • It's trivially simple to learn. It will take you 10 minutes to master it if you are as stupid as me. Most people take less time than that. There are cheat sheets available too. Here's a visual one. Download one and carry it with you for a while. Soon you won't need it at all.
  • It is brilliant for re-purposing what you write. You can write in Markdown and output to docx, odt, html, LaTeX, ePub...the choices are endless.
  • It is lightweight and human-readable. You can understand a Markdown document really simply.
  • It's text so even as fads and file formats come and go it's text and you can open a Markdown file in almost any editor since the beginning of the computer age. That also means it has probably the best chance of future proofing and it frees you to use the tools that you want, not some heavyweight, expensive, proprietary tool.

Get Dropbox

It doesn't have to be Dropbox, however Dropbox support is becoming pervasive amongst the tools you are going to want to use. Whatever you choose you need a way to simply get things into a position where they are accessible on your iPad, on any web browser and on your desktop/laptop. Dropbox ticks all of those boxes.

Choose a Markdown Editor...or three

There are lots of good Markdown editors for iPad. I like Writeup for most stuff (I particularly like its version management and preview of document contents) and I also like Drafts, particularly because of its Actions and URL Actions. I use Drafts for quick notes and the like.
In addition you'll probably want to get TextExpander, it will improve your productivity on iPad.
On Mac you can choose anything you like, as long as it supports UTF-8. I use a variety of tools including Textwrangler, Markdown Pro and Byword. Textwrangler isn't a Markdown editor, but there is a language module available for Markdown and if I'm using this I use the very capable Marked to preview and output. Windows has similar tools available. Just don't use Notepad...it doesn't save as UTF-8.
For me, part of the beauty of using Markdown is that I can pick and choose tools for the particular writing task. If I'm writing something with lots of code snippets or code listings in it I use Textwrangler because its programmers' tools make jobs like that easy. If I'm writing a short note I use Drafts...The results are interchangeable.

Output

Most of the tools we've talked about provide output to at least PDF and HTML. Some of them have many more tricks than that.
What we are going to talk about in the next post is a trivially simple way to output anything you like from Markdown. But before that...

Workflow

Let's just be clear about one thing when you are using Markdown: Formatting doesn't matter...bear with me and don't start getting grumpy because...formatting doesn't matter. Here's why.
Word and other tools like it have fundamentally stuffed up the way we do documents. They have encouraged us to conflate two unrelated concepts: What a document element is; and How that document element should look. Those are two separate and unrelated concepts.
The only time that those two concepts come together is when we choose a particular presentation mode and a particular presentation tool. For example in Markdown this is a level one heading: #Heading One
Now obviously that's not how we want it to look. But how do we want it to look? What will it look like in a Word doc? What about on a web page? What about in that LaTeX document for our Uni assignment where it has to be in accordance with the APA style sheet? Each one of those will be different and can change as we modify the style for that element. The only thing that's important is that that element is a level one heading.
So having got that out of the way and having already talked about the way Markdown is human-readable...that means that we don't convert from Markdown to anything else until the end of our workflow. At least not until the end of our iPad workflow. We do all our revisions in Markdown, we share the document around in Markdown and when we are happy about it, then and only then, we transform it to whatever our desired output mode(s) are.
OK, I'm with you already: What about track changes you say. Well for me this is a beautiful thing. I hate Word's track changes functionality with a passion. It is kludgy and dense and after you've been modifying a document a few times it gets plain horrible. We don't do any of that with Markdown. We don't have track changes...and we don't need it. I just say to somebody who is reviewing a document for me "just make whatever changes you like". That's because I use Git to version all of my documents and I use Git's diff tools to tell me what's changed and I then decide to accept, reject or modify those proposed changes. Now most people don't use Git, but they can use the very beautiful Kaleidoscope tool or one of a number of other tools around to do the same job...better.
The only other thing to talk about is tables. These are a bit of a pain in Markdown. There is syntax for tables but I find them a bit painful to do manually. So you have three options: either you create your tables as objects (pictures) and embed them in Markdown using the image syntax; or you do them right at the end in Word; or if you can type and you can find the Terminal app in Mac or it's equivalent on other platforms you can use these tools. More on those and on output in general in a future post though.

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