Writing on the move

 

A hoary cliché in the computing world is that many of us have in our pockets a computer more powerful than that which sent mankind to the moon. I’m referring to mobile phones, of course. Modern mobile phones that run Google Android or Apple’s iOS are essentially miniature computers that happen to be able to make mobile phone calls.

Saying just 10 years ago that you’re going to write a novel on your phone was essentially a non-sequitur and while it’s now possible, there are some irritations that hamper the process. These can be mitigated with a little know-how.

Take note

Both Android and Apple phones come with note-taking apps. Apple phones come with the imaginatively-titled Notes, while newer Android phones come with Keep (if you don’t see Keep in your app listing, you can install it for free via the Play Store app; for what it’s worth, Apple users can also install Keep via the App Store).

Both Notes and Keep use the internet to ensure that what you type or edit is shared automatically and is therefore accessible on all other computing devices you own. In other words, scribble down a poem on the bus home and – provided there’s a sufficiently strong phone signal at the time and you’re signed-up to a call plan that includes a data allowance – you should find that you can access what you wrote on your desktop computer or tablet when you get home. (If you’re not signed-up for data then you should find that the data syncs via Wi-Fi when you get home.)

At the very least you’ll be able to visit the website for each app to access your scribblings: https://keep.google.com for Google Keep on Android, and https://icloud.com for Notes on Apple. However, if you use the Chrome web browser on Windows or Mac OS X then you can use the Keep plugin: https://goo.gl/eT0pJx.

Keeping it simple

All note-taking apps keep things simple in that you can’t do much more than type plain text, and this really is for the better. You really shouldn’t be concerned about styling your text at this stage, if only because it’s insanely fiddly do so on the smaller screen of the phone. Just work on getting the words down.

If you want a slightly more word-processor-like experience then I once again recommend the Google Docs app, which can be installed on Apple and Android devices using the App Store and Play Store respectively. Indeed, I’m personally inclined to use Google Docs in any event because, as I mentioned in my look at cloud computing back in issue #170, all edits your make to a document are synced via the internet within seconds. In everyday language this means that, provided your phone has an internet connection, you can open the same document on your phone and desktop computer (visit http://docs.google.com in the browser of the desktop), and any edits or additions you type on the phone will appear almost instantly on the desktop computer (and vice versa). It’s essentially impossible to end-up in the sticky situation where you have two or more versions of the same file – and you haven’t got to mess around with things like USB sticks.

Annoyances

The first annoyance of writing on a phone is having to use the on-screen keyboard, which is small and therefore makes you prone to typos. It’s small for a reason because it’s not allowed to take-up too much space on the screen. Most phones split the screen roughly 60/40 between the the document text and the keyboard, but even this can leave an annoyingly small space for the actual document. Editing longer documents in particular can be very frustrating.

androidkeyboard

The most obvious solution to this problem is to turn the phone on its side so you edit in “landscape” mode. This creates a wider keyboard that you might find more accurate but usually even more of the text editing area is swallowed-up!

Both Google and Apple let users switch to keyboards created by third parties, some of which are smaller, or employ tricks to try and make the user more accurate when typing. Just search for keyboard in the Play or App Stores. So-called swipe keyboards let the user slide their finger from letter to letter, for example, rather than lift and tap as we all do with real-life keyboards. It doesn’t matter if you don’t quite hit the right key while sliding because artificial intelligence built-into the keyboard guesses the word you intended to type.

If you use a relatively new Android phone you probably have swipe already installed, because it’s built-into the default keyboard. Give it a try – slide a finger from one key to another to spell out a word. Be aware that it takes practice to get used to, and will seem odd at first. If it doesn’t work, you might have to install the Google Keyboard app via the Play Store. Once installed, open it and follow the instructions to configure it ready for use.

On Apple phones you’ll need to install an app like Swiftkey or Swype, again via the App Store. For what it’s worth, both these two keyboard apps are also available for Android. Again, once the app is installed, open it and follow the instructions so you enable it ready for use.

Tab and symbols

One huge irritation of virtually all on-screen keyboards is that they lack a tab key, which are used on desktop keyboards to indent paragraphs when writing a novel, for example. On-screen keyboards also make it difficult to type quotation marks; typically the author is forced to switch to the symbol/number version of the keyboard (that is, tap the 123, ?123 or ?1J key). This can be very annoying when writing dialogue for a novel. If you’re one of those writers who uses hyphens more than they should – like me – then you’ll also find this symbol hidden away on a separate keyboard view.

Some third-party keyboards, as well as some word processing apps, overcome these hurdles by adding an extra row of “keys” above the standard keyboard, which contain these symbols and possibly a tab key too, or text formatting tools like bold and italics. The downside is that this again eats into the area where the text is displayed. Additionally, some keyboards insert a tab if you tap and hold the spacebar for a few seconds.

However, if your phone runs Android you might investigate using the Hacker’s Keyboard, which is free of charge from the Play Store. Again, open it upon installation and follow the steps to enable and configure it, as well as install the English (UK) dictionary. Open the Keep app and tap in the document area, then tap the settings button on the keyboard when it appears. This is the circular key to the left of the spacebar. Then tap Settings for Hacker’s Keyboard, and tap the heading that reads Keyboard Mode, Portrait. Then tap the Full 5-Row Layout option. This will switch the keyboard to something that looks like a desktop keyboard, although at the expense of the keys shrinking.

iPhone owners can try Tempest, which costs 79p from the App Store. Follow the instructions upon opening the app to add the extra keys to want to the top row of the keyboard.

You can, of course, use a Bluetooth mobile phone keyboard with most phones and there are many examples at Amazon and eBay (for example, http://goo.gl/jsp1ow). The problem are that their small size makes them as fiddly to use as the on-screen keyboard, and often it’s impossible to use them in cramped conditions such as a bus seat.

Printing

You shouldn’t really be intending to print your work directly from your phone. It’s far better practice to access the data on your main computer, as described earlier, and then copy and paste it into a word processor document. You can then print it but this will also create a more permanent copy of the work and, of course, you’ll be able to style text too.

Nonetheless, Apple phones can print via something called AirPrint and Android phones can print via something called Google Cloud Print. To use AirPrint you’ll need a compatible wifi-enabled printer, and there’s a pretty good chance your existing printer might be compatible if it’s less than a few years old. If it is, the printer will show-up when you tap the sharing button when writing a note, and then tap the Print icon. Google Cloud Print lets you print to any printer attached to a PC or Mac. Setup is fairly easy but, alas, I haven’t space to describe it here. Guides like the following explain all: http://goo.gl/At6YqT.

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