The idea of a computer being clever enough to do something like read a first draft written in furious handwritten script is maybe 10 years away by my estimation. However, there are still possibilities for the writer whose first instinct is to grab a pen, rather than type.
Computers can process standard printed text, which is to say the text in a book, or the text produced by a computer printer. The software required is called optical character recognition, or OCR, and a good example is Abbyy FineReader (goo.gl/VSNxah; £99, although you may find a free version was bundled with your printer/multifunction device).
A flatbed scanner is used to scan in each page and OCR software like Abbyy then attempts to turn it into a word processor document. With all OCR software recognition accuracy is good but rarely perfect, which makes the it feel like a slightly incompetent copy typist. You’ll still have to proofread the output. (Interestingly, I’m currently reading a 17th century novel on my eBook reader that was obviously OCR’d from the original printed book because there’s a typo-like error in every other chapter – words like ever appear as even, because the OCR software has mixed-up the r and the n; mixing up letters that look broadly similar is the archetypical OCR error.)
One thing OCR software can’t do well is recognise handwriting. However, we need to identify here the two different types of handwriting: joined-up, and discrete letters. Americans refer to joined-up handwriting cursive, and we use that label here because America is where most OCR software originates.
OCR software just can’t read cursive, especially the elaborate flowing style favoured by those educated prior to the 1970s. It struggles to know where one letter ends and another begins, and indeed with a lot of handwriting it’s impossible for humans to know – even if it’s your own! We just use our unique human intelligence to work it out.
A minority of OCR software can recognise discrete handwritten letters. CharacTell SoftWriting (goo.gl/6nrDmb; around £38) is perhaps the best at recognising what it calls “non-connected handwritten characters” on sheets of A4 that you again scan in, and a 14-day fully-functional trial is available so you can give it a try.
However, beware that with all types of OCR scanning it can be a time-consuming slog putting each page on the scanner glass and hitting the relevant keys, or clicking the relevant on-screen buttons.
Writing a go-go
If you can’t bear to loosen your grip on a pen, but would like to involve a computer in the creative writing process, there are some alternative and actually quite neat options. Rather than scanning in after the event, these involve treating the computer as a virtual sheet of paper, and letting it record what you scribble.
For all this to work we enter the realm of tablet computers, however, which are the relatively new breed of device that appear to consist of little more than a touch-sensitive screen. A popular example is the Apple iPad but Microsoft is making inroads with its Surface range and there are hundreds of Android models from various manufacturers like Samsung and Sony.
At this point we need to distinguish between tablet styluses and smart pens. Styluses are both cheap and ubiquitous (as little as 99p on eBay), and are designed to imitate your fingertip touching the screen. As such, they have a rubber nib about the size of bisected garden pea.
Tablet screens are not particularly accurate when it comes to touch sensitivity, and although they respond quickly when you touch them with fingers, they’re actually slow when it comes to recording the rapid strokes involved in handwriting. Additionally, we tend to rest our palm on the page when writing, and doing this on a tablet screen while using a stylus causes random strokes to appear.
The end result is that, unless you’re a masochist, tablet styluses are just too clumsy to be used for handwriting. Nonetheless if you want to give it a try, the Memo app (goo.gl/nmDlhk) works on any iPad and is free. Once you’ve finished writing, tap the Share button at the top right and chose to export as text. Google Handwriting Input (goo.gl/AxuvJO; free) offers something similar for Android tablets and phones, although like many handwriting recognition apps requires you write in a small area at the bottom of the screen. This can be annoying.
As their name suggests, smart pens have computers built into them to counteract the above criticisms, and tiny rechargeable batteries to power them. They communicate with the tablet wirelessly via Bluetooth and usually can only be used with compatible models of tablets, or on special writing surfaces.
One of the most popular smart pens is the Apple Pencil (goo.gl/Xyjxwx; £99). This works only with the Apple iPad Pro range of tablets (goo.gl/2W3Z89; from £549) and is considered state of the art right now if you want to scribble on a screen. The Pencil features palm detection, for example, so you can lean against the screen while writing without any issues. Increasing numbers of savvy students use an Apple Pencil and iPad Pro to jot notes during lectures and apps like Notability (goo.gl/43F0i9; free) and Paper (goo.gl/HYzSbC; £5.99) provide infinite quantities of digital paper along with features like a variety of virtual pen nibs. There’s still a split-second delay between your pen stroke and something appearing on the screen, due to technological limitations, but most people get used to this quickly.
Pen and ink
Other smart pens that are perhaps even cleverer. The Moleskin Smart Writing Set (goo.gl/y5UxWT; £199) works with most Apple and Android tablets or phones, and lets you write as you ordinarily would in a special Moleskine jotter pad (£23.95 each – did I mention none of this technology is cheap?). You write using actual ink from a real nib on real paper, but the pen also beams a digital copy to your phone or tablet. You can then later edit this computerised copy, or email it to others. There’s even handwriting recognition software built-in, with the manufacturers claiming it can handle elementary cursive.
If nothing else this setup gives you have a backup in case the dog scoffs your written page although bear in mind it needs that expensive jotter. Many writers will burn through several of those in a week!
In contrast the Wacom Bamboo Spark (goo.gl/cb0zGB; circa £119) can use any paper, although the jotter pad you write on, or the individual sheet of paper, needs to be clipped into to a special writing surface built into a protective case that you can also insert your tablet into. Again, the Spark works with both Apple and Android devices.
Note that most of the text recognition components of these devices are designed mostly for capturing brief notes. They might struggle if you like to scribble, say, 1,000 words of a novel on a daily basis. However, this technology is very young and still under heavy development.
The old-fashioned ways have not vanished and getting somebody else to type-up your handwritten novel is still surprisingly viable. You can look in shop windows for postcards of local copy typists, of course, but the www.freelancer.co.uk website lets you put out you work for worldwide tender, naming a price that others can respond to. They’ll tell you the expected turnaround time too.
Of course, common sense is required. You’ll note that a lot of the site’s freelancers are overseas, for example, and you might prefer somebody whose first language is English. Some of the workers will expect you to send scans of the work, which adds significantly to your workload, so finding somebody who’ll accept a postal submission is obviously better (although never send the originals – only ever send photocopies!).