How I use the iPad as a serious writing system

How I use the iPad as a serious writing system

Summary: I have been using the iPad for writing work for almost two years and I get asked regularly how I do it. This guide explains what I do and why it works well.

TOPICS: Mobility, iPad, Tablets
ZAGG Profolio+ -- Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

The iPad has revolutionized the way I approach my writing and I am regularly asked how I use it. I originally wrote about the iPad as a solid system for writing a year and a half ago and the tablet is still serving me well. I have used a number of tablets for writing work since then and while most of them work just fine I always come back to the iPad for a number of reasons.

Why it works so well

It's hard to believe but I hear regularly from folks who refuse to believe that the iPad can be use productively for my work.  The fact is the iPad with a physical keyboard is a no-compromise tool for my writing. It works well for a number of reasons:

  1. Long battery life- I never think about battery life on the iPad, unlike most other PCs/tablets.
  2. Retina display- the screen on the iPad makes it possible to work for hours without eyestrain.
  3. LTE- having integrated LTE frees me from the wi-fi hotspot, which is liberating.
  4. Small package- I can carry the iPad in the keyboard case in the smallest bag possible, making it easy to move around.
  5. Taller display- the iPad's screen is taller than other tablets with a wider screen.
  6. Focus- having multiple apps on the screen at once can be nice, but for writing the one app on the screen eliminates distraction. I hit the Do Not Disturb toggle on the iPad to turn off notifications when I'm writing.
  7. Speed to production- I can take the iPad out of the bag and be where I left off in the last session in just a few seconds.
  8. Security- all of my work is in the cloud so I lose nothing if the iPad is stolen. I can deactivate it remotely if that ever happened.

The gear

I currently use an iPad 4 with 64GB of memory (which frankly is overkill) and most importantly integrated LTE. The LTE capability is a godsend, freeing me from needing to find a wi-fi hotspot. I can literally work anywhere without compromise, a powerful feature.

I pair the iPad with a keyboard case to facilitate text entry. I could forego the physical keyboard if I wanted to, I know some who do that regularly. My writing projects can be 1,000-2,000 words so a real keyboard makes my work much easier.

See related: Definitive guide to keyboards for iPad and iPad mini

I've tried most popular keyboard cases for the iPad (see related link above) and I've settled on the ZAGG Profolio+. The case protects the iPad from the bumps of the road, and has a fantastic keyboard that supports fast touch typing. The backlit keys are a nice touch.

The software tools

The writing in my projects is just a small part of the entire process. A lot of research goes into the work and that takes place online. A web browser is where most of the research takes place and I largely use Chrome for that work. The Safari browser native to the iPad works just fine and while many use it I prefer Chrome. I use Chrome on every platform and device so it's nice to have my environment and bookmarks always at hand on the iPad.


I use RSS feeds to follow hundreds of web sites for my research, and until recently I did that with Google Reader. Now that Google has shut that down I use Newsblur for RSS feed work. It works very much like Google Reader and the iPad app is pretty solid. I use it to peruse several thousand items daily. It keeps me abreast of all the tech news I need to follow.


My main writing app on the iPad is Evernote, the note app supreme. There's a version of Evernote for every platform so my collection of notes is always at hand. The editor in Evernote is good for my needs as I don't do any formatting, I just write. When the article is finished I copy and paste it (as plain text) into the ZDNet CMS in the Chrome browser. I can add images and hyperlinks in the CMS for final formatting before publishing.

Office2 HD
Office2 HD

I often receive Microsoft Office documents (Word and Excel mostly) from PR firms with information about new products. Not having Office on the iPad is not an issue as I use Office2 HD to access them. It does a good job rendering these Office documents and since I am using them for reference I don't need to worry about revising and formatting them.

I use the Google Drive app on the iPad when I need to access my Google Docs in the cloud. This gives me instant access to anything in the cloud and is a useful repository to have my stuff available when I leave the iPad behind and bring some other device with me.

Not the only solution

While I am writing this I can anticipate the reaction to this article, pointing out there are other devices and platforms that can do this work. I agree fully with that observation, in fact I sometimes bring other tablets/laptops/hybrids with me for my remote work. My new MacBook Air is coming along for my work outings quite a bit due to its light weight and 9+ hour battery life.

It's a fact there are other solutions that are cheaper, faster, and more capable than my iPad with keyboard. There are other laptops and tablets that some will find a better fit than the iPad. I agree that others will find the iPad lacking in some areas and won't meet their needs. That's OK, we're all different and should use what works best for each of us.

The iPad is a constant road companion for me for all of the reasons stated in this article. It's a solid system for a writer that has no compromises yet is full-featured enough to write thousands of words a day. I like using it and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The key for each user is to use what works well for them.

Topics: Mobility, iPad, Tablets

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  • You should try the new iCloud versions of iWork

    It sounds like you use a lot of disparate systems that don't talk well to one another like Google drive and office H2

    In the past I might not have recommended iWork because you had to have it on every device you were going to do editing with.

    But the new cloud-based version is phenomenally good. Honestly you cannot tell that you are using a web-based version, it looks just like the desktop and iPad versions.... Even on windows.
  • You have exposed the tablet's Achilles heal

    I think that your argument is valid that with a keyboard and a tablet it can be a decent writing hardware. But you have also proved the Achilles heal of tablets. That is that a keyboard is almost necessary to do any lengthy writing or typing of any sort on a tablet. The virtual keyboard is not even close to the tactile feedback of pushing keys. Which makes me also wonder if a 11.6 Macbook Air or a PC Ultrabook type device is far more useful and maintains that portability , battery life and so on without compromises? Its one reason I continue to ignore tablets as a primary device. By the time you buy a decent keyboard your into a tablet as much as a ultrabook or MAcbook Air 11.6. Which I would take either over any tablet.
    • Re Achilles heel

      Small portable Bluetooth keyboards with full-size keys are available for around $30, so lack of a keyboard isn't really a big deal. And if you mainly use the tablet for content CONSUMPTION, it's nice not having to lug around a keyboard when you don't need it.

      At Microcenter I found (I think it was from Inland), a small folding stand for seven dollars that I find HUGELY helpful with my Asus tablet. Turned it from being "Geez, this is just SLIGHTLY too heavy for long-term use" to a great reading platform I can put at any angle and use almost anyplace.
    • ... different view ...

      In fact, after trying several keyboards from bluetooth compact via the cover one to full-size radio PC keyboards connected with camera kit USB and dongle (wich camera kit USB and a powered hub, any keyboard should work; power-consuption is disqualifying most keyboards for direct connection, some work) - I returned to the 'built-in' touch keyboard. Once used to it, it is *good* - no issues about space, weight, and cable-spagghetteria. A tablet is meant to downsize equipment, and I like this very much. At first, I regarded the ipad as a toy, but in fact, it is more than this. It turned out to be a real production tool, of course with limits - CAD or DTP are too big animals to match the cage. But writing texts and reports right at the location with hardly any equipment to move - this is what I wanted and needed since the first Z80 e-diots came out (ipad can more, but texts are the topic). I think, an externel keyboard is not 'must', even if write a lot.
      One thing to keep in mind: If you want a fully-equipped subnotebook PC, buy one, but don't buy a tablet. And vice-versa.
      • sorry ...

        the comment-editor seems to have swallowed some letters, even words. I hope my message is still understandable.
  • running low on topics?

    "I like my ipad"
  • iPad is an expensive toy

    Its not good for anything serious, period.
    • Apparently you're wrong

      Because there are a lot of people doing "serious" things with their iPads.
      Michael Alan Goff
    • serious

      ((( "[The iPad is] not good for anything serious, period." )))

      This article irrefutably proves you wrong. As usual.
    • Not true

      The iPad has its uses. There's nothing wrong with it. But then again, its nothing great either. People want to justify spending $800 on a 10" touch screen that is mainly used for entertainment. My kid did the same thing when trying to talk me into getting her a smart phone.
      A Gray
  • ES File Explorer

    Imagine if you could group related text into something called a "file", and give it a descriptive name. And then group "files" together into bigger groups called "folders", and give those descriptive names as well. And put folders into other folders, making up your own hierarchy called a "filesystem". Going further, imagine being able to transfer files and folders between devices, by running a server app conforming to some standard protocol on one device and a corresponding client on the other.

    Some of these tablets actually allow that. They're the ones called "computers".
    • Not sure what your point is

      Really, I'm not. James uses the cloud to hold his files whether that is for tablet or non-tablet use. After that the article is about using a suitable device for producing text as efficiently as possible for what he is doing.

      So I'm not sure what a file system has to do with it, or folders.
    • file system

      Haha good one. Android Os does hv a visible file system

      Ios does hv a file system but Apple decide to make it invisible
      • yes

        ... but why bother with the file system on a portable terminal? Get a used PC (or G4/G5 mac) for small money, store and folderize your data there. Whatever you produce on your ipad, you can e-mail as an attachment and use any system for post-processing. Yon't carry a stove in your fishing-bag and don't have a trout pond in your kitchen, as well. Remember early PCs: they were supposed to do everything (which they weren't capable of), and cost a fortune. Times have changed, thinking should change, too.
  • I agree with James

    Seems like I'm in the minority.

    I also use an iPad with a keyboard. Strangely nobody I work with comment on it. They just see me taking notes in meetings quietly.

    I also use my iPad without a keyboard. That is still possible! When I'm surfing / watching a video I'm keyboard-less but when I need to get text out I use my Logitech keyboard.

    Could I use a laptop? Yes. But my iPad gives me instant on, instant resume, good speed and good connectivity that for my money (yes, like James I buy my equipment - it isn't a work owned device) is the best value for money.
    • Cool Article

      I liked the article but nowadays laptops and hybrids are instant on anyway, standby uses literally no battery and a cold boot on a windows 8 hybrid/ultrabook is only 8 seconds anyway, less if your coming from hibernate. With all the connectivity, all the readers and ports, some with pen input.
  • In other words turning a tablet into a PC allows me to do PC work.

    A tablet is essentially a low powered laptop without the keyboard. Add a keyboard and you essentially have a laptop. I fail to see how this is newsworthy.
    • You are correct. It is not newsworthy but some still disbelieve the obvious

      It's all about the screen, the overall system weight and battery life for a mobile blogger and having the software tools that allow that blogger to complete his task.

      Perhaps some specs might help to clarify the matter.

      The iPad 4 with LTE capability and the optional Zagg Profolio+ keyboard weighs 2.46 pounds.
      The eleven inch MBA (lacking a HiDPI or Retina class display) weighs 2.38 pounds
      The thirteen inch MBP (with a Retina display) weighs 3.57 pounds
      The Surface RT with a Type Cover weighs just under 2.0 pounds.
      The Surface Pro with a Type Cover weighs 2.47 pounds.

      Since it's all about the HiDPI screen resolution preventing eyestrain over an extended period of time, let's eliminate the Surface RT from discussion for two reasons. James prefers a Portrait Mode orientation while doing serious blogging. The portrait mode on the Surface RT lacks TrueType font technology and the pixelated fonts coupled to the relatively low res of the screen produce less than ideal results. And James has stated that the Surface RT in landscape mode lacks enough vertical screen content for his liking.

      Let's eliminate the MBP because of it's overall system weight. BTW, James owns this MBP model. But he uses it as his desktop machine. (James has an embarrassment of riches)

      Let's eliminate the MBA due to it's lack of a retina display.

      That leaves the Surface Pro with Type Cover and the iPad and Zagg keyboard combo to consider.
      Both have excellent displays in landscape mode. Both have almost identical system weights. But, alas, the Surface Pro's lack of a Haswell chipset dooms it to half the battery life of the iPad combo.

      Of course, all the eliminated products have an ability or two that make them the obvious choice over the iPad combo that James has settled on.

      Let's repeat that. All the eliminated products are great devices that have a few salient point to recommend their use over the iPad combo James uses in his blogging activities.

      However, the best compromise still seems to be the iPad plus keyboard combo that James wrote about.
      • All of this is irrelevant.

        James has turned a tablet into a PC. The specs are irrelevant. Adding a keyboard essentially turns a tablet into a portable PC. I can't see how anyone would think that such a combination couldn't be used to write when it is, essentially, what we've been using to write for over 30 years.

        What would be more newsworthy is if James used the tablet, and only the tablet, to do all his work.
        • ye: "James has turned a tablet into a PC."

          A tablet is a personal computer (aka 'PC') with or without an external keyboard.

          What's newsworthy (to me) is that Microsoft Office is not necessary on an iPad as there are suitable alternatives available. In the article, James mentions Evernote, Office2 HD and Google Docs (used via the iPad Google Drive app). And, by extension, Microsoft's using its Office suite as a weapon in the tablet war will only serve to make tablet users aware of the alternatives and, ultimately, Microsoft Office will end up losing more market share.
          Rabid Howler Monkey