iPad, text editors, workflow fragmentation. Again.

I have already written about this, at length, in an article I published eight months ago: iPad, text editors, workflows, and a frustrated digression on simplicity, but earlier today a similar episode as the one I talked about in that piece made all that frustration return.

Let’s get back to one of the points I made then:

When I’m writing fiction, my preferred tool is TextEdit, I write in rich text format, all my files are RTF. Nothing fancy, but I need to see the formatting. I need to see the parts in italics, bold, in smaller font size, that sort of thing. I can’t write fiction in Markdown or HTML like I do when I’m writing articles to be published online or on my Vantage Point magazine.

[…] [T]hese days I’m practically forced to continue my work somewhere else. […] I want to travel light, so I take a small backpack, put the iPad 3 and the Incase Origami Workstation inside, then a few pens and notebooks, and I’m off to the library. Of course, I’ve saved my work in a dedicated Dropbox folder, so I’ll be able to easily resume writing from the iPad.

Once arrived, I set up the Origami Workstation, wake the iPad, and from there — at least theoretically — it’s just a matter of picking a text editor among the few I’ve purchased and— oh wait… None of them will handle my RTF files saved with TextEdit. Not Phraseology, not iA Writer, not Daedalus Touch (my favourite of the bunch), not WriteRight… Then there are apps like UX Write and GoodReader which at least let me read the RTF files I need, but to actually continue my work right where I left it, I have to copy what I wrote, paste it into a new text document (say, in Daedalus Touch) in the same Dropbox folder, and take it from there. And write in plain text, or Markdown, which may be fine with you, but it’s hugely annoying for me.

Sure, if I had to work on the iPad only, or if my setup were iPad-first, Mac as a secondary device, instead of the other way round, my approach would probably be different, and I would perhaps choose my tools more carefully. Still, I would need to use a pleasant application that lets me write in rich text format directly (no, I don’t want to write in Markdown and check the preview all the time). When I publicly expressed my frustration, some suggested I use Microsoft Word for the iPad, or Apple’s Pages both on the Mac and the iPad. These solutions, however, strike me as a bit overkill for my needs, and frankly it’s also a bit silly that I have to compromise and resort to tools I don’t like using just because they do the job (I also don’t want to use iCloud for syncing — it’s a long story that I’ll leave for another article, maybe). I did that back in the 1990s and I hated it.

These past months, when I’ve had to work on texts from my iPad, I resorted to a few tricks and workarounds to mitigate this kind of friction. For example, knowing that I’d continue working on a few text files on the iPad, I would convert them on the Mac beforehand, and upload them ‘iPad-ready’ on a different Dropbox folder. But today I had to perform a slightly different task, I didn’t have time for preparations, and I found myself dealing with the most stupidly fragmented workflow to accomplish a relatively simple goal. It was maddening.

I had a folder with six old RTF documents, written in Italian about twenty years ago, which I needed to edit and then translate into English. The idea was to simply open them and edit them right away in an app, then open a second app where I would create a new document and begin the translation. I don’t have Split View on my old iPad, so I would have to endure a bit of back-and-forth, but nothing overly dramatic. The problem is that I’d forgotten that none of the text-handling apps I have on my iPad (a dozen, more or less) can edit RTF files. So here’s what I did:

  1. Opened the first RTF document in UX Write, an app that can display RTF files but not edit them.
  2. Created a small workflow in Workflow that would convert the RTF text into HTML and copy the converted text to the Clipboard.
  3. Created a new document in Daedalus Touch, pasted the HTML text in there, and tried to get rid of all the useless, superfluous markup by using Find and Replace.
  4. Realised that Daedalus Touch has a Find feature, but apparently not a Replace feature.
  5. Opened WriteRight, pasted the HTML again, and proceeded to remove all unnecessary HTML code via Find and Replace (a feature WriteRight has, thankfully).
  6. Saved the result as a new document in WriteRight.

The time I lost, from Step 0 (becoming aware of the issue) to Step 6, was more than half an hour. If I had had a Mac with me, I would have opened the document in TextEdit, created a new document, stacked the two windows, to then begin working on the translation right away.

Again, perhaps the mistake on my part was in the choice of text editors I bought for the iPad. But see, I like to choose pleasant tools to write with. And there are apps, like Daedalus Touch, iA Writer and WriteRight, that have interesting features, are well-designed, and are generally a pleasure to use. Resorting to Pages or Microsoft Word for iOS is truly overkill when what I would simply like to do is editing an RTF file. It’s as if you needed to crop a picture and slightly retouch a small spot, and someone suggested you use Photoshop.

Most of the text-handling apps that exist for iOS — and there are a lot of them — seem to forget that there are other text formats out there beyond plain text and markdown. Some are great in offering a pleasant environment to write in, but when it comes to importing and editing documents created elsewhere with other software, things begin to quickly fall apart. Sure, I could get yet another app, but isn’t it a bit ridiculous to have 15 different iOS apps to do a job that on the Mac could be easily carried out by just one simple app like TextEdit?

I’m not complaining because on iOS there are too many apps to choose from, mind you! Such variety, such abundance, aren’t bad things at all. What I find a bit exhausting, however, is this silly trend of single-purpose apps or simplistic, minimalistic apps that are very pretty and very fashionable but sorely lack in features apart from some of the most basic stuff.

There’s a long debate going on about the iPad — that it could benefit from more ‘pro’ apps. That way, it could properly transform into a more professional tool, and a device like the iPad Pro would really be expressing all of its potential. Why don’t we start by offering some more ‘pro’ features in apps that are already out there? There must be a decent middle point between something like [insert minimalistic text editor here] and Microsoft Word for iOS, feature-wise. Adapting one’s needs and workflows to one or more apps can be a temporary solution, but in my opinion it’s not the ideal approach. These are tools, and tools should work for us, not the other way round.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!