Writing on an iPad is Different

Jason Snell of Macworld and TechHive has written an interesting thoughtful essay “Why I’m writing on the iPad” about how writing using his iPad and the on-screen keyboard has changed his writing process, and, he thinks, the final text. You should go read his essay; it’s well written, and thoughtful.

I want to pick up a few specific ideas that struck a chord with me. First this bit:

I’m no Oliver Sacks, but I’d wager that I’m just not taking more time to choose my words, but I’m actually using different parts of my brain when I write this way. And not only does the actual act of writing feel different, but the end result feels different to me too.

I’m no Oliver Sacks either, but I do know a lot about the writing process, writing systems, and, through an odd neurological quirk, my own neurological text processing. I’m profoundly dyslexic and dysphonetic ( I know, I know, but by the time I discovered why writing was so hard for me, I was already a Ph.D. candidate in English). I moved to writing on a computer when my older brother told me about WordStar and started bringing home Trash-80s, Exidy Sorcerers and Apple IIs to debug code for Instant Software games.

I prefer to write on a keyboard because the letters are automatically always facing the right way, and it’s easier for me to put the correct letters in the correct order. When I write in longhand, or I print, no matter how carefully or slowly I write, I’m much more likely to put the right letters in the wrong order. It’s an entirely different kinesthetic memory for me.

But when I started taking classes in paleography and calligraphy as all good Medievalists do, I noticed that the discipline required to write the letters correctly using the correct stroke order generated far fewer errors. In my case it wasn’t a matter of speed as much as it was a matter of using different parts of my brain. And eventually, via participation in a live functional MRI scan, I discovered that at least in my case, I’m using different areas of my brain when I write with a pen on paper, when I write as a paleographer, and when I keyboard.

Lately, as I’ve experimented with using a stylus (rather than a keyboard) on my iPad to write, or dictation, I’ noticing that those tools affect my composition process. Dictation especially makes me inclined to write less academic and more casual prose because of my desire to avoid punctuation.

Jason Snell also notes:

The iPad also offers a remarkable lack of distractions. When I write on my Mac I find I am endlessly checking Twitter and email and my weather station’s current conditions page and anything else I can find to distract myself from the difficult task of putting one word in front of another. On the iPad, I am more focused—and when I do finally take a break to check my email, it feels like an actual break, not a distraction.

In the last several years I’ve noticed a number of smaller word processors designed for writers that feature the ability to devote the full screen to the text editor as a way to remove distractions. WriteRoom is one of those. I suspect that that’s part of the attraction of the OS X Full Screen mode for many. But while I understand the importance of keeping a mind on task, and not being distracted by Twitter, email, or YouTube, I also know that for many writers doing something else is not so much being distracted as letting their hind brain work on writing and (especially for fiction writers, but not exclusively) figuring out what happens next.

As someone who doesn’t write fiction but does write, I know that there are times that stepping away from the text in question and doing something unrelated, whether it’s playing a game, writing a short email or blog post, or going for a walk, or washing dishes, helps me figure out the next thing to write, or unravel a structural knot I’ve created for myself. And sometimes, I return to writing a draft in long hand (or often, printing) on paper with a fountain pen.