Handwriting on the iPad Pro
Here’s a quick write up of using the iPad Pro for handwriting.
I’ve seen a lot of opinions from designers and artists on the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil combination, but not much from writers. This post is an attempt to remedy that.
The iPad Pro has been in my toolkit for just under a year now, so I thought I’d discuss my experience with it so far from a handwriting perspective.
Should writers buy an iPad Pro and Pencil?
My goal for my tech setup and writing workflow over the last few years has been to find a way to take the best bits from the analogue and digital worlds.
What do I mean by that?
I value the tactility of writing with a pen: The slowness, the deliberateness, the freedom of writing on the page and making marks wherever I want.
But I also want the benefits of going fully digital: Having my notes synchronised and backed up in the cloud, ready to read across devices and easily shareable with others.
I have also dreamed of credible handwriting recognition, so I can search across my notes without having to manually type them up (which I used to do).
If I could get this best-of-all-worlds workflow set up without a dozen apps and multiple exports/imports each time I make a note, I’d be delighted.
So I bought an iPad Pro & Apple Pencil. And my dream has been realised.
Writing with the Apple Pencil
As a step in the writing process, taking notes – and handwritten notes in particular – is crucial.
Multiple studies have shown that you recall information more accurately and elevate comprehension when you take handwritten notes.
For that reason, I really wanted the Apple Pencil to replicate the handwriting experience. It’s why I went for an iPad Pro over an older model without Pencil support.
So, is it any good for handwriting?
The Pencil is a game-changer.
First of all, the Pencil is much more responsive than a non-Bluetooth enabled stylus.
I previously used a Wacom Bamboo Stylus,which did the job – I edited most of my PhD with one – but it didn’t give the responsiveness, the tactility of a real pen. The Pencil does.
Writing with the Pencil feels like writing with a normal pen; I don’t have the impression that I have to make any compromises to my handwriting technique to make it work.
It’s as long and as thin as a normal pen or pencil. It’s not like writing with a sausage which some digital handwriting options feel like. (I’m looking at you, Livescribe.)
iPad Pro accessories to consider
Here’s my actual gear/app setup:
Obviously, you need an iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is the only category of iPad that works with the Apple Pencil.
You’ll need to get the Pencil separately. Warning: it’s a pricey add-on.
To avoid losing the Pencil and to give the pen and iPad together as buddies (because I’m like that), I looked for an iPad case that incorporated a Pencil holder. Surprisingly, Apple doesn’t produce one of its own.
I went for this one and can highly recommend it. It props up the iPad perfectly and keeps the Pencil in a ready-to-write status: iPad Pro Case with Apple Pencil Holder.
Because I don’t intend for the iPad Pro to be a bona fide desktop replacement, Apple’s keyboard case didn’t appeal to me.
I do, however, have a cheap ’n’ cheerful external Bluetooth keyboard,so I can type directly into the device when I need to. I use Google Docs a lot, and the app works great with a keyboard. (Which I guess means the iPad could be my desktop replacement, even if it’s not my primary use-case.)
A battery pack makes sure I never get caught without power. That said, the battery life of the iPad has been stellar so far, but you never know. I use the monster Anker PowerCore+model, which is bulky but can also charge up my Macbook Pro.
That’s the hardware. Next up is the software.
iPad Pro Apps for writing
Nebo is an Apple Pencil optimised note taking app. You choose the paper-type and then have choices of pen types, colours, and highlighting options to create notes. There’s also a focused-view auto-scrolling option, which I don’t really use but some might like.
Write legibly between the lines and the app will recognise and digitise your handwriting. It doesn’t convert your handwriting on the page, but you can then export a digital version of your note in a variety of formats.
The handwriting recognition algorithm isn’t perfect but the app makes it very easy to choose the correct word as you write with the Pencil. The digitised version appears above your handwriting; to correct the text, you just tap the word and tap the correct word.
This is a really good app that I use all the time.
(I should note that I write non-cursive so that influences my experience with Nebo.)
Paper is a free-form note taking app. You can draw and sketch and write all over the interface. If there’s one criticism I have of Nebo – which is my favourite app right now – it’s that you must write line-by-line for the handwriting recognition algorithm to work properly. I use Paper when I want to scribble and draw lines and arrows and squiggles on the page.
I started using Nebo because it’s effortless to export your handwriting to an RTF text file (which is amazing!!). If you have a Devonthink database on your iPad then your handwritten notes can be uploaded to your desktop version easily.
The killer feature of the Nebo-Devonthink combo is that your notes – if your handwriting is legible – is indexed and becomes searchable. This means that your notes are backed-up and are fully searchable in your desktop Devonthink database. That’s cool. Really, really cool.
This is my favourite PDF reader. There are others like it, but I’ve been with Goodreader for a while now and don’t want to deal with a learning curve. (I’d rather spend the time reading PDFs :-) )
Goodreader syncs with Dropbox, so I store PDFs in a Dropbox folder and keep it synced with my laptop.
I also sync the PDFs attached to my Zotero library to my iPad using ZotFile. This is awesome. My laptop and iPad feel part of the same writing workflow now, not two devices that I sellotape together with odd software hacks.
Overkill? Is an iPad Pro & Apple Pencil worth the money for digital handwriting?
An iPad Pro and Pencil combo are not cheap at all. Are they worth the cost or are they total overkill?
There was nothing broken with my notepad-then-digitise approach that I’ve been using for years. I liked it and it got me through my PhD.
But over the last few months, the iPad Pro has now become my ‘creative hub’. I write, type, read, and annotate on it. I don’t take my paper notebook with me anymore, which, if you knew me, would raise eyebrows.
Using the iPad and the Pencil is a cue to ‘create’ in a different way to sitting in front of my laptop. Holding the Pencil in my hand somehow puts me in a creative/critical frame of mind.
Should you buy one?
The iPad Pro and Pencil tandem fits nicely into my workflow.
It’s a nifty bit of kit, but you have to justify the iPad for your own use case. It’s undoubtedly expensive.
For me, the iPad Pro – the Pencil in particular – turns the iPad from a media consumption device into a content creation device. That’s a big deal.
Even seeing the Pencil clipped into the case gives me (welcome) pangs of guilt that I’m not using it and should be writing.
Is an iPad essential for that? No. But it keeps your handwritten notes digitised, organised, and backed up.
This isn’t a silver-bullet solution that will make you a better writer. But I think that it brings a broad set of useful writing tools and workflows onto one device.
When I have the iPad with me, I can do all the tasks that serious writing projects require. I can read material and take handwritten notes (with all the benefits of handwriting) but also be synced, backed up, and have them searchable.
For me, writing the deliverable – a book, article, or blog post – is so much easier with the iPad and Pencil in my toolkit.
Found this post useful? Get more articles like this in my newsletter. When you subscribe you’ll get a free 36-page eBook on the best writing tools!