Scrivener v. iOS, Part 1 — Overall Approaches

KnifeScrivener is the Swiss Army Knife of novel writing programs. Not designed to help a noob with story structure, etc., it is a professional long-form writer’s go-to tool. Scrivener has more features than an Oklahoma bird dog has spots.

That said, it has surprising gaps. One of the most painful is the lack of an iOS (or Android, for that matter) version for mobile devices. Literature & Latte have promised an iOS version Real Soon Now for years. As their last blog entry on the subject was in April, 2013… Well, I won’t hold my breath. As a writer who really loves Scrivener, and who also loves the lightweight freedom of working on a mobile device, my choices are:

  1. Use Scrivener on my desktop Mac via a remote desktop application such as LogMeIn or GoToMyPC. This also works for Windows Scrivener.
  2. Use a patchwork of apps on my desktop Mac and on my iPad to work on portions of my projects on the iPad. This is a Mac-only solution at present.
  3. Bite the bullet and get a laptop. Carry it everywhere. If you’re reading an article about Scrivener v. iOS, you’re likely not interested.

Option 1: Remote Connection
Working remotely is a fair option.

Pros: Every feature of Scrivener is available, since I am in fact logged in to and working on my Mac. If you have Windows Scrivener, this is your only real option. There are remote desktop clients available for Android, as well. This is by far the more versatile solution.

Cons: The various means available to work on a desktop computer from a remote iOS device are, bluntly, kludges (pronounced kloo-jes.) The iPad becomes a giant touchpad, with the various features of a modern mouse simulated by gestures. I find that this option is not practical for long sessions without a BT keyboard for my iPad. Even so, many of the key combos used in ordinary desktop work must still be simulated with a (much reduced) onscreen keyboard. (This is not LogMeIn’s fault, or the fault of any other remote software provider. Apple’s iOS interface to a bluetooth keyboard is limited, and most modifier keys cannot be detected by an app. Since the app on your iOS device can’t detect modifier keys, they can’t be passed on to your remote computer.)

Another problem with this option is that it requires an internet connection, and one with decent bandwidth. Even without sound or video, even with colors dialed back to grayscale and connection optimized for slowness, a remote connection eats data. A 3g connection is too laggy, except at full bars. The WiFi in a typical Starbucks is problematic.

Option 2: External Synchronization
Working with a subset of Scrivener features on an iPad with iPad apps is do-able, and can work well if I respect its limitations, but it has its own problems.

Pros: I can work with native iOS apps. This either eliminates or greatly reduces internet connection requirements. It also means that I can work with interfaces optimized for a touch screen device–no using the iPad as a giant touchpad! I find that working without a BT keyboard becomes more practical, though I still prefer a keyboard for extensive typing.

Cons: This is a Mac-only option; it will not work for Windows Scrivener at present. I must set up Scrivener itself to do external sync. I must use a cloud file service that supports nested folders; DropBox is the only option to work with story structure as well as text content. I can only work with a reduced subset of Scrivener features with iPad apps. I must be disciplined in my workflow to avoid the dreaded “I changed this on both my iPad and my Mac! Crap!” situation. It is possible to lose formatting in the translation from Mac to iOS and back.

I suggest that if you are only going to use your iPad occasionally for work with Scrivener projects, that Option 1, remote desktop usage, is your best choice. It’s possible to work without a BT keyboard for short sessions, and you will have the entire abilities of Scrivener at your command. You need not invest any effort or thought in sync setup. You need not worry about losing formatting or how to optimize your project for synchronization. There are several well-reviewed remote clients in the App Store, some of which are free.

On the other hand, if you plan on using your iOS device in long writing sessions, or far from speedy internet connections, and if you work with a desktop Mac, you may find external sync to be worth the investment in setting up your project for sync and in iOS apps to edit with. Certainly in this case I’d suggest a BT keyboard. I’ll discuss exactly how to massage your Scrivener project for external sync in Part 2.

— Update 16:53 PST, 21 Jan 2014 —

As of today, LogMeIn announced the termination of its free services. Thus, remote desktop options suddenly became a lot less free, although there still are some comparatively cheap options. I’ll discuss a few in Part 2 of this series as well as discussing Scrivener project prep for external sync.


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