i(Pad)OS Handwriting Update: Apple Scribble #amwriting

Illustration of using Apple Scribble
Apple Scribble works on iPads compatible with Apple Pencil

It’s been a while since I reviewed the state of i(Pad)OS handwriting. Part of the reason for my recent purchase of an Adonit Note+ was just so as I could check out Apple’s new iPad handwriting input, Scribble.

Apple Scribble

I’m a big handwriting input fan. I wanted to like Scribble. I really, really did. I tested it with Scrivener and Ulysses, as well as Bear, Pages, Word, Notes, and Google Docs.

Folks, it is not ready for prime time.

Scribble’s fine for short text messages, data entry fields, and the like—text fields that don’t wrap. At least it’s no worse than hasty keyboarding. I’ve seen posts on the Scrivener forum that suggest it’s useful in pure editing mode. People find its ability to select by circling text a big help, and if you’re only substituting one word for another its quirks aren’t as challenging. But attempting to write a paragraph longer than one line drove me to screaming frustration, then back to WritePad in short order.

Scribble recognises handwriting well. It also recognises fast—too fast, and I can’t slow it down. So then I have a stray mark that may or may not be a letter, and may or may not be the beginning of a word I was trying to write. Convincing Scribble to erase any stray mark I accidentally make is an exercise in futility. I can’t erase a single letter, only an entire word. Undo in that case undoes too much—all the text I’d written since I started Scribbling. I can pop up the Scribble keyboard, but I find that I need it so often I just need to leave it open. If I’m going to do that why not just use a handwriting keyboard to begin with?

In order to use Scribble inside text that wraps, you need to have really tiny handwriting that will fit inside a normal line of text. If you stray, your writing will “scratch” over text you’ve already written in the previous line or the next, erasing it. I used the Undo button so much just trying it that I did more undoing than writing. Other possible solutions are zooming (not possible in Ulysses), enlarging the text, or triple-spacing lines, but the last two I’d need to revert later when I switched back to typing.

I could restrict myself to only adding text to the end of a document—but even that didn’t work for me. There was never enough space at the bottom for me to write without deleting, not even in Scrivener or Ulysses with typewriter mode turned on. (Yes, I have big handwriting. I don’t know how other people write so small as to be able to fit their signatures on the tiny spaces available on most forms.)


While Scribble is fine for short text messages and data entry in online forms, I still recommend handwriting keyboard apps for significant text entry in editing and word processing apps. The keyboards avoid the space available problem simply by providing a dedicated data entry area. An added benefit is that they’re also usable on iPhone.

If you’re one of the folks who prefers to use a note-taking app, then copy-and-paste large batches of recognised handwriting, you can give Scribble a try, but I suspect you’ll prefer your current method of working.

My recommended handwriting keyboards, in order of my personal preference:

  1. WritePad I (iPad) / Penquills (iPhone): Each takes time to set up to recognise your handwriting well, but I find the ability to remove mis-recognitions and typos before committing text to document to be a plus. (I prefer the “continuous handwriting” setup, in which I write over my previously recognised text to commit it to the document and start a new recognition, to the “recognition delay” setup, which is more like Scribble: The text is recognised and committed automatically after a configurable delay.)
  2. Selvy PenScript: The current handwriting keyboard most like the late lamented “MyScript Stylus”. It’s my favourite of the “automatic entry” handwriting keyboards (i.e., your handwriting is recognised and automatically committed to the document after a brief delay, like Scribble, WritePad/Penquills with recognition delay enabled, and MyScript Stylus). The recognition delay is configurable (I prefer a slightly longer delay) and alternate recognitions are provided so you can correct mis-recognitions immediately with a single tap.
  3. Mazec: It recognises English handwriting. However, it neither automatically commits your handwriting after delay (Scribble, Selvy PenScript) nor does it permit continuous writing by writing over the previously recognised text (WritePad, Penquills). No, you have to tap Enter after every recognition. It also recognises far fewer languages than either of the other two options. I suggest trying it only if neither of the first two options suits.

Of Touchscreens, Styluses, Elegance, and Kludge

The original Apple iPhone
Elegance: N. The quality of innovative simplicity. In engineering, an elegant design is one that solves a complex problem with breathtaking simplicity, provoking all the engineers who observe it to raw envy of the designer’s mad skillz.

Kludge: (pronounced klooj) N. An awkward, over-complex, but nonetheless minimally functional design. In engineering, a kludgey design is one which provokes its designer to say, “There’s got to be a better way to do this…”

When I first saw an Apple iPhone, the elegance of the capacitative touchscreen blew me away. With a single electronic input device, Apple’s engineers had reduced the number of mechanical switches in a smartphone from roughly 65 to a measly 5, compared to a Blackberry. It vastly reduced the chance of mechanical failure.

The capacitative screen was an improvement on the Palm pressure-activated screen as well, requiring neither pressure nor a stylus. The old Palm screens would wear out, since they depended on making physical contact between the layers of the screen. This could never be a problem with the Apple screen.

But this simplicity and improved reliability had a cost — precision. The touchscreen needed a touch 6 mm (1/4 inch) in diameter — the size of a small finger — in order for the contact to register. This was simultaneously both too big (for drawing or handwriting) and too small (for users with larger hands.)

The first touchscreen styluses were invented as a solution to the “too small” problem. With a conductive body and a rubber tip just big enough to trigger the screen, they enabled people with big hands to use the onscreen keyboard and small controls. For the iPhone, this was (almost) enough.

With the iPad, Apple introduced a screen big enough for handwriting recognition and drawing to be irresistible to app developers, but the precision problem remained. Now third-party hardware companies started getting into the act with “precision” styluses. The problem with these styluses?

Every single one of them is a kludge.

Even the passive precision styluses are kludgey, though they are better than the electronic or bluetooth styluses just because they’re simpler. They have a either a transparent or an open 6 mm tip so that the user can see the line she’s drawing. But the tiny connection of the 6 mm tip to the stylus body is delicate and prone to failure. The flat transparent tips can trap grit that will scratch the screen, no matter how carefully you clean before using.

The electronic styluses generate an electronic signal that fools the touchscreen into thinking that the tip is bigger than it really is. These can have parallax problems, meaning that it’s hard to keep the signal centered on the tiny tip when the user holds the stylus at an angle, producing position error. They are also useless if their batteries run down.

Most of the Bluetooth (BT) styluses are trying to reproduce the experience of drawing on a PC or Mac with a graphics tablet. They generally incorporate a precision tip, either passive or electronic. They also send extra information such as angle, tip pressure, and position via BT to the iOS device, that can be used to implement pressure sensitive response, angle response, and palm rejection. But BT can be slow, and the low energy version used in these styluses can disconnect easily. They don’t connect to the iPad or iPhone as a whole, but only to individual apps that support their special features.

Look at the Amazon ratings for these things. The very best average rating, for durable precision or BT styluses with decent manufacturing quality, is four stars. That’s because people don’t read carefully, run afoul of an admitted limitation, and give a bad rating.

I love my new Pencil by FiftyThree. But I would never recommend it to anyone who didn’t use or want to use at least one of the apps on its partners list, and who understood that not all of the features are supported by every app on the list.

Only the Apple Pencil isn’t a kludge. But it isn’t elegant, either — not to an engineer. Not by the definition above. It works because the screen on the iPad Pro is no longer a pure capacitative touchscreen. It has been redesigned to incorporate other means of getting the position, angle, and pressure information that an Apple Pencil provides, as well as capacitative touch. Without that hardware support in the screen it would be just another BT stylus — which is exactly why Apple never released a stylus until it had the more complex screen in place. It’s that hidden hardware support that keeps the design from seeming elegant, to me. Rather, it’s an example of creeping complexity — not necessarily a bad thing, but not elegant. The truly elegant solution lies elsewhere — and no, I don’t know what it will be.

But when I see it, my jaw will drop.

iThoughts and the Dreaded Outline

An Outline! For Real! Done with iThoughts by Toketaware
An Outline! For Real! Done with iThoughts by Toketaware
Well, there it is in all its multicolored glory. (The image is only two levels deep; the outline goes four levels deep but you’d never see any detail if I took a screenshot that way.)

It took me long enough.

iThoughts is a mindmapping app that runs on Mac and on iOS devices. The really nice thing about iThoughts is that, like Evernote, it’s everywhere. It uses Dropbox, or a WebDAV enabled server or cloud (according to Toketaware, Box and Google GDrive via PocketDAV will work). iCloud is not on the menu, but that’s okay for me. (I stopped using Apple’s service when it stopped being iDrive, and started being opaque.) I can configure as many linked folders as I want (one for each project suits me), and once I’ve set it up, it Just Works ™.

I can designate as many sync formats as I like, on a per-linked-folder basis. My iThoughts documentation folder only uses the iThoughts native format (.itmz), but my outline folder . . .

I have iThoughts iOS automatically sync .itmz, .opml (many outline processors), .xmind (the open source XMind mindmapping program that runs on Mac, Windows and Linux), .docx, .markdown, and .png. This is less than a third of all the formats that iThoughts can sync. Several Windows formats besides XMind are on that long list. If I change any of the outline or mindmap formats on another device, my iOS iThoughts will update its native outline accordingly, then update all those other formats sitting out on Dropbox. Net result: my research, outline, and background information is always available. I can link to Evernote notes. I can clip internet research at least as well as I can in Scrivener.

One thing to note is that iOS iThoughts came first, and the iOS (rather than the desktop Mac) version drives all this synchronization. I can recommend iThoughts for anyone running Windows or Linux on their desktop or laptop computer – choose your weapon (mindmapping or outlining app) and iThoughts will work with it. But if you run Android phones and/or tablets, you’re out of luck.

It works better for me than Scapple, from the people who make Scrivener. I can do just as much free-form brainstorming in iThoughts, and use my synced .opml for import into Scrivener. So, my first-cut chapter headings and synopses (the result of all that outlining) went from iThoughts into Scrivener just as easily as with Literature and Latte’s proprietary index-card brainstorming software. In addition, I can easily have separate titles and synopses for each card, rather than the first sentence of the card being echoed as a title. And I have a beautiful, automatically color-coded two-dimensional map of everything that supports my document. Sorry, Keith.

IMG_2666Finally, iThoughts works as a project management tool. I’ve set up a branch of my structure to track the hours worked on outline (well, once I started using it) and on my new draft, as well as percentage complete. I could get this with other mind-mapping tools, but at a breathtaking cost (more than $200). iThoughts for all my devices, Mac and iPad and iPhone, cost less than $70. I could have gotten by with XMind for Mac (free version, total cash outlay less than $10) but it lacks the time-tracking feature and is harder to use.

So now that I’ve started my draft, I can set up my iPhone on a stand with iThoughts open, and type away in either Index Card or Editorial on my iPad. I can check any of my research and background material on the phone. When I finish a scene, I can update the project management info on my phone and have everything summed up for me. If I use Index Card, I can update my scene’s title, document notes and synopsis. I can update stuff like character or setting information on the iPhone as I go along. I can work anywhere, and have it all show up in Scrivener when I’m back at my Mac.

Yeah, it’s cool.

For the record, I am NOT an affiliate of any software or hardware vendor. I make no money from any of my reviews.

Hard Drive Failure Cranks Camp NaNoWriMo Anxiety Higher

I’ve blogged several times about my Mac-iPad-Scrivener-Evernote writing system. All goes well as long as each component does its part. But lately, my poor mid-2010 Mac Mini has been running slower and slower. I tried several software fixes — clearing caches, rebuilding indexes, even reinstalling stuff that seemed particularly slow, but the problem kept getting worse. I was frantic, screaming at the poor machine when it took forever to check mail or sync Scrivener so I could work at least a little on my iPad. For nearly a week my Mac was virtually unusable until at last, on Monday, I gave up and took it in to the Apple store.

The verdict of the “Genius” was that the hard drive was rapidly failing. Since I was in for at least a $160 drive replacement bill, I went ahead and added another 4GB of memory for a total of 8GB, a new little external hard drive for backup (the one I’d been using was even more ancient than the Mini) and an 8GB thumb drive to use as an emergency startup disk. My Mac is sprightlier and safer than it’s ever been.

But much writing time was lost to futile attempts to fix the Mac myself, more to the backup before service (It took 5 hours!) and yet more to restoring my system yesterday. Camp NaNoWriMo is only six days away. If I weren’t a big girl, I’d break down and cry right here in Starbucks.

Maybe I will anyway.

Lesson learned: Suck it up and pay the bucks to the IT department, AKA the Apple store, before my system falls completely apart. After 15+ years out of Mac software development, I no longer have the expertise to diagnose and fix it myself. And I sure don’t have the time.

— Update —

By popular demand, here are some links to my posts about Macs, Scrivener, iPad and how they fit into my writing universe:

Looking back over my posts, I see that I haven’t blogged much about using Evernote in my writing workflow, just in my GTD implementation. So, a few words about Evernote:

Everything goes into Evernote (EN). If I scribble it on the back of an envelope, I take a picture and put it in EN. I clip webpages, type out plain text notes, make voice recordings — all stored in EN. The only things that aren’t in EN are the actual words of my novel (past or present), scene lists (which live inside the chapter synopses) and a couple of spreadsheets, one of which keeps track of my work hours and the other of which is a partial Martian ephemeris. Those are in Scrivener.

I store everything even remotely writing-related into an EN notebook, called, oddly enough, “Writing.” I use EN tags for the project name (i.e., MyCampNaNo,) Character, Setting, and ProjectNotes. Then while I’m writing on my project, I keep EN open in the background, filtered to the project name. I can quickly switch and search for anything. Even if I misfiled what I’m looking for, I can do an EN search for something that should bring up the document if it’s in EN. Of course, it is in EN if I took note at all.

The advantage for me is that I can take a note and put it into EN with anything — my phone, my iPad, a scrap of paper that I can scan with my iPad later — or even the fancy Moleskine journals which I use when I know I’m going to be doing world-building. I don’t need to have my Mac with me, a good thing because the Mini isn’t portable. (At first I put links to all my EN notes into Scrivener docs that lived in the Research folder there, but that was too much trouble to maintain.) I know it’s contrary to Scrivener doctrine, which has everything related to a project stored in that Scrivener Project, but Scrivener isn’t ubiquitous. EN is.

As a result, when I want to work on my iPad remotely, I don’t have to worry about how to sync my Scrivener notes. They’re all in EN, and they’re always there.


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