App-tacular: Writing on Phones, Smart Phones, and Tablets

Pen and paper, typewriter, computer: these are the typical tools most of us use when we sit down to write. These implements are traditional and comfortable and produce a predictable result. At least that’s how we feel about them now. Think back when each of these items came into the mainstream market, how much they revolutionized the process. Pen and paper, in some form or another, have been around a VERY long time, but before people had these things readily available to them, stories were literally written in stone, or passed along orally. Imagine the process of imagining and recording a story back then. Either you had the tools and the skill to actually sketch (possibly as pictures) your story onto a cave wall or slab of rock, or you memorized your story and recited it orally as a poem or song.

Imagine, too, the transition, a few thousand years later, to the typewriter. Your average writer put everything on paper, but then came this machine that sped up the process and completely changed the writing process. Then the computer arrived! Cut and paste! Multiple saved drafts! Ability to make numerous copies! Hallelujah! While the activity—stringing words together to create meaning—is basically the same, the experience is totally different with each new tool. 

Now we are dealing with new ways to both read and write. eBooks, web content, smart phones: writers seem to be embracing them as new methods for not only viewing content, but writing it as well. I can’t imagine writing a novel using SMS, but people have done it! Facebook? Yes! The addition of smart phones and tablets to our world has opened up yet another platform for writers, and applications are popping up all over that claim to be great for writing manuscripts and sharing stories. Is this just wishful thinking on the part of the app developers and the devices they design for (iPad, iPhone, Android phones, Nooks, Kindles, etc.)? Or is this really a new trend in the writing world? Will the next great novel be written on a Blackberry? An iPad? A Nook? Are eReaders the new eWriters? This article will explore a few of the non-traditional ways that people are writing now, and address how the experience of using these new methods changes the writing approach.

Cell Phone Novel

A few years back, there was a story about a Japanese woman who wrote a novel in a series of text messages on her cell phone while she commuted back and forth to work. And what’s more amazing than that is the print version of the novel sold 400,000 copies (as of 2008). She apparently was neither the first nor the last person to thumb novel-length missives in tiny increments. These cell phone novels, called keitai shosetsu in Japanese, are incredibly popular and abundant. Typically the stories are hard-core crime dramas or sordid love stories rife with disturbing subject such as rape, murder, love-triangles, illegitimate pregnancies, etc. They are primarily written and read by young women, but not exclusively so. Novels are uploaded to sites where users can choose a genre or story and have it sent to their phones, one text at a time, or download sections to their eReaders. In the US, textnovel.com is the first of these sort of sites.

Though I have not tried it myself, noveling in this way must present a special kind of challenge. First you must be very organized and have a firm grip on your story and its plot. While you have plenty of time between texts to get the next sentence perfectly right, you are still maintaining a very controlled flow of information. This would require each sentence to be very strong. I can’t imagine readers staying with a story that has a lot of fluffy detail if they have to read it one sentence at a time. Stories written in this way require action, constant movement of plot and characters to keep it alive. That’s probably why novels written this way are typically high drama. I don’t think Bridge of Madison County could ever be written (or read) as a Cell Phone Novel. It’s too slow, has too much exposition. To write a Cell Phone Novel, a writer must actively move the plot forward with every word and waste no time on minor details.

Twitter Novel

For Twitter, it’s basically the same thing as the Cell Phone Novel—a story meted out in 140-character snippets—except the audience is already collected on a single site, no need to upload to a third-party. Just type and send and anyone following you will get the next little bit of your literary brilliance. The genre has attracted a few big names Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) and Melvin Burgess (@MelvinBurgess) started Twitter novels in 2009

There are websites devoted to coaching would-be Twitter novelists on the best way to use this medium. Twittip.com has a page that lists the do’s and don’ts of Twitter noveling. The list notes that each tweet must be meaningful and move the story along. Again, there isn’t much room for excessive exposition. The website also advises that Twitter novelists can capitalize on the real-time aspect of the format. If something in the novel happens in the morning, tweet it in the morning, or tweet a big plot twist as a news headline. Take advantage of the format to do new things with your storytelling. Though you wouldn’t be writing a full manuscript, tweeting a novel takes careful planning; you are not writing it on the fly. This makes sense as pushing that tweet button is basically instant publication, and most writers would want to thoroughly vet their writing before it’s published.

Facebook Novel

On Facebook, there are no character limits, but the concept is the same—small installments parsed out over time. The particularly interesting factor of this iteration is that novels are not written by a single person. Rather, stories-as-status-updates can be added onto by anyone who is friends with the main poster. In this way, the story is a collaborative effort where the control is in the hands of the reader.

In 2010, an Austrian writer, Gergely Teglasy, launched the first (or so he claims) Facebook Novel. The story starts with the initial status update of the character, Zwirbler. (In German, “zwirblen” means "to twist," so a Zwirbler is a person who “twists.")  Readers can add their own plot “twists” and send Zwirbler on all kinds of adventures. This approach makes sense in the Facebook model which is designed to allow input from multiple people on a particular post. The page owner still can control the content (deleting posts or pushing the story away from the plot cliff), but it is a sort of upgrade to the choose-your-own-adventure books that were popular way back when.

Tablet Novels

All the major tablets and some of the smart phones offer at least some writing apps. Most are labeled as “productive,” meaning they are aimed at list makers and people looking for virtual versions of the ubiquitous sticky note. Others are labeled as “educational” and are designed for learners (usually young learners) to practice writing skills, grammar, and even penmanship. Some, like Pages for the iPad, are basic word processors that act as less powerful analogs of word processing powerhouses like Microsoft Word. There are a few, however, that aim directly at creative writers and have a host of features that go above and beyond basic word processing.

Chapters for iPad allows users to create multiple notebooks to use for journaling or for organizing that novel.  Most of the features are cosmetic—like changing the color of the notebook, or adding photos, but if you were putting together a larger piece of work, this might work great for parceling out different sections of the story without having the create multiple files or having to keep them linear in a single document. My Writing Spot offers a similar platform with chapters and options for separating out your ideas. It also links up to a web app, too, so you can work on a piece from a standard computer or laptop when you have the opportunity. Also, My Writing Spot syncs with the web app, so no saving and sending.  Manuscript for iPad allows for high-level organization of your story, including interfacing for crafting your pitch, synopsis, and chapter outline. It has built-in research features for looking up words, etc. and index cards for jotting down ideas to organize later. It’s definitely a step up from standard word processing as you can keep all your notes on the app itself instead of scattered around on post-its or as homeless cut-and-paste paragraphs at the bottom of your story. (I’m assuming I’m not the only person who does that, right?)

It is worth noting that, despite these app makers’ best intentions, writing on a tablet is not really like writing on a computer. If you want to get really anal about it, writing on a laptop is not really like writing on a desktop. May not seem really revolutionary at the moment, but not that long ago, if you wanted to work on your novel at your favorite coffee shop, you had to use pen and paper. The tablet is just one more step in portability. With a tablet, you are not necessarily connected to a power source, a table top, or even a keyboard. Cutting and pasting is done with finger drags, and if you have an iPad, you don’t even have to remember to save—it’s automatic. I own both an iPad and a Nook. The Nook onscreen keyboard is too dainty, in my opinion, to really do much more than a few paragraphs or basic editing. The iPad is better; however, when I want to do any serious writing, I use an external keyboard. Admittedly, there is something about writing on the tablets that feels less formal to me, and I find myself caring less about typos or formatting snafus. It could, potentially, make me a very lazy writer.  I will be interested to find out if these new technologies truly replace the laptops and become the primary implement for doing all the things we used our laptops for, or if they are just entertainment devices that sometimes stand in to do some real work, albeit clumsily.

App Novels

In addition to the word processing applications, I have also come across apps that are created specifically for storytelling. Stories Unbound is an app developed in cooperation with the Melbourne Writer’s Festival. It allows registrants to write directly in the app and upload a story that can be shared with the global network of writers and readers. Like Cell Phone and Twitter Novels, it’s instant publication to a wide audience. Entries are plotted on a map, so you can see where the writer is from or look for writers in your area. As for the quality, it’s all over the board. As with all things public, you get a variety. One story was downright offensive and made no sense as a story.  Seemed more like someone uploaded a rant. Others were more serious, but most were pretty short. This seems unsurprising to me as writing directly on a tablet or smart phone app is taxing and not conducive to longer pieces of work.

Though not designed specifically for writing, there are other apps out there that may help. Dictionary and grammar apps abound, and If you’re stuck for ideas, there are prompt apps like Storyteller or StoryPrompts which give you randomized ideas for plots, characters, etc. It’s the app version of Plotto. They could be very helpful, but then you also wonder if after enough people use apps like this, will there be a sudden increase of stories about “flustered monks”? (Click the Storyteller hyperlink to see what the heck I’m talking about.)

What About You?

Instead of an assignment, I’d rather open up a discussion. Have you ever used one of these methods to write a story? What was your experience? How do you feel about writing on a tablet or smart phone instead of a computer? Have you written/read a Cell Phone Novel or contributed to a Facebook Novel? Are these things fads? Or is this what writing will be in the future? As our writing world evolves, I think it’s worth taking a moment to sound off on how these new tools are working for us. Please share in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what you think (‘cause I know you have an opinion.)


Photo of Nick Belardes via FuturePerfectPublishing.com

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

misskokamon's picture
misskokamon from San Francisco is reading The Moonlit Mind April 4, 2012 - 12:34pm

I've never tried writing a novel on anything other than a notebook, a typewriter, or a computer. That being said, I'm not against it.

My first tablet arrived yesterday. One of the selling points for me was that Scrivener is set to debut on the iPad some time this year. I look forward to using the iPad as a writing tool, when that time comes. 

Often, I think about turning my monitor on its side while I write. I like the feeling of seeing the page in its entirety as the words appear on the screen. Unfortunately, I do most of my writing on a laptop, and you can't exactly turn the laptop's screen on it's side. That's where the iPad might come in handy, in the future -- the ability to have my document open, portrait style, along with an external keyboard is gold. 

There is also the ultraportability factor. My macbook Air is labeled as an ultraportable laptop, but I don't see myself taking it everywhere I go (unless it's NaNoWriMo month.) Oftentimes I'm struck with inspiration while at lunch or on the train, however, and with nothing to write with. The iPad is small, light, and fits into almost every purse I own, so it'd be a fantastic tool for those bursts of creativity. Some would argue a notebook would do the same, but I'm too organized -- if I go with the notebook system, I'll need a notebook for every idea. Then, of course, I'd be carrying around too many notebooks at a time, plus a sketchbook, plus my Kindle, plus -- well, the list goes on. For a person like me, having an iPad for writing (and art) purposes consolidates the load I'd be dragging to and from an office every day. 

But a novel on phones? on twitter? on Facebook? I'd struggle with that. No. I wouldn't even attempt one on a phone, not with my typo rate and the nasty autocorrect I can't seem to turn off. Maybe Twitter, though. I find that Twitter does one of two things to people: turns their writing into idiot drivel, or turns their writing into something strong, based on the character limit. If done right, I think a novel on Twitter would be a fantastic writing exercise! 

Veronica Sicoe's picture
Veronica Sicoe April 4, 2012 - 2:09pm

Great article, and very interesting topic, Taylor. 

I write wherever I get the chance, but 99% of the time it's some laptop or another. I carry my projects around on a flash drive that I meticulously back up a thousand fold. 

I've recently started reading ebook after ebook on my iPhone (Kindle app), and even though an iPad sounds very tempting, I can't really imagine anything bigger than a smartphone to be truly portable. Let me put it this way: if I can't stick it in the pocket of my jeans, it's not portable. :P

Next: trying to write a lengthier text on my sweet iPhone. I bet that's a challenge, but hell, when the creative bug bites, anything goes.

jennydecki's picture
jennydecki from Chicagoland is reading The Foreigners April 4, 2012 - 2:11pm

I don't write whole stories using my smartphone, but I do use my voice, the bluetooth in my car, and the notes app to write paragraph upon paragraph while I'm driving. I started using the Dragon Naturally Speaking app to see if it was more accurate and now have paragraphs here, there, and everywhere in my phone.

I feel like I've caught many more ideas since I've done tihs. Things I would ahve thought in the car and then hoped I would remember later but, of course, never did. It's an effective tool, but I hate blogging and cannot imagine using a social media outlet to write a whole story. In the future, who knows? LOL

Chester Pane's picture
Chester Pane from Portland, Oregon is reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz April 4, 2012 - 3:43pm

Great article Taylor. Very prevalent. I fiddle with both writing and reading with these tools right now, but I am convinced they will become bigger and bigger as time goes on--or smaller and smaller...  

One element with the text novel or phone novels is that they function well on the move and can be digested or executed (like you said) in snippets. That is big nowadays as our lives are increasingly fragmented.

This also feeds into the shrinking attention spans most people seem to be developing--particularly the next big market--the youngsters. That is the real gauge. And with two teens I see it in action everyday--their hands are glued to their handhelds. 

But the current implements or devices have not caught up to what is happening yet. Sure, they are portable, but they are cumbersome for both reading and writing.

This is going to change as handhelds, equipped with holographic (likely nano-based) displays and typing App-aratuses replace laptops and their keyboards. The hands themselves will likely become the device. Maybe the fingernails will be encoded or something. But it seems as though these bulky i-phones and tablets will soon disappear as well as they are replaced by lighter alternatives.

Portability is the future. Anywhere, anytime--but comfortably. Technology has a ways to go though. It should be exciting to watch. And I think it will go way beyond fad.

But I am usually wrong.

Bobby Detrick's picture
Bobby Detrick from Bakersfield CA is reading World War Z and The Hunger Games April 4, 2012 - 6:24pm

Nick Belardes (The guy in the Pic) Is a great author. He was the first to write a twitter novel. It is called Small Places. Be sure to check it out @SmallPlaces. He has also written two published books Random Obsessions and Lords Part One. Besure to check them out on Amazon.com. Though not much is said about him on this column try checking him out on your own on FaceBook :)  Great Column by the way Taylor!

 

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 April 4, 2012 - 7:08pm

I've attempted to write on my iPhone, but without a Bluetooth keyboard it's too tedious for my taste. I do read a tremendous amount of ebooks and articles on my phone, however, and I embrace any creative use of social networks.

I'm purchasing an iPad this summer and I plan to do all my writing on it. I'll use an external keyboard primarily, but I've gotten used to the onscreen keys as well. The biggest draw for me is the ability to make notes and stet marks in PDF editing apps with a stylus, just as though I've printed my manuscript and I'm using a pen. I'm all about wasting less paper.

JackieMR's picture
JackieMR from Illinios is reading something interesting April 4, 2012 - 10:19pm

I've attemted to write on my iTouch and a friend's iPad, but both feel strangely cumbersome to me. To me, the writing apps on these just aren't up to the standard I've come to accept from programs like Word. And besides: I've always considered these devices to primarily entertainment centered. Too many distractions for this writer to ever get work done...

Nick Belardes's picture
Nick Belardes April 5, 2012 - 10:44am

On the topic of writing on a smart phone I will quote myself from my nonfiction piece, "Cellrunner" on The Nervous Breakdown, Sept. 21, 2010:

"I am a cellrunner. There’s no doubting my obsession and ability to plug in as I head out on a city bus to write and steal juice from the bent steel city."

Nowadays, I use the app, "Write 2," on my iPhone. I write poetry, fiction, nonfiction, brainstorm and journal using my phone. It's portable. And there's always an outlet to be found to juice up.

As for social media platforms for experimental writing of any form, I think it's an important medium to try something new. It's there, isn't it? It's free, right? And, if you play it right, there's an audience built right in.

"Small Places" was an experiment and a fun one. I tweeted it between April 25, 2008 and March 8, 2010. It was the first literary Twitter novel. I found some folks, including Jay Bushman, experimenting with sci-fi adaptations, sci-fi and erotica, but that was it. And of course, it was sparked by having researched cell phone novels, what kind of people were using twitter (many journalists like me and marketing folks), which made for a nice viral sort of stew to experiment in. I sent out no press releases, no PR firms knew about it. It was just a fun experiment. The story made The Christian Science Monitor, U.K. Guardian, the front cover of "The Bohemian," Metroactive. And got a mention on NPR, TV news, and more. "Small Places" was also used as part of a curriculum in English courses in a college in Montreal, Canada. I want to say it is Lajeune College. But I forget the name. I'm in California.

I only mention all of that notoreity, not to gloat, but because when you are experimenting with social media, you never know what can happen. As writers, it's important that we try new ways to reach people, because to be honest, publishers do less and less for writers to reach an audience.

So, is Tweeting or Facebooking a novel a fad? No, experimental fiction has been around as long as storytelling has been around.

And as for your mention of the Twittip, which I have never looked at, I say don't listen to it. Be innovative on your own. I wrote "Small Places" in part from a partial manuscript I wasn't using, in part from writing and editing on the fly, and sometimes writing beforehand, molding little packages of tweets.

Thanks for using my photo. I took that pic in a hallway for an article for Brazil's top newspaper, "Folha," which did an article on tweeting novels. I only ever gave the newspaper permission to use that pic. But I don't mind. It's interesting to see how even a photo can get re-used.

Bobby Detrick's picture
Bobby Detrick from Bakersfield CA is reading World War Z and The Hunger Games April 5, 2012 - 4:40pm

Nice post Nick.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow April 5, 2012 - 6:00pm

Wow, I'm so interested to hear how many people are making use of these new methods for writing and sharing. Though I personally still feel most comfortable writing on a keyboard, I have been making longer forays into the world of writing with my iPad & iPhone. I am writing this on my phone right now.

I also think that experimentation is key, and it keeps all of us from getting too set in our ways. So while I am a little far from the cutting edge, I'm glad others are forging the way.

I will totally have to try writing with voice recognition in the car! I get all my ideas during my long commutes, and then lose most of them!

Nick: The editors found that picture for me. Admittedly, I did not run across your Twitter novel in my research, and now I feel shamed! Hopefully this article will garner some more attention for you and your work! Thanks for letting us use the photo! And I will have to check out Small Places! Can you still find it on Twitter? Thank you for sharing your experience with us! It's great to know a pioneer in the field had success with an experiment!

Thanks everyone for reading & commenting. I think these conversations are so inspiring!

Happy writing to all, whatever your method!

Nick Belardes's picture
Nick Belardes April 12, 2012 - 4:07pm

Hi Taylor,

Small Places is still online. I linked to it in my last comment. I also have another waiting to go: @bumblesquare. Been talking to a major newspaper for a while now in hopes of launching it through the media.

I agree. Such conversations are always inspiring. And just the fact that you tackled this topic means literary experimentation via social media and cell technology isn't dead. It's still thriving.

Good job writing your comment on your phone!

Stacy_R_Haynes's picture
Stacy_R_Haynes from North Charleston, SC is reading Coffee Break Screenwriter April 20, 2012 - 5:53am

Great article.  

I'm all for new ways of trying to write and be productive. Normally I write with pen and paper, or my laptop, but I'm dow for experimenting with new ways to write.  

I've used the Notes application on my iPhone to write out paragraphs and ideas down for stories and blog posts. I would like to use the voice recording feature on my phone as it is available for use.  I'm used to texting so the keyboard is not a hassle.  The auto-correct, however knows how to obscure words if I'm not being careful.  

Typed an article for a website using the Pages app with the iPad. I was told my text was a little rougher than usual.  Still haven't gotten use to the iPad in regards to typing, but I don't mind improving on it's use either.