Blog Post

How free Office for iPad and Dropbox integration might change my writing workflow

In the end, it may come down to smart quotes.

One of my long-running frustrations with iOS Pages is the default quote character isn’t the quote character used for dialogue, but instead the character for inches. When you’re writing fiction, this is not a minor inconvenience – it’s an extra couple of taps for each line of dialogue. I ended up writing a Text Expander snippet to help with this. If I typed “lqt” or “rqt” Text Expander would insert the appropriate character. It’s a pain in the butt, but it’s a way around the problem. Word for the iPad does not have this problem as it automatically inserts the proper quotes. While I can solve this with a find and replace, I try to limit the steps I need to take post production.

With that in mind, I’m going to talk about how Microsoft making Office sort of free on iOS, as well as Office for iOS now working with Dropbox, will affect my freelance and personal writing workflow.

My goals are pretty straightforward: to get my writing done with as few roadblocks as possible.

My current writing workflow

Writing apps
I use two apps for most of my writing. Everything that goes up on the web starts in Byword (either on iOS or OS X) and ends in the CMS of the site. My fiction writing for the most part stays in Pages (again, either on iOS or OS X). I use Byword for my web writing because it’s the best Markdown editor I’ve seen. Pages has always been a lesser of evils for me. I don’t use Office on iPad enough to carry a subscription (though I would sometimes subscribe if I knew I was going to be editing Word documents a lot), so Pages was a decent way to work on long-form articles. Well, except for that whole quote thing.

Cloud Storage
I’m spread between iCloud Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive. The fact I’m spread this thin offends my sense of elegance and drives my OCD crazy. I’ve ended up in this state because iWork documents work best in iCloud, some of my apps only support Dropbox, the Office documents only worked in OneDrive, and my Google Drive was a free way of storing 30 gigs of scanned guitar magazines. I don’t usually need Finder-level access to the magazines, so I just keep them on Google Drive and not sync them to my Mac.

One nice thing about how iOS used to force siloed apps is I stopped having to think about one storage place for my folders. I got used to the idea that I’d open Byword and access my Markdown files. It didn’t really matter that they might be in Dropbox or iCloud.

Other than my OCD bothering me that I had my digital life scattered around, this wasn’t a horrible process. I could usually focus on the right app for the job. The only complaint I had is that in some cases, Word was the right app for the job, but unless I wanted a subscription I’d end up making do in Pages.

What my new workflow may be like

The combination of free basic editing in Word and its support for Dropbox have made re-evaluate this.

In an ideal situation, Office for iOS would use iOS 8’s new Document Picker. In that case, I’d just keep on using iCloud Drive. Sadly, for reasons of its own, Microsoft has chosen to not allow this. This means, with the exception of iWork, pretty much all of my iOS apps save their data into Dropbox. I was fine with the 256GB iCloud plan. Now, I’ve also upgraded to the 1TB Dropbox plan and started combining my OneDrive, most of my iCloud Drive, and Google Drive data into it.

Office could replace iWork for my long-form writing. I will continue to write my web articles in Byword. I’m also going to look at using Editorial on iOS for some writing also. What I”m interested in is the various workflows that are available within the app. It also handles smart quotes wonderfully.

Where I could change my mind

There are two potential issues I could have: the limitations of the free edition of Word could end up being a larger problem, and one advantage of iCloud is whenever I open Pages, it will automatically download the latest updates to my files.

The limitations to Word aren’t too onerous. The biggest one for me will be the inability to add in page and section breaks. I’m not sure how this will play out. For my work files, it would be a problem. For my fiction, it wouldn’t be. I can do the final formatting on Word on my Mac, or if I wanted to, I could add in the page breaks on Pages on the iPad. Upgrading to a full Office 365 account would eliminate the limitations, and give me unlimited storage on OneDrive to boot. I thought of going this route instead of Dropbox, but didn’t. The main reason is not all of my apps also integrate with OneDrive, and I’ve run into issues with OneDrive and deeply nested folders causing sync errors.

The automatic downloads of iCloud files in iWork is very handy, and likely to be the sole piece that could sway me back. It’s not often I’m without an internet connection, but it’s nice knowing all of my files are always there. I have not had the syncing issues David Sparks experienced.

I made a conscious decision this year to move my mobile computing needs to iOS. By moving my files to Dropbox and using apps like Word, Editorial, and Byword barriers continue to be eliminated.

3 Responses to “How free Office for iPad and Dropbox integration might change my writing workflow”

    • I don’t even like using the on-screen keyboard for the iPad on anything longer than a couple paragraphs anyway – just uncomfortable. Small bluetooth keyboards are really cheap, and if mobility is an issue just spend the extra to get one built into a kickstand case. Then you aren’t limited by software no matter what you decide to use.