Editorial, my new favourite app

A couple weeks ago a friend pointed me to this comprehensive review of the new iPad app Editorial. Since buying my iPad this past April, I've found myself using it more frequently than my laptop. Between the high-resolution screen and the ease of portability, the iPad suits my working style well—I can easily read articles and books on it without getting the same eye-strain I find I get when I read one low-resolution screens at length, and I can easily relocate to the coffee shop or the library as required. Unfortunately, I'm writing my dissertation in HTML, and have struggled with the best way to do so on the iPad. I've had moderate success composing drafts in Evernote and then marking them up in Diet Coda, but this workflow is disruptive and tedious, and opens up opportunities for errors to slip in.

I've often wanted and easier way to mark up my writing on the go, and was intrigued by markdown. I hadn't really seen an app that integrated markdown in a way that would fit well with my workflow, however, and so I never really followed through. Editorial, however, makes it easy to work with markdown, and allows me to compose long documents to be posted to the web without having to switch between multiple apps. In addition, Editorial has a number of features that improve writing on the iPad in general, such as an improved keyboard, built-in web browser, and shortcuts for frequently typed phrases or formatting. While I won't go into everything here (read Federico Viticci's above-linked review for an in-depth exploration of the app), I wanted to touch on some of the most important features for my type of work, which will hopefully interest other scholars, especially digital humanists.

One of the most helpful features of Editorial is the fact that it works with markdown. For those who haven't encountered markdown before, it is a system for marking up a document that will ultimately be converted to an HTML file, but without having to work with all the awkward tags. Instead, markdown uses simple combinations of common characters to allow you to mark up your writing with minimal disruption as you compose. For example, rather than having to enclose text in <em> tags to have it appear italicized, we simply wrap our text in asterisks: *this*, when converted to HTML, will appear as this. Markdown is a fairly robust system, and there should be syntax for most everything you need. If you find markdown too limiting, you can also use multimarkdown, an expanded version of markdown that adds syntax to handle more complicated work. While Editorial provides a helpful live preview of your markdown, indicating what it will look like when published, markdown can be written using any text editor. Editorial facilitates your ability to work with other applications by saving all your work to Dropbox. Thanks to this feature, you can work with your documents from any computer with Internet access. The ease and portability of Dropbox-synced markdown files makes Editorial an easy app to integrate into your regular routine, as it requires little training and avoids locking your files into a specific app.

While there are a number of ways to work with markdown on the iPad, one of the features that makes Editorial such a singularly helpful app is that it allows you to build automated workflows. These workflows allow you to process text, distribute writing, analyse text, and perform other such tasks repeatedly and efficiently. The power of these workflows is such that almost all of the built-in commands in Editorial are programmed through workflows, and are available for users to investigate and modify.

The workflows themselves are relatively simple to build: each workflow is composed of a number of Lego-like blocks that plug into one another, much as you would do with Apple's Automator) software or MIT's Scratch programming language. Blocks exist to allow you to select specific text, to accept user input, to pull text out of Evernote, to create emails or tweets, to modify content, and much more. If you find the existing blocks limiting, Editorial allows you to create blocks that process Python code. The addition of Python code allows users to program their workflows to work well beyond anything a regular word processor would allow: I can easily imagine workflows built to generate and publish epoetry, to play interactive, or to generate ASCII art.

My own efforts have been much more modest. As I am currently working on my dissertation, I've been looking for a handy way to organise my citations. While Zotero, Mendeley, and other options exist, they have never fit well with my workflow—I wanted to be able to simply dump citations into a file that could be sorted at my convenience. With Editorial, I was able to quickly compose a workflow that grabs the contents of a bibliography file of entries separated by a blank line, splits the entries apart using Python, sorts them, and then recomposes the entries in a completed bibliography. The workflow is available here for anyone interested either in using the workflow themselves, or just in seeing how Editorial workflows work.

One of the advantages of Editorial for digital humanists is that it provides tools for much of the work we do. Writing articles, blog posts, tweets, and research notes is simple and straightforward, but it is also just as simple to actually do research and text processing right within the app. Any form of statistical analysis that can be programmed using the many included Python modules (a list is available here) can be run without leaving Editorial, and the results can be effortlessly imported into your current research project.

While DH work is varied and requires work in a number of languages and styles, Python, with its powerful text-processing capabilities and extreme ease of use, is a valuable language to know, and can be adapted to perform many of the tasks that are required of scholars interested in text processing. Those who may find Editorial's implementation of Python somewhat limiting will be interested to know that omz:software, the developer of Editorial, has also developed Pythonista a dedicated Python app that expands on the capabilities of Editorial.

I've found Editorial to be an invaluable addition to my workflow, and imagine that I will use it to write the remainder of my dissertation, as well as many more projects in the years to come. iPads and other tablets have often been criticised for being developed entirely for consumption rather than production and creation. While these criticisms are, to a limited extent, true, they are rapidly becoming obsolete. Mobile app developers have been rising to the challenge, and have developed a number of powerful tools for creating a variety of content. These apps don't replace desktop tools, per se, but they provide a powerful supplement, and I can easily imagine using some of them, such as Editorial, as part of my primary workflow. I encourage you all to check Editorial out, and look forward to seeing how others use it. Feel free to share your stories and workflows—if I get enough interest, I'll post a follow up.