Creative Writing: Sure, students can write with their iPad, but that’s not how it can make the biggest difference…it’s when it’s open next to them that iPad really works its magic.
Creative writing triggers
A blank sheet is a daunting prospect for any writer, but give a student a starter idea, and they can usually take it from there. Fortunately, the concept of writing triggers seems to be one that’s fascinating plenty of app developers—there are lots of quality options to try out.
Using the power of randomization
Writing Prompts is an app that cleverly pulls scenario elements from a database of ideas to produce some truly unexpected writing prompts. The developers claim that the app can generate billions of unique results, so while students might see individual elements more than once, it’s vanishingly unlikely that any two students would ever see exactly the same combination.
This randomized approach also means that elements are juxtaposed that might never have been combined otherwise, resulting in some truly quirky and possibility-rich prompts—you might not normally put a car factory, a lost traveler and Dracula’s diary in the same short story, but that’s exactly what one tap of the app produced for me.
The app also includes picture prompts for younger students, together with news headlines pulled from the web, based on searching a random word (eg. “skunk”)…your students might still be stuck for words, but there’s no excuse for being stuck for ideas.
An alternative app that sports a stunning interface, but not nearly so many unique prompt combinations is Inspiro. Again it combines random selections from a database into a single story prompt, with results varying from intriguing ( “a coyote playing a card game with a karate master”) to Salvador Daliesque (“obediently tiptoeing past fluorescent friends”). Be warned though…because the combinations are genuinely random, you might end up with some combinations that you’d rather your students didn’t write about—not everything it throws up is G-rated.
Triggers for younger students
Storywheel removes words entirely from its prompts, instead using images and a slot-machine approach to generate story ideas for young readers. This app also features voice-recording, allowing students to verbally tell their story if writing would otherwise slow them down too much.
Help with characters
The team behind Writing Prompts have also put together Character Prompts—a single click will generate a random description and backstory for a character, but it does so with considerable breadth.
So as well as creating a random name, hometown and occupation, it will also generate physical attributes (height, weight, eye color, distinguishing features etc.), together with personality hallmarks and foibles (bad habits, traits, hobbies, favorite sayings). Students can either work with whatever comes up, reroll until they see something they like, or use the categories to fill in preferred attributes of their own.
Finding the right words
There are plenty of dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri?) on the app store, but an app called Wordflex manages to combine both into a uniquely presented solution that encourages exploration.
Developed in association with Oxford University Press, when the student enters their word, options come flying out from everywhere and then float on the screen, begging to be tapped—some of these words are variations on whatever the student entered, others are words with similar spelling, just in case there had been a typo.
When you do tap on a word, the app turns into a mind-map, radiating related words from whatever you tapped on.
Tap on any of those, and they generate variations of their own—it’s a thesaurus, rendered as a fractal.
Along the way, students will not only stumble on the word that had perhaps been eluding them, but will discover plenty of new words, each of which is presented with audible pronunciation, definitions and origins. Over 2 billion words of information(!) are embedded in this astonishing resource, well worth both the price tag, and the time it will take you to get your head around just what’s possible.
Less visually spectacular and engaging, but offering a brilliant twist of its own is Terminology. Enter any word, and it will list synonyms, as a thesaurus might, but will also suggest words that are either more or less specific. For students who overuse generic words such as “walk”, this will steer them to more precise alternatives (“shuffle” “stride” “march”), while students whose writing tends to get cute with needlessly complex vocabulary can find more reader-friendly option. (Did they really have to use “perambulation”? Who are they impressing?)
For poetry and lyrics
There are a number of solid rhyming dictionaries in the App Store, but RhymeZone stands out for having a why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-this-before feature that should be standard in every rhyming dictionary.
As well as being able to find rhymes of a specific number of syllables, near rhymes, and words with the same consonant patterns, it allows you to search for rhymes with a specified definition.
So, for example, you could ask it to find a word that rhymes with “canary”, but means “move”—it came back with “vary”, “carry”, “ferry”, “hurry” and “flurry”.
Another tool that’s designed with song writers in mind, but would be useful for poets of all sorts is Songwriter’s Pad.As well as all the rhyming dictionary features you’d expect, it allows you to create blocks of text—for chorus, bridge, verses etc—and then drag them around as need be. For any poet who needs to switch around stanzas, this is a great way to assess the impact of different permutations.
Planning and outlining
We look at this in more depth in the chapter on planning, but two programs that shine are OmniOutliner and the OneNote-like Outline+. Both will allow students to plan stories and make whatever notes they need, from a keywords-only brief wireframe to a J.K. Rowling-style million word database of everything.
Another possibility is to use a mindmapping app such as iThoughtsHD or MindMeister—this is a particularly effective option if students are already familiar with the apps from class brainstorming sessions.
No matter which of these various apps students use to plan with, easy drag-and-drop reordering means that they’re free to think in a non-linear fashion, while the document itself makes for a great reference as they walk you through what they have in mind.
Creative writing doesn’t have to be a solo effort—an app called 99 words is designed so that a pair of students can be responsible for a single story. The idea is that after the first student hits 99 words, an email is sent to their partner, who contributes the next 99…and so on, tennis-match style, until 10 of these 99 word “chapters” have been completed. The resultant book can then be reviewed by other students.
Chain-Story works similarly, but allows for a larger team of writers.
Because documents on iPad are so readily shareable though, at a pinch you could get the same system up and running simply using Pages—students would just need to email or bump their section of the story to whoever is next.
Writing with the iPad
There are plenty of solid word-processing apps that mean it’s entirely possible for students not just to plan but actually draft their entire story on their iPad. The main obstacle to using iPad as the only tool you’d ever need for writing is that the on-screen keyboard takes a little getting used to—this limitation all but vanishes though if students are able to plug in a keyboard. (We look at a few possibilities in the chapter on taking notes)
When it’s just the words that matter
Leading the pack is the minimalist iA-Writer, which puts as little as possible between your student and the words they need to draft—it’s just the screen, and whatever they type, so they’re not tempted to waste time fussing about how things look.
If the student needs to finish their draft at home on their PC or Mac, the document can be exported as a text file, and then either emailed, or sent to their DropBox account.
When layout matters too
f their story is also featuring illustrations, or other layout elements, Apple’s own Pages provides a more fully-fledged and familiar word-processing experience.
There are alternatives, but nothing as comprehensive, easy to use and elegant (yet).
Swiss army knife for writing
Probably better suited to secondary school students, Phraseology is another app from the developer behind Terminology (which we looked at at the start of this chapter), which boasts a wealth of options and curiosities for budding creative writers, including a tool that analyzes your text to identify parts of speech. It means, for example, that you can look up just how many adverbs appear in your text, and exactly what they were. You can also look up character and word counts, while giving your writing ratings on the Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease and Grade Level scales, together with Gunning and SMOG index scores…
…ok, so that’s probably not going to be useful for your 5th Grader who’s trying to describe a sunset, but what they will use is a unique feature that allows them to rearrange sentences and paragraphs just by dragging. Again, it’s the iPad making changing your mind easy, so that students are free to experiment.
It’s notoriously difficult for any writer to pick up errors in their own drafts—and I hate writing about it, because in a book of this size I’m bound to have missed plenty of embarrassing examples—but one useful technique is to use iPad’s inbuilt VoiceOver tool to have your iPad read your text back to you. Because it reads exactly what’s there, rather than what you’re assuming should be there, you’ll hear whenever words are omitted, unintentionally repeated, or just not the word you meant at all.
You can enable this from within Settings > General > Accessibility > Vision > Speak Selection—once you’ve enabled it, whenever you select text, you’ll be given the option to “Speak” that text.
There’s an App called ClaroSpeak that offers the same functionality—it can also strip out the text from an otherwise heavily formatted document, so that students are not distracted by images and layout…it’s just the words, warts and all.