The iPhone novel

One of the more read, and possibly most searched for, pieces on this site is the one where I declare that I’m writing a novel on my iPhone. Years later, this post still generates a decent amount of views, tweets, and emails from curious readers. In other words, this follow up is long overdue.

First of all, I did indeed write a novel on my iPhone. I set a reasonable word count target per day, at a mere 300 words, to avoid getting too fatigued or end up straining my thumbs for longer sessions. Most days, I’d write more than 300 words, but rarely over 500, which means that the sessions were limited enough. Never once did I experience any discomfort from all that thumb-typing, which was reassuring.

To make sure that the writing would be as low friction as possible, and not impact any of my other projects, I outlined pretty heavily before starting. The idea wasn’t to just write on this project, I’d do it parallel to others, while doing other work. I not only wanted to figure out if it was feasible (possible was never doubted) to write a novel on an iPhone (or similar mobile device), and if it was, to see if the process was different enough to be done beside regular work. Making it easy to start writing every day, whenever there was a few minutes to spare, was key, or so I thought when I started this project at least.

So, the goals were as follows:

  • Write a novel solely on my iPhone (which could be any smartphone really, but I stick to iPhones).
  • Write 300 words every day (or at least try to).
  • Avoid fatigue and/or strain on my thumbs, because if that would happen it’d mean that the setup is a bad one for writing.
  • Make sure that other work (of all kinds) didn’t suffer for this additional writing session.
  • Manuscript target length: 55,000+ words.

55,000 words would take roughly 183 days to reach, at 300 words daily. I knew I’d write more some days, but I also knew that I might miss some, albeit not many given the nature of the experiment.

This is what happened

I did indeed finish my manuscript, sticking mostly to my outline, with every word thumb-typed on an iPhone. I didn’t hit the target word count though, the first version of the novel is just shy of 40,000 words. That could be due to sloppy outlining, but I don’t think so. No, something else happened.

You see, normally when I write fiction I tend to write at least 1,500 words, usually over 2,000. When I’m knee-deep in it, I write more, as I’ve covered previously.

300 words per day did something to my rhythm. A section that I’d outlined as around 5,000 words often ended up being half of that. It’s overly clear in the first few week’s writing, because not only is the story pacing faster than planned, the chapters are also shorter than they’d normally be. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially since the outline – ever a helpful tool, never an unchangeable blueprint to me – morphed accordingly. I chalk the change in pace down to the urge to get to the natural stops in the story while writing. That’s not a problem if you’re sitting down to write words in the thousands, but 300 words is (rarely) a chapter, merely a chunk of one.

This surprised me to such an extent that I, some two weeks in, considered redoing not only the outline, but the whole experiment. Instead, I re-read what I’d written up until that point, and feeling satisfied that it was good enough for a first draft, I decided to carry on. Pacing would have to be fixed (or not) in future rewrites. After this realization and decision, the pacing was more akin to what I’d planned, perhaps still a bit faster, but not as noticeable.

I’ve always known that the writing tool affects how I write. I use this as much as possible, switching between various devices, tricking my brain by resorting to shorthand and typewriters at times, but I didn’t expect this change in output. I do think that the pacing has more to do with the daily 300 word count target, than typing on the phone, but still. Very interesting, and something I’m curious to explore further.

Other things I learned writing a novel on an iPhone

  • Thumb-typing can be pretty darn fast! After starting this project, I wrote even more on my iPhone, blog posts mostly. I’ve always done that, but longer pieces generally warrant a keyboard. The experiment challenged that.
  • 300 words, or even 500, in one thumb-typing session didn’t bring fatigue or discomfort for me. I have written longer pieces since then, and have experienced this, but not on short sessions like these.
  • Small screens are not ideal for viewing outlines. I kept the outline in a note on the phone, and the overview wasn’t ideal.
  • There are a lot of moments in the day when you can hammer out a few words. That part of the experiment was a huge success, I never had any issues finding time to tap 300 words onto my phone. That’s 300 words more than I’d usually do, mind you.
  • A lot of people was interested in this project. It even ended up in the Financial Times (paywalled unfortunately).

Today we’re better equipped than ever to write longer pieces on our phones. Writers have great apps to rely on, from minimalistic text editors such as iA Writer, to more fleshed out writing tools such as Ulysses and even Scrivener. You could even use Google Docs, Pages, or a web-based service such as BlankPage for something like this.

What’s next?

I bet you’re wondering about the novel I wrote, right? It’s a bit on the short side, 40,000 words is not exactly novel-length, but it’s also a first draft. It’s been sitting in its digital drawer for quite some time now, as is my process with these things, and I intend to revisit it later this year or early the next. Not on my phone though, the phone is clearly a tool for first drafts, not for editing and revising, which the manuscript will need. I’ll either flesh it out with a part of the story that isn’t told (plenty of notes and ideas from while I was writing), or leave it as it is, length-wise. That’d leave it as a fleshy novella, which I’m fine with. I like novellas, as you probably know by now…

As for writing on the phone, that’s something I’ve been doing all along. It’s mostly notes and blog posts, the occasional column draft, and tons of email of course. I do have a new project lined up, which I intend to do much like this one: Write a few hundred words daily on my iPhone. I firmly believe that the smartphone is a great way to hack your writer mind into producing more words on a daily basis. It might not be pretty, it might not be romantic, but for someone like me, it works.