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BW Businessworld

Learning To Write

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When I was a young girl and for some reason wished my name was Christine (it wasn't, particularly) and wanted to be ' delicate and elegant' (I think I managed delicate), I remember working hard to beautify my handwriting. This wasn't difficult because my father is a marvel at calligraphy and taught me many tricks of the trade. I experimented for hours with specially modified nibs and expensive calligraphy pens and get to the stage where the uninitiated would ooh and aah over the results.

This happy state of affairs lasted until I acquired a butter-smooth jade green Hermes typewriter. Then everyone had to endure my constant tap-tap late into the night. Relief came in the form of my computer (even though it hardly had any RAM). And that was the beginning of the end for my handwriting. A year or two in the company of keyboards, and it turned into a procession of spiders.
And now, out of nowhere, tablets and smartphones are luring me to write again.

Typing on mobile devices is no cakewalk. Some people find their two-thumb equation with the Blackberry QWERTY keypad, but I just find it impossibly cramped and fiddly.

Using SWYPE on my Galaxy was enjoyable until I messed up the dictionary by being too lazy to feed in corrections. I've written some of these columns on my phone but today my contacts find themselves scratching their heads to decipher my messages.

On the iPad, typing with the virtual keyboard has been a look-down one-letter-at-a-time process. Not fast enough and too prone to errors. I tried the keyboard with case options only to find, to my horror, that hitting the keys generally amounted to hitting the leather.  I managed to get very little work done.  Carrying around a separate frill- sized keyboard seriously cramps my mobility.

Finally, I decided to try a well-known handwriting recognition app, WritePad, from PhatWare, a company that makes several such applications for a variety of platforms.

WritePad is a very powerful piece of software, for a mere $10 on the App Store.  You get yourself a nice blank page and use your finger to write and the app will turn it into digital text the moment you pause for a breath. You have three input modes. One is a regular keyboard mode. Another is a full-screen handwriting mode. And a third is a precision writing mode where you have a special input panel. There's also one reading mode where there's no danger of accidental touches getting into the text.

What is impressive is the speed and ease with which the app digitises your writing. What's not impressive is your handwriting as it struggles to be precise given the creamy smoothness of your finger on the screen. I soon discovered how my N's and R's were indistinguishable, and how even I couldn't tell the difference between my I's and my J's. But two days of using the app gave me a much better handwriting -and an arm ache. The thing is I began to enjoy myself and was soon quite addicted.

How well you fare with this application now depends on your discipline and patience. You and the app have to get to know each other's ways and that takes a little while. WritePad has a lot of features to help the initial learning happen, so one must explore those. There's a feature that lets you see alternatives for every  word you write. A day or two of using that hill bring the writing in line. You can even choose to deal with known words only, with one separate word at a time and with cursive writing turned off. You can edit the user dictionary, set Autocorrection for your own selection of words and even choose the letter shapes closest to your writing style. Because you can write anywhere on the screen and as large as you like, you can keep correcting your writing for bettor legibility — it doesn't have to be delicate and elegant. In a bit you can turn off the learning tools and pick up the speed. Set your paper style, colour, font  size and style, and go.

There are a number of features to aid the speed. In the full writing mode, you can use gestures A big diagonal swipe up and back will just select everything. An l with a long tail inserts a space. Flipped, it works like Enter. Cut, copy, paste, delete etc. all have their gestures. A swipe can also call up spelling or punctuation.

A real useful feature is the Shorthand. You can assign an action to a bit of text. So, if I write 'sign' and make a circle around it my signature text will insert. You can set these macro-like actions for just about anything you do. frequently. WritePad is too feature-filled to be described here is much more detail without sounding like a manual, but I'll just run through a few. Writing a phone number makes it dialable; tapping a link makes it browsable; you can update your Facebook and Twitter status from the app; you can share files via Dropbox, Google Docs, email, other devices on your Wifi network using the app and you can convert to PDF. On the iPad however, I do not see files from other applications offering to open up in WritePad.

WritePad is available for several languages and is any case offers translation to many languages. The full-writing mode has a palm-rest that should help with the arm ache, but on my device it's come up accidentally rather than allow me to enable it.

WritePad is not without its frustrations, and neither is handwriting recognition in general. But all said and done, it should be built into the OS itself. Still, it's an explorable option to squeezed typing. And who knows, my writing may finally get that much-needed elegance.
This piece was entirely written on WritePad.

Mala Bhargava is a personal technology writer and media professional. Contact her at [email protected] and @malabhargava on Twitter