I’ve been writing screenplays for a couple of years now, and the biggest disappointment I had with my iPad was the fact that I could never find a great way to write screenplays with it. And it’s not that I’m too picky, it’s more like Hollywood is very particular about the script formats they will accept. I’ve tried just about every solution under the sun — there are at least seven different apps on my iPad that I attempted to write screenplays with — but until recently, there was no solution that simply worked the way it should have.
Enter Final Draft Writer for iPad. For the uninitiated, Final Draft is the film industry’s accepted writing standard for computers. Not unlike Microsoft Word for many professional writers, every screenwriter that makes a living in LA uses it and has a love-hate relationship with it at the same time. It also has its own proprietary file extension (.fdx) that makes it very difficult to use anything other than Final Draft for screenwriting. The people behind Final Draft have been promising an iPad app for a long time, and with one reviled exception, failed to provide. Now it’s finally here, and there’s only one question on every screenwriter’s mind: was it worth the wait?
A Briefer on Screenwriting
Before getting any deeper into this, it’s worth briefly talking about why on earth the screenwriting format is so problematic. To begin with, it’s a relic from the age of the typewriter and it shows. The standard font is Courier. The margins are often ridiculously huge and change frequently (based on parameters such as “action,” “dialogue” and “character”). And Hollywood is an industry that reacts very slowly to change; in fact, despite changes in film-making technology (like 3D) and increasing violence in movies, Hollywood may be the most conservative industry in the world.
So naturally, making sure that your screenplay looks exactly right is of paramount importance to every screenwriter. The only way to do that properly, even on a computer, is to download a copy of the (very expensive) Final Draft program or one of its few competitors. Final Draft is the far more popular choice among professionals because of its support for things like budget reports, as well as proper formatting. The iPad app faces the challenge of not only bringing support for the professional writing atmosphere that its users expect, but also standing up against a lot of competition on the App Store. It has to be simple and incredibly powerful.
The Design Holds Up
The iPad app is a breath of fresh air compared to many of the current screenwriting apps. It takes a page from popular text editors like iA Writer and Byword, and features a handy keyboard extension for easy access to popular screenplay functions. Of note is the tab button on the screen — the entire app technically revolves around it on the PC and Mac, and it’s great to see it so easily accessible here.
Page breaks are clearly visible (unlike some of the competition), which is much more important than you may think. Hollywood has certain rules about screenplay lengths and formulaic events: the climax must be on page ninety, the “catalyst” that changes your main character’s life must happen by page twelve, the screenplay can only be 120 pages long, etc., etc. Being able to see what page you’re on is a huge perk to Final Draft Writer.
The black text on a white page is very reminiscent of iA Writer and the Final Draft desktop counterpart; its minimalism really suits the iPad. Full-screen support would be nice, but I’m not complaining. Compared to the desktop program, Final Draft Writer for iPad makes it much easier to focus by nature. Unlike its Windows and Mac counterpart, Final Draft Writer takes up the entire iPad screen and leaves no room for distraction.
Generally, the user interface is great. Creating a screenplay is done with a tap of a button from the file list. Importing a screenplay is done via Dropbox or your preferred email app. And simple functions including duplicating, renaming or discarding a file can be handled with a simple swipe.
A familiar sharing button within a screenplay file allows you to email the script and/or its reports, copy the file to Dropbox or print it using any AirPrint-enabled printer on your wireless network. Unfortunately, you cannot currently export to PDF like you can on the desktop program. I’m hoping that arrives in a future update.
An always-visible scrollbar on the right-hand side of the screen allows users to quickly scroll through the scenes they’ve written (a necessity when you’re editing a 120-page script). I just wish that scroll bar looked a little bit more like the scroll bar present in stock iOS or OS X apps.
The Writing Experience: Joyful
A good design is one thing — and I’d argue that Final Draft Writer has that in spades compared to the desktop program — but a writing app for the iPad has to make writing joyful. And for the most part, Final Draft Writer makes me feel very, very joyful.
The extended keyboard I mentioned earlier is already one of my favourites on the iPad. It has support for almost every frequently used action you’ll need when you’re writing a screenplay, and it makes my life as a writer a lot easier. The app also supports Bluetooth keyboards for those who are so inclined; however, although the keyboard disappears when a Bluetooth keyboard is used, the keyboard extension remains visible on the screen. Whether you think this is handy or useless will depend on how you like to write with the app.
What also impressed me was that when I imported one of my longer screenplays (114 pages), I never saw any lag when I would type or add to the file. I’ve used many screenwriting apps that can’t handle more than a few hundred words in a single file, so the lack of lag in Final Draft Writer really puts it a few paces ahead of its competition.
Final Draft Writer also supports revisions, title pages, character highlighting, find and replace, and every other major feature that the working screenwriter expects. I can’t think of any other competitive app that does all that well (or much of it at all).
One (Possible) Bug
Final Draft Writer for iPad is a 1.0 release, so some bugs are to be expected. I only found one in all my use, but it’s a fairly big one and it deserves mentioning. One file I imported from Dropbox crashed when I tried to change one of the scene headings. I was able to edit every other component of my screenplay with ease and without any issue, and I could not duplicate the bug in any other file, so it may just be that the file is corrupt. I have also been in touch with the fantastic support at Final Draft, and they are aware of the problem and are looking into a fix.
A Minor Quibble with File Management
I have one other qualm with the app, and that’s with file importing and exporting. Having to use the Dropbox app to open a file is a bit of a pain. When you do that, Final Draft Writer stores a local copy on your iPad. As a result, although the file can be edited offline, exporting it to Dropbox and importing it again creates a series of duplicate copies with number variations. This is a little frustrating in what is otherwise a professional app. That being said, the engineering team is looking into improving the Dropbox syncing in the future (or so I am told). It would also be nice to see an option to export to PDF.
Final Draft Writer for iPad is, for the most part, a well-designed app. It’s simple, easy to use, and as elegant as a behemoth of an app like this can be. Writing on it is also a joy for anybody who has tried and failed to incorporate screenwriting into their iPad workflow one too many times. Aside from one unfortunate (probable) bug, the app works brilliantly and could be a major asset to many writers’ workflows — or it could be a great tool to learn how to write a screenplay for those who are considering dipping their toes in the pool.
Currently, the app is $29.99, which the developer says is an introductory price and a savings of $20. The desktop program is regularly $200, so I feel that this price for much of the same functionality is extremely fair. Final Draft Writer is an app from some of the most respected software designers in the industry, and I’m actually a little surprised it’s not more expensive than it is. For any professional screenwriter — and those who want to be — this app is essential.