Two Vital Reference Apps for Writers

The more I use it as a serious writing tool, the more impressed and more enamoured I am with my iPad. I’ve mostly used a few of the distraction-free writing apps that are around – iA Writer, Plaintext, Elements, and (my current favourite) Notesy. The truth is, though, that I am actually quite dedicated to writing by hand: there are not many things I prefer to sitting down with a notebook and a Palomino Blackwing pencil, and simply moving my hand from left to right across the page.

So this is not an article about writing on an iPad. It’s actually about writing with an iPad: about the iPad as a writer’s companion, and two apps I’ve found to be essential reference tools whilst writing.

Writing With an iPad

For the past two months, I’ve started most days on the sofa with a mug of coffee, my notebook and pencil, and my iPad resting beside me. After a long hiatus, I’ve been working to cultivate a daily writing practice.

I’m a staunch believer in the practice of writing ‘morning pages’, as taught by Julia Cameron in her excellent The Artist’s Way (and long before her by Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer). After some free writing in the style Cameron and Brande recommend, I’ve turned to writing poems, and I’ve quite often found myself struggling for the right word. This is what sent me in search of a good dictionary and thesaurus for the iPad.

That search ended in two apps produced by Handmark in association with Oxford University Press: the Oxford Dictionary of English and the Oxford Thesaurus of English. Both are universal apps, so they’ll work on iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad – but I’ll be focusing on the apps running on the iPad.

These are two among quite a stable of apps produced by Handmark; for iPad alone they have twenty-seven titles, ranging from a book of Opera characters to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints. And they offer a number of titles each for the Symbian, Android, Blackberry and Windows Mobile platforms.

Oxford Dictionary of English

The ODE has a very simple interface. A toolbar across the top of the screen gives access to all the app’s features:


The simple app toolbar.

The buttons are divided into two groups – what I’ll call primary and secondary functions. The primary tools start with the Search button, which opens the search window and index. The arrow buttons let you navigate through the history of words you’ve searched for, while the open book icon displays that history in list form and gives quick access to any entries which you have tagged. The plus icon is how you go about adding tags.

The secondary tools start with the ‘people’ icon, which gives access to the dictionary’s social features. Here you can see the most popular words searched for, tagged, and shared by other users.

Popular words

Clever integration of social aspects - in a dictionary!

The next button allows you to email, tweet, or share definitions on Facebook. And finally, there’s the Settings button, which only really allows you to toggle whether or not your usage data is uploaded, to set the font size, and to log in to Twitter and Facebook.

To find a word, you can either search or scroll through the definitions by starting letter. Searching, of course, narrows down the list as it matches characters.

Search window

Searching, searching, searching...

Once you’ve found what you’re looking for, definition texts are presented plainly and clearly. This is far from being the most aesthetically pleasing app, but it’s functional and it gives the definition text very clearly. Obviously, that text is what’s most important in a dictionary, so although the presentation is unimaginative, it foregrounds what you need to know and see.

Definition example

...and finding.

Under the headline there’s a phonetic pronunciation guide, and then the body of the definition, followed by examples of usage and brief etymology. That small blue ‘speaker’ icon gives access to thousands of audio examples of correct pronunciation – this works really well, and includes several voices, and occasionally different intonations in cases where words are pronounced subtly differently in different usage or regions (for example ‘diverse’, which is sometimes spoken with the emphasis on the first syllable, and sometimes on the second).

Each word in the definition is tappable (Can I say tappable? Well, I can confirm it’s not in the ODE yet, but surely that’s a word we need in the age of iOS!), bringing you either to a definition of that term, or to the search panel if it is a part of a word.

I couldn’t find a clear statement of the number of definitions in the ODE, but if it’s based on the same version of the original reference as the Mac version I reviewed for Mac.AppStorm recently, then I would expect it to have 350,000 definitions. That’s not a complete inventory of the English language, but I have found it to be perfectly adequate.

Oxford Thesaurus of English

The OTE is aesthetically and functionally identical to the ODE, featuring the same set of buttons, and working exactly as the dictionary, but giving alternative words rather than definitions. If the apps were bottles, they’d be easily mistaken from the outside, though they’re filled with quite different liquids. Take ‘Word’:

Thesaurus reference

Different word alternatives.

As with the dictionary, each word is tappable, and links to an entry where one exists. There are fewer words here, so finding one with no available alternatives is more likely than not finding a definition in the Dictionary.


There are several dictionaries and thesauruses on the App Store. Many of these are cheaper than these two apps (Chamber’s Dictionary), some approach their comprehensiveness (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language), some are more interesting and innovative in their design ( HD). There are even a number that are available for free. I confess I tried only the free version of, but was so troubled by the advertising splashed all over the app that I quickly deleted it.

These two are expensive options. But they have behind them the authority and the history of the family of Oxford Dictionaries. That won’t convince every user, and it doesn’t automatically convince me, either, but having had good use from the apps since downloading them, I feel they’re excellent value for money. Especially so since the paper versions of both would set you back at least as much, and very likely more.


It’s quite a few years since I sat at a desk that had my Roget’s Thesaurus and a good English Dictionary propped at one end – back then I had no computer on the desk, but a sturdy old manual typewriter: hard to imagine! And now I’m on the sofa with my iPad beside me, quickly re-typing drafts as I work by hand in my notebook, using Markdown so that I can quickly see how a poem will look on the page.

It’s great to know that I have the ODE and OTE very quickly to hand should I need to hunt down an alternative word, or to check that I’ve understood a word correctly before including it.

I should note, too, that those inches-thick reference tomes that sat on my desk were far inferior to these two apps. Loved though they were, well-thumbed and well-travelled (they sat on that desk in five different houses and apartments), they were far smaller in terms of the number of definitions and alternatives they contained.

What do you think? Good value, or too expensive? Or are you happy relying on online dictionaries? Or do you have another favourite app of this type?