I’m about to start work on one of the regular tasks every author faces: revising a final manuscript before submission. Doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are — sci-fi, non-fiction, technical academic — revision is an essential part of the process. That last five per cent of polish can make all the difference.
I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ve developed certain habits about revision. The first is understanding that it’s different from rewriting. You rewrite at the computer, line by line, viewing your manuscript as an author. Revision, for me, is a reading and annotation exercise. That means it has to happen away from the work desk and in a format the reader will finally see — that of a finished, typeset book.
The usual way I achieved this was printing out the whole manuscript in book format — either from a template or using Word’s less accurate two-page up setting — and vanishing to an armchair with a red pen. This is quite an exercise with a 300-page book. Managing all that paper is a pain and taking it with you while travelling impractical in the extreme. In recent years I’ve been uploading my Word file to Kindle and proofing it there. This works pretty well. Your manuscript looks like a book. You can highlight passages and insert bookmarks and notes. These sync through Kindle so you can view them on other devices and through a browser.
But… this is not as intuitive as scribbling on a sheet of paper with a pen. Kindle currently doesn’t recognise as a stylus. The few ebook readers that do only allow you to scribble on the tablet in my experience — there’s no way of exporting your annotations. This doesn’t work for me.
Enter something called Remarkable 2, a very thin, very light e-ink tablet with extraordinary battery life. Something that promises to give me all the revision power of paper and ink but instead of making me print out hundreds and hundreds of pages does the job in a single, compact package.
This isn’t a full review of Remarkable. Lots of places to look elsewhere for that. All I want to know is will it let me dump the printer for good. So…
What is it?
In a world of pen-driven iPad and Android tablets, Remarkable is unique. It runs on its own OS and its big selling point is how little it can do, not how much. While the competition offers app stores and endless countless add-on purchases, Remarkable is a pared-down tablet dedicated to scribbling on digital paper alone.
There are no apps, no audio, no browser. When you head off to the armchair with this there’s no chance you’ll get distracted by Twitter because it simply isn’t there. You’re alone with your work and a digital pen. And since this is an e-ink screen and a pen it feels very much as if you’re writing on paper, not a tablet. Even to the extent of there being no backlight — if you want to use it in the dark, you’ll need a reading lamp.
For revision this is mostly perfect in principle, though there are the inevitable gotchas along the way. All the same I don’t expect to be printing out stacks of revision pages ever again. This curious little device does the trick.
But let’s get the basics out of the way first…
The basic tablet is £299 delivered. To this you’ll need to add a pen — the thing is useless without them — and probably a case too. Remarkable offers two pens, a simple marker at £59 and a Marker Plus for £109, the principal difference between them being the Plus comes with an eraser on the top. All these items are available on a 100-day return, at no shipping cost to you. So there really is no risk in trying out Remarkable to see if suits your needs.
Remarkable use Wacom technology for the pen so there are lots of cheaper alternatives out — and none of them need a battery.
I went for the Staedtler Noris Jumbo which is a nice fat pen with an eraser, for less than the basic Remarkable marker. Very good it feels too.
Remarkable’s cases are pretty expensive too. A basic folio is £69 and a Book Folio from £119. Again, there are cheaper alternatives. I went for this which is much the same as the Book Folio for a fraction of the price.
Everyone is into subscriptions these days and Remarkable is no exception. Unless you decline, your purchase will include a 100-day free trial of their Connect service; after that you’ll be paying £6.75 a month. Connect offers unlimited cloud backup for your work, integration with Google Drive, Dropbox and OneDrive along with handwriting conversion, an extended warranty and the ability to send documents by email.
You can use the Remarkable without Connect, and if all you’re doing is annotating epubs I doubt you actually need it. So I wouldn’t bother with Connect and that recurring charge. You’re set with the £299 tablet and around £80-£90 for the pen and case.
There really isn’t much to getting Remarkable going. You sign up on the website for an account, update your tablet if needed, then download companion apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android — these will give you access to your Remarkable files though no way of editing them.
After that you can scribble your own notes with a variety of templates, from drawing frames to lined notepaper, and import external documents — pdfs and epubs being of most interest here — for annotation.
If you write in something like Scrivener or Ulysses you can export directly into ePub. Apple Pages will do this too, and open a Word file for export. Word itself doesn’t support direct epub export but you can do this easily yourself using the popular and free ebook manager Calibre.
Once you upload your ebook to Remarkable it appears just as you might expect in something like Kindle. You can navigate the whole document very easily page by page or with an overview.
You can also change the font, the spacing, margins and type size to your choosing.
It’s essential you do this before starting to markup your text. If you change the layout later your scribbled annotations won’t be in the same place.
After that you choose your style of pen — I find the fineliner good for annotation and choose to export in red — and away you go.
It really is like writing on paper. There are none of the digital tools you might expect from a more conventional e-reader — bookmarks, the ability to inset actual typed text in any usual fashion. You scribble away. Then at the end you can either view your annotated ebook through a companion app on your computer, or export it as a pdf and use it for revisions that way. I prefer the latter because then you see your edit marks in red.
Remarkable as an e-reader
Is this an all-round alternative to Kindle, Kobo or Google Play? Not for me. For one thing it will only handle epubs that aren’t covered by DRM. You can’t use files directly from Kindle or any of the popular ebook stores because they are copy protected. There are ways to remove this through Calibre plug-ins but I hope you’ll only do that with books you buy.
Just as importantly I use ebooks for reference work and make extensive notes and bookmarks for later use. All you can do here on the original pages is scribble or insert a blank note page. Handwriting recognition only works on blank pages you insert into ebooks and pdfs. There are no keywords, no easy way to see comprehensive annotations at a glance. It’s great for marking up my own work. It’s not much use to me for making extensive notes on the work of others.
Could I mark up typeset proofs from my publisher on this? Possibly. The trouble is all the entries would have to be in pen, not typed as I’d normally do when going through this on a computer. Since that process depends upon others interpreting my editing marks, I’d rather use something that doesn’t force others to try to decipher my terrible handwriting. Others will feel differently I’m sure.
Could you write a book on this?
Only if you could write a book longhand on paper as well. I couldn’t. The text recognition does demand quite neat writing as far as I can see. And when you export you’ll get a pdf, not a Word document. It’s a great shame the device won’t work directly with Word.
What I could imagine, though, is using this as a system for poetry or developing a simple book for children with illustrations. The device does come with a storyboard template that looks ideal for the latter. You’ll also find a host of paid-for templates for Remarkable on places like Etsy, everything from calendars to planners and fitness journals.
I can’t comment on any of these because I’m not going to use them. I gave up on paper in most ways years ago, and I’m not going to be making written notes about anything these days. Judging by some of the reviews out there, people who are in the writing habit mostly love Remarkable’s highly focused simplicity. It’s just not for me.
The fact you can’t search handwriting — only pdf text — is a big drawback. For example, each year I keep a gardening diary recording what I’ve sown and how it’s done. Using Remarkable I’d have no easy way of finding, say, entries about tomatoes, except scrolling through to read them. This is a job much better done on something like Evernote or OneNote.
One other clever other trick it has is a web browser extension that can clip web pages to your notebooks for future use. I can imagine that might come in handy.
I tried out Remarkable to see if it was a better way of book-style revision than printing out hundreds of pages. And the answer is… yes, by a good margin. The investment will pay back in paper and ink saved I guess, but just as importantly in time too. It’s quicker working this way. There are doubtless other hidden tricks this thing can do I’ve yet to try. I really have focused on my needs and nothing else.
If you think this might be your cup of tea, I recommend ordering from the Remarkable website and giving it a try. The 100-day trial is risk-free and returns are very easy and cost you nothing. Bye bye paper…