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In search of the best writing app

Posted in Tools

Spoiler alert: I’ve found it. But how and why I decided on my favourite writing app is hopefully worth reading.

Before I even started, I have a few prerequisites:

  • I need an app on each of my devices. I do the majority of my writing on a laptop, but what if an idea comes to me while standing on the Metro?
  • A seamless syncing mechanism. I want to pick up work I did on one device on another device without thinking about it.
  • No proprietary formats or features. Plain ol’ Markdown or I’m out.

That’s not a lot to ask, is it…?

An app on each of my devices

I want to start writing on one laptop at the office, throw down a few more ideas on my phone while on the train home, then pick up where I left off on my iPad at home that evening.

To do that I need two things:

  1. A proper, native app on each device (web-apps aren’t allowed)
  2. A syncing mechanism

Native apps

I don’t like web apps. There’s something weird about opening my web browser to do write, edit code, and other work-y things. I’ve tried to get used to it; in fact, I’ve had to try as lots of places I’ve worked in and clients I’ve worked with use Google Drive and Google Docs extensively. Why? Well…

And I want an app on each of my devices – be that a Mac, iPad or Phone.

A syncing mechanism

It’s kind of a given these days, but worth mentioning. I need a ‘backend’ that automatically sends my work to the cloud and pushes it down to all of my other devices.

I like iCloud, so if I can use it as my backend I will, but Dropbox is a decent fallback.

No proprietary formats or features

I want to work in text files and I want those files to behave just like plain text does as I edit them.

I want to work files

You might already know that I’m a huge fan of Markdown. Portability and future-proofing are the main reasons: I should always be able to find any article I’ve ever written by looking for it in Finder (or Terminal; whatever file system browser I might use in the future).

Writing apps that come with some weird proprietary format or hidden/obfuscated file structure are not for me. It might be convenient (it might even be better!), but it’s not for me.

Just plain text

I don’t want any gimmickry where things stop looking like plain text. I don’t want links to be the link text with an underline, hiding the link itself away – that’s what HTML’s for!

I want the square brackets followed by round brackets with the ‘ugly’ URL in full view!

Don’t get me wrong, though, a good writing app should make emphasised text italic, strongly emphasised text bold, underline that URL in the round brackets, indent each item in a list. But that’s an enhancement of the plain text – I’ll always have exactly the text I wrote in full view.


I didn’t mention this at the top as it’s possibly not a deal breaker, but I love it when an app that’s editing dumb old text files is smart.

  • I love it when +b or i makes text emphasised or strongly emphasised, +l makes a list, that kind of thing. Keyboard shortcuts are my friend.
  • I love it when an app creates the next list item when I hit return, then clears it when I hit return again.
  • I love it when +k makes the highlighted text a link; even going as far as to put the contents of my paste board in there, if it’s a full URL.
  • I love it when I get options in my Touch Bar.
  • I love it when I get different view options, like ‘typewriter mode’, where my cursor stays central on the viewport at all times, rather than gradually progressing down the viewport until it hits the bottom, then the page scrolling.

Charge me

I want to pay for your app. I want to use it for a long time so if there’s a solid business model behind it, that’s reassuring.

The shortlist

Enough about why, what about the apps themselves.

There are a handful of apps that I’ve used that feel really good. Even fewer that feel really good and modern. In fact, only one fits that bill.

I’d tried more heavy-duty apps like Scrivener and Ulysses but they felt over-engineered for my purposes. It might be that one day I’ll get round to writing a book, at which point I’ll be straight to the App Store for Ulysses, but not for now.

Byword was my go-to for a long time. It did everything I wanted it to do, but updates became few and far between and the app started to feel dated. All the features were there, but I didn’t have things like Touch Bar support, and the UI wasn’t really keeping up with more recent versions of macOS (for example, the title bar didn’t change to match the colour of the app window itself).

At time of writing, the last update Byword had was 7 months ago… It makes me a bit nervous when an app I use every day gets so little attention. If the developer isn’t making the app their priority, it’s only a matter of time before it disappears.

Byword’s closest competitor for the longest time has been iA Writer. I always liked the look of it, but couldn’t really justify the expense when Byword was perfectly fine. But with Byword starting to feel dusty, an article on iA’s new duospace font late last year was enough to turn my head (I’m a sucker for a good typeface!).

iA Writer had some good looking apps for both Mac and iPhone, looked to be well maintained, didn’t have any of the power features that come with Scrivener and Ulysses, but had good Markdown support.

So I took the plunge and bought the apps for my Mac and iPhone.

I’ve been using iA Writer for a few months now and it’s a constant joy. It’s simple to use, has all the features I need (and very few I don’t), the iOS app is well thought through, the UI on both macOS and iOS feels very modern, and that duospace font is lovely!

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