When it comes to writing news stories, the easiest approach is to type directly into WordPress. The editing software has a wonderful, minimal full-screen view which gets out of the way and allows you to quickly and simply hammer out the words.
For other writing jobs I use a variety of tools. Here’s a run down of the most important options.
WordPress can be as clean as a blank sheet of white paper in an old-school typewriter. It works. It’s fast, lightweight and relatively painless.
However, it isn’t without flaws. While it is easy to add lists, embed media, link to web pages or produce elegant pull quotes, adding a cross-head is clumsy. I have to take my hands off the keyboard, mouse to the top of the screen and change the display from Visual model to Text mode then manually add the HTML command <h2> or perhaps <h3> at the start of the cross-head and a closing </h2> code at the end.
While WordPress gets the job done for posting stories like this one, it’s not a great tool for other writing jobs. Although I can’t easily write an interview for a client or newspaper then send it to them very easily with WordPress, it is the jumping off point for this personal look at alternative writing tools.
Whatever your opinion of Microsoft Word, it is the de facto standard for sending finished writing jobs to clients.
Most of the people I work with expect to get Word documents. They don’t always, but most of the time I have to convert whatever I’ve written into a format that will easily open in Word.
Given that, there’s a strong argument for sticking with Word when writing for clients.
Sadly Word is disappointing on OS X. I paid for my MacBook copy of Word through my $165 Office 365 subscription. I originally signed up from a Windows 8 PC, but the licence transfers to the Mac.
In fact I can use Microsoft Office on up to five devices. It’s also on my phone and until recently I had a Windows version running the Mac as well as the OS X version.
Depending on how you look at these things, Word is either a powerful, full-featured, professional document creation tool or it is bloated and clumsy. Actually it manages to be both. There are tools like Track Changes which I deeply loath, but sometimes I work with a client who insists I use the feature. Well, maybe not if I see Track Changes coming first.
The current Mac version is Word:mac 2011. It feels as if it is two generations behind the current Windows version of the software. I could live with that, but Word doesn’t do a good job of getting out the way on the Mac.
Word:mac 2011 has a distraction free full-screen mode – shown above in the screenshot. It’s great, or it would be if it stayed put. If I need to switch to another screen, say to check facts in an email or on a web page, the distraction free display reverts to a normal, distracting display. I jump to other screens a lot and find this annoying.
Pages ’09 is part of Apple’s iWork suite of apps. There’s the Numbers spreadsheet and KeyNote, a presentation tool. The three work well together in much the same way as Microsoft Office. Each of the three programs are in the OS X App Store and sell for $25 in New Zealand.
Apple sells the same titles for the iPad and the iPhone. New owners of those devices get free versions, it would cost me $14 to add the iPad version of Pages. That’s not a lot of money, but is in marked contrast to Microsoft’s approach which allows one purchase covering all supported devices.
Pages is well overdue for an update, the ’09 is a dead giveaway. Four years ago it may have been ahead of its time, today it feels somewhat old fashioned.
At first sight Apple’s Pages ’09 resembles Microsoft Word. It has lots of features and options but not Microsoft’s bloat. Unlike Word, it does a great job of getting out of the way, there’s a distraction free screen that works just as you’d expect. It’s easy to produce documents that, as far as my clients are concerned, came from Microsoft Word.
While Pages functions as a perfectly good word processor, that’s not really what Apple has in mind for the software. It’s really a flexible layout tool. In the old days we might even have described it as desktop publishing software – although it has nothing like the power of Adobe’s InDesign for professional work.
You can use Pages to create beautiful documents with images, graphs and tables. If I was preparing a business report, a newsletter or a book this would be my first port of call.
These days Mac writing tools aren’t limited to the apps that run directly on the hardware. Anyone taking a look at the options should at least consider Google Docs and the Microsoft Office Web App version of Word.
Google Docs is sleek and clean. It’s a great option for collaborating with others although one very specific and annoying flaw in Google’s software means I prefer the Word Web App for online writing.
I have a few personal problems with Google Docs, your experience may differ. First, Google Docs needs a lot more mouse action than Word or Pages. There aren’t so many keyboard short cuts, this slows me down and makes my hands ache more. If you’re not a touch typist this may not bother you.
Second, the text can often be too small to read, zooming Google Docs does strange things to the mouse and cursor so they no longer line up properly with the page – that means you might add a word or delete characters at the wrong place. If you’re working alone, you can just make the text larger, this is harder to do when you’re collaborating.
Another reason I don’t like Google Docs is that its text tends to extend over lines that are too wide for comfortable reading.
It’s possible none of these shortcomings worry you – they are possibly personal or just things that bother people like me who write for a living. I know other journalists who tolerate Google Docs, I don’t know of many who love it as a writing tool.
On one level Information Architect’s iA Writer is my favourite Macintosh writing tool. I first found the software on the iPad and now use it on my Mac for small scale writing jobs – it’s not so great for anything over around 500 words.
That’s mainly because iA Writer is a text editor. It is not a word processor.
I like it because it is clean and stays right out of the way. As I have written elsewhere, it’s the nearest thing in the digital world to using a mechanical typewriter and a clean sheet of paper. It does spell-check and it does allow minimal levels of mark-up.
It’s fast and it’s productive, but the reasons that make it great for short writing jobs work against it for longer more complex tasks. That’s because it’s hard to navigate long documents when there are no obvious heads, cross heads or bolded text.
When I purchased iA Writer for the iPad it was just $1.99, it now sells for US$5, the OS X version is US$9.
Like iA Writer, FocusWriter is designed from the outset for distraction-free writing. The software is free, but you’re expected to make a donation if you use it.
When you first open the application you nothing, just blank light grey screen. Start typing and the text appears in black, 12-point Times New Roman. On my MacBook Air the characters are tiny, barely large enough to read.
It’s possible to change the font, type size, colour, background colour and the line spacing. To get to the controls you need to mouse to the top of the screen. Once there you can set up themes. Normally documents are stored as plain text. If you need to work with Microsoft Office users you can save as RTF.
FocusWriter is the most basic writing software I looked, but it gets the job done.
Other writing tools
A couple of people suggested I try Mars Edit from Red Sweater Software. It looks fine, but it’s not the tool I’m looking for. BBEdit was also recommended, but again it’s not right. BBEdit could best be described as a text editor, which makes it useful for dealing with HTML or CSS.
For short writing jobs iA Writer is my clear favourite. I’m struggling to find the best tool for longer jobs. At the moment I waver between Word and Pages. Neither is completely satisfactory, neither is awful.
My needs are non-standard. I’m a career journalist and a professional writer. I like tools that get out of the way, layout and all the heavy payload in Word are of little day-to-day interest. I suspect there may be something closer to my needs out there. I’ll let you know if I find it.