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IA Writer 5.6: Better than a word processor

IA Writer is a text editor. A stripped back, race-tuned greyhound of a writing app. There’s nothing fancy or complicated. That is its attraction.

You can start putting words together within minutes of installing the software.

It is the most productive writing tool I’ve used since learning to type on manual typewriters. It could be the software you are looking for.

You can keep your fancy, feature-rich word processors. They have their place, but they are not always the most productive tools.

I keep a copy of Microsoft Word on my Mac to stay compatible with clients and co-workers. That way there’s no chance of anything slipping between the cracks in a complex editing job.

iA Writer first

Yet when it comes to writing a newspaper feature, a blog post or commercial copy, iA Writer is my first choice. Every time.

That’s because iA Writer’s minimalist approach gets out of the way. There’s no temptation to mess around choosing the right font for this communication. You won’t wonder if the crosshead typeface you’ve chosen is a good fit with the body.

You don’t have choices. There’s nothing to tinker with. Or, at least, not much.

Instead you can focus on your words.

Over the years iA Writer has evolved. It does more today than it did when I started using it about five years ago. Yet you couldn’t accuse it of feature bloat. It remains simple.

Works everywhere you do

One advantage of keeping the software simple is that you get a near-identical experience whether you are writing on a large screen desktop Mac, an iPad or an iPhone.

For years iA Writer was an Apple experience. Today you can get versions for Windows or Android. The cross platform experience is almost as smooth as staying in Apple’s walled garden. This makes it an excellent choice for people moving between Apple, Microsoft and Android.

Text editors in general tend to be a form of lowest common denominator. IA Writer has this to a T.

iA Writer 5.4

Earlier this year iA Writer moved to version 5.4. That added features such as local storage, new export options and context menus.

If this was an ordinary product review, at this point I’d run through how these feature work in practice. But I won’t because I find I never use them all. My understanding of them is abstract. I’ve tested them and seen they work as advertised, but they don’t get a second glance in the heat of battle.

You can do something complex with blocks of copy, which you can insert as content blocks in your document. Again, I’ve tested, but never needed this. It may be the feature you’ve been looking for.

Made for cloud

The new feature that I do use is the ability to make local copies. In normal use iA Writer stores documents in your iCloud account. Because each document is tiny, files are tiny. You won’t chew through iCloud storage the way you might with word processor documents.

For a while iCloud integration was buggy. At times you couldn’t be sure they document was where it should be. Having local backups meant you never faced losing an afternoon’s writing brilliance.

In May iA Writer moved to version 5.5. In part the upgrade brought the software in line with the new features in iPadOS. You can now use a trackpad or mouse with the software on an iPad. Not that I’d want to do that.

Markdown

We’re 600 words into this post and there has not yet been any mention of Markdown. This is a simple markup language that lets you format your text. Type a * symbol either side of a word and it will show up in italics. Put two * around a word and it is in bold.

There are a handful of these Markdown commands to memorise. It doesn’t take long and it means you can keep your hands on the keys without reaching for the mouse or trackpad.

That way you can type faster. It’s more efficient. As a bonus, you are less likely to get a repetitive strain injury. The commands soon become hardwired in your fingertips. Yet I must confess there are times I have to look up the more obscure ones.

In iA Writer 5.5, there’s a new Markdown code. Two equals signs around a word will highlight it. That’s like the yellow marker you find in word processors. It’s hard to miss.

You’re either going to love Markdown or hate it. It works for me. I recommend giving it a try before deciding. There are free trial versions of iA Writer 5.6.

PDF viewer

The other 5.5 upgrade was the addition of a PDF viewer. When I write for my website1 I can publish text direct to WordPress. All the formatting comes with the words. If I work for a client who needs a Word document, yes that is almost every client, I can save my iA Writer document in a docx format.

Adding the ability to save in PDF format takes this further. Yet, like many new features, I don’t use it. Or, more accurately, I haven’t used it yet.

That’s not the point. Each feature upgrade expands the software’s reach to users who need more than basic text editing but not as much as a word processor. IA Writer rolls out a few new features every year, but you couldn’t say the software is bloated or even on the road to bloated.

iA Writer 5.6

We’re now at iA Writer 5.6. It’s been around now for a month. The latest version adds a style checker. It could help improve your writing. The checker looks for cliches, fillers and redundancies. When they appear in your text, they are grey.

You can choose to edit them if you wish.

I don’t always agree with the software style decisions. Journalism relies on short simple language. While that can get hackneyed, it’s a way of getting a message over fast.

And there are words iA Writer 5.6 doesn’t approve of, like also or too, that are useful for journalism.

Good housekeeping

The remaining updates in iA Writer 5.6 are all background housekeeping things that developers do and casual users may not notice. Files now open faster, but that was never an issue for me. The noticeable background update is that huge iA Writer files don’t slow down.

IA Writer’s price has climbed over the years. When I first bought the software I paid NZ$3. It was a promotional price. Today the software costs US$30 for the Mac and $9 for the iPad or iPhone. You can get it from the relevant app store. There are free trial versions.

You have to buy both if you plan to use the software on a Mac and an iOS device. I don’t begrudge it.

Compared with the alternatives it’s a bargain. You have to pay roughly four times that amount every year to use Microsoft Word.

Other word processors can cost more. This is important. Journalists and others who write for a living get paid in ways that make it hard to budget for a regular subscription. A flat one-off fee is better. You know where you are and you know for certain there will never be a month where you face not paying the software subscription or skipping a meal.

Critics

You’ll see critics complain that iA Writer doesn’t have collaboration tools. In part that’s because the idea of collaboration doesn’t sit well with distraction-free writing. Nothing is more distracting than someone jumping it with an annoying, pedantic edit while you are crafting your next perfect piece of prose.

Collaboration is important. It is not the be all and end all of working with others.

The upside is that it’s easy for iA Writer to work in with collaboration tools. At times when I’m asked to work with, say, Google Docs, I will write first in iA Writer, then load the text into a shared Doc for the editing party to begin. I’ve been known to pull paragraphs or sections from the shared document, paste them into iA Writer, make my edits and return the text.

IA Writer isn’t for everyone. Many people feel they need the handholding they get from a product like Word. Or they feel comfortable using the same thing as everyone else. There are companies, clients and individual managers who will insist you use Word.

When I was thinking about this idea earlier, it occurred to me there is an analogy with music. IA Writer is to a word processor what, say, a fretless string instrument is to a guitar or keyboard. If you are on top of your writing game and confident, you can get better results without the guiding baggage. If that’s not you, then fine. You have alternatives.


  1. As an aside, I’m using iA Writer 5.6 now and there’s a neat set of Markdown codes for creating footnotes. ↩︎

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10 thoughts on “IA Writer 5.6: Better than a word processor

  1. I write in typewriter mode in Scrivener. Like having one long roll of paper in a typewriter (as Fleet Street journos had back in the day), but with the benefit of better organisation. For anything longer than an email, it’s my preferred way to write.

  2. 1)
    I read your article and checking even further back, found a comment that piqued my interest: “Word processors need to get out of the 1990s.”

    I say they need to get out of the early-Eighties and break away from the “Microsoft Whammy”

    With markdown this has only been…

  3. I use iA Writer on my 8″ Android tablet for knocking out text, mainly because Word on that tablet has small and fussy text and controls.

    If my text is the basis of a serious professional article, I’ll eventually transfer it to my laptop and finish it in Word.

    I have never been tempted to put iA Writer on my Windows 10 laptop. Sure, Word has a lot of unnecessary crap, but you don’t have to take any notice of it. It absolutely doesn’t get in the way if you don’t let it. And if I want to boldface something, it’s very simple to mark the text and then hit Ctrl-B.

    By the way, I tried markup on iA on my tablet and it worked. But the asterisks stayed there in the text. What a pain! Am I missing something?

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