Bill Bennett


The best Mac apps for writers

While the Mac may not be a typewriter, many people use it to write. There’s a great selection of tools for the job. Some are conventional word processors, others are text editors and then there is WordPress which can put your words straight on to the web.

There are excellent free options, tools designed to fit niches, full-featured tools that do everything and minimal editors which do little, but keep you focused.

Here’s a run down of the most important Apple Mac writing tools.

Microsoft Word

You don’t have to love Microsoft Word to recognise it as the de facto standard for sending finished writing jobs to clients.

Everyone assumes you use it. Which means, even if you don’t use Word, you need a passing familiarity with it. People expect to to be able to open, write and edit documents in the Word format.

Many tools in this list can do that. All of them co-exist with Word in one way or another.

Given Word’s place in the world, there’s a strong argument for sticking with it when you write for work or for clients. Life can be less trouble that way.

Kitchen sink included

Word has everything you need in a word-processor. More to the point, it has everything anyone needs in a word-processor. That makes it a huge, sprawling monster of an application. It can feel bloated and clumsy. Complexity can also make Word hard to master.

Chances are you won’t scratch the surface of what Word has to offer.

For years the Mac versions of Word were quite different from Windows versions of the software. That’s no longer the case. Today you can switch from Word on Windows to Word on a Mac without any jarring adjustments.

Buy Word as part of Office 365

In fact I can use Microsoft Office on up to five devices. Office is 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 bloated and clumsy. It manages 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.

Microsoft Word Mac OS X screen shot
Microsoft Word Mac OS X

Word:mac 2011 has a distraction free full-screen mode – shown above in the screenshot. The distraction free mode is 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.


WordPress can be as clean as a blank sheet of white paper in an old-school typewriter. It works. WordPress is fast, lightweight and relatively painless.

WordPress editor Mac OS X screen shot

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 easily with WordPress, it is the jumping off point for this personal look at alternative writing tools.

Pages ’09

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.

Apple Pages '09 Mac OS X screen shot

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. Producing documents that, as far as my clients are concerned, came from Microsoft Word is easy.

While Pages functions as a perfectly good word processor, that’s not what Apple has in mind for the software. Pages is more 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.

Google Docs

Modern 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 Mac OS X screen shot

Google Docs is sleek and clean. It’s a great option for collaborating with others although there is one specific and annoying flaw in Google’s software. Google Docs can also be used to send words to other online apps including WordPress.

Google Docs needs a more mouse action than Word or Pages. There aren’t so many keyboard short cuts. If you touch type, this will slows you down and could make your hands ache. 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. This is the annoying flaw mentioned earlier. It 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 Google Docs problem is that its text can display too wide. This makes it hard for comfortable reading and means you’ll struggle with proofreading.

None of these shortcomings may 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.

iA Writer

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 writing jobs. Writer is 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, iA Writer 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.

iA Writer Mac OS X
iA Writer Mac OS X

iA Writer is fast and productive, but the reasons that make it great for short writing jobs work against it for longer more complex tasks. That’s because navigating long documents is hard 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.

FocusWriter Mac OS X screen shot

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 a MacBook Air the characters are tiny, barely large enough to read.

You can 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 in this round up, but it gets the job done.

Other Mac writing tools

A couple of people suggested Mars Edit from Red Sweater Software. Others suggested BBEdit. It 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.