Bill Bennett

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Ten years of Markdown and iA Writer

It may not work for everyone, but switching from Microsoft Word to a Markdown or text editor boosted my productivity.

Almost every post written on this site over the last 13 years was written using Markdown.

If we want to be technical about it, Markdown is a simple, lightweight markup language.

At a pinch you can write Markdown using a plain text editor. It is better when you use an app. My favourite Markdown app is iA Writer.

Swiss Army knife

Microsoft Word is the writing equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. It aims to cater for every possible need.

In comparison, Markdown and iA Writer are like one of those extra sharp Japanese cooking knives.

They do far less, but what they do, is done better with greater efficiency.

If you don’t know what life will bring you, the Swiss Army knife makes sense. But a chef would choose the latter to prepare a meal.

Simple, minimal, that is the whole point

The beauty of Markdown is there are a mere handful of commands to remember. There are few features.

That is a good thing. It means you can focus on writing words. Nothing else.

In this sense it is the closest thing to using a typewriter.

A few good commands

You can type out the commands for, say, bold text. That would be a couple of * symbols before and after the words you want in bold.

In a Markdown app you could also use Command-B (on a Mac) and the symbols are inserted for you. That’s the same code used in word processors like Microsoft Word.

This means there is almost nothing new to learn. You can be up and running with Markdown immediately.

Zero distraction

The advantage of this simple, minimal approach is you are not distracted by things that don’t matter.

There is no dithering over font choices or layout options.

Trust me, you can spend hours wondering if that editor waiting for your latest story prefers to get copy in Arial or Times Roman.

Faster

Simple means fast. A moment ago I fired up Microsoft Word on my state-of-the-art Apple M1 MacBook Air.

The app took three minutes to check for and download upgrades. Then it did something in the background before opening.

There are times when I have waited much longer to get started.

A Markdown editor is there immediately with a blank page ready to go.

Sure, there are times when I use Word. I have clients who expect to receive Word files or Google Docs. It can be easier to go there from the outset.

That said, converting Markdown to Word or Google Docs is no more than a mouse click away.

Comfortable

Markdown has another advantage. It is all about text.

If, like me, you can touch type, it means you can spend more time with your hands on the keyboard and less time mousing.

I find that over time Microsoft Word needs extra mouse activity – or touch screen action. That can give me overuse pains in my hands and arms. The more time you stay with the keyboard, the less discomfort.

It’s easy to miss this point, but if you find yourself cutting text from PDFs or web pages, pasting them into iA Writer is a cinch. Compare that with the fussiness that can happen when you past text into a word processor.

Markdown apps

Many of the posts on this site were written with iA Writer. A handful were written using Byword.

Byword is a Markdown Editor for Apple users. There is a Mac version and an iOS version that will also run on iPadOS.

iA Writer started life in the Apple camp. There’s a reason for that1.

Today there are Windows and Android versions of iA Writer.

iA Writer and Byline

For me two apps run on iOS, iPadOS, which for a long time was, in effect, the same as iOS, and they run on MacOS.

My first iOS version of iA Writer cost NZ$2.59 at the end of 2011.

It was, and remains, a bargain. That was the best $2.59 I ever spent on software. In 2016 iA charged a further NZ$5.99 for an upgraded app.

I’m not complaining. Even after buying MacOS apps, iA Writer works out at a fraction over one New Zealand dollar a year.

Phone, tablet, laptop, desktop

Because both apps store files in Apple’s iCloud, you can switch between Apple devices without missing a beat.

I can, and have, started writing on a phone, edited on a desktop, polished on a tablet and send from a laptop.

iA Writer and Byword are both solid apps. I recommend iA Writer over Byword because it has had more consistent attention from the developer over the years.

Although there is not a lot in it.

At the time of writing the most recent update of iA Writer was three months old. The most recent Byword was six months ago.

In my longer review of the latest version of iA Writer I explain why it can be better than a word processor.

Ten years on

After a decade with iA Writer, it remains my main writing app on iPhone, computer and iPad.

There are a few minor niggles. iA Writer works best for my journalism and blog posts.

Once a story needs to go longer than a few thousand words it can be unwieldy. Last year I wrote around 4000 words for a book chapter using iA writer.

If that happens, I find it best to break the text into smaller chunks.

There is no question I’m more productive with Markdown than with any alternative. I get more done with less mental and physical strain.

That has to a killer feature by any standard.


  1. Markdown has a strong Apple lineage. One of the authors is John Gruber who runs Daring Fireball, a blog about Apple products and services. ↩︎

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