iA Writer 5

Is iA Writer a text editor? Or is it a minimal word processor? The software is both and neither at the same time. It’s an elegant stripped down writing tool that’s perfect for 2018.

iA Writer starts from the premise that some writers focus on their words, not how they look on a page.

There are no distractions. The software has almost no moving parts. Words on a screen, that’s it. iA Writer feels the nearest thing to using paper in a typewriter and yet it is as modern as the iPhone X.

If you like your writing software flashy and complex go elsewhere. If you need to do tricky typographic work or lay out pages, this is not for you. It is a writer’s tool, pure and simple.

MacOS and iOS

There are versions of iA Writer for iOS, MacOS and Android. It works best with Apple kit. If you don’t use Apple hardware, the software is a good reason to change. If you have an iPad Pro, this would be a good time to invest in a keyboard, although iA Writer is fine if you write on a glass keyboard.

That’s because cloud is central to the software. You can store documents locally on a Mac, iPhone or iPad, but why would you when you can save them the cloud and have them sync between devices.

This works so well that you can type away on, say, a MacBook, race out the door and pick up from where you left off on an iPhone.

The app-OS-hardware integration has only improved with Apple’s recent move to iOS 11.

A breeze compared to Word, Pages

Of course you can do much the same with, say, Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. Up to a point.

Word is a hefty MacOS app. It rarely starts without checking to see if there is a software update — usually once a week. Often you’ll need to wait 15 minutes or so before working while Microsoft handles the latest updates to all the Office apps.

Even when there are no updates Word is not instant on. iA Writer is ready immediately. Often a Word work session starts with something other than jumping straight into writing. Maybe you need to find the right fonts or styles. There are always things to fuss over.

With iA Writer you are ready to go almost from the moment you click the app’s icon. There is nothing to fuss over. Almost no possible choices to make.

Focus

The idea behind iA Writer isn’t new. A decade ago there were minimalist word processors and writing tools for Macs and PCs. You may recall WriteRoom or Q10.

There were others. And if you didn’t want a special app, there were the basic text editors shipped with operating systems and tools derived from the Linux or Unix text editors. Even the MS-Dos versions of Word Perfect were minimal in this way. So were older programs like WordStar.

All of them attempted to keep out of your way. In place of a fancy user interface and menus full of esoteric commands, they relied on the user learning a few standard codes. These were embedded among the words to handle things like bold text, heads and so on.

Markdown

iA Writer uses Markdown to do this. Markdown is simple and keeps out of the way. Type a single hash # character at the start of the line for a top level head, two hashes means second level head and so on. It takes seconds to learn a days to master.

One key difference between iA Writer and earlier simple writing tools is the beautiful integration with the hardware, software and cloud services.

It’s as if the the software developers digested the entire Apple less-is-more credo and spat it out as a perfect writing application. Perfect is not too strong a word here. Although this style of perfection may not be to your taste.

iA Writer’s rival

Only one other application comes close to iA Writer’s elegance and simplicity. The excellent Byword has its own minimalist aesthetic. It too is lightweight, simple and stays out of the way.

Unlike iA Writer which offers next to zero choices, Byword gives you some options. You can change a few things.

This may sound like a cop-out. It isn’t. I have a medical condition which means my eyes sometimes don’t work well. When I’m having bad eyesight days, I can’t adjust the iA Writer type to a bigger size, I can’t alter the font or screen colour to make reading easier. With Byword you can make these changes.

Subtle difference

The result is the two similar minimal writing tools have distinct personalities. They work for different types of use. iA Writer is all about the writing and precious little else. You can use it for complex writing jobs, but it works best for blog posts, putting down thoughts and things like journalism.

Byword is a touch more sophisticated. You can write a book or a 3000 long-form feature in either app. If you want something more, Byword is the first stop on the road from iA Writer to more complex tools like Apple Pages or Microsoft Word.

Efficient

There’s something else important about iA Writer and Byword. The two apps have an impact on the way you write. I find I can sit at a Mac or iPad and zip through a thousand words or so in quick time. This blog post will take less than an hour to write.

Between the minimal software and the Markdown editing language there is almost no reason to move your hands from the keyboard. That’s when you have one on a Mac or say with your iOS device.

With, say, Word, the composition part of the writing process takes longer. There’s more scrolling up and down the page. More distraction. Sure, you can make the words look pretty as you go, but that’s a barrier to getting the right words written efficiently.

Version 5

In November iA Writer reached version 5. It was a free upgrade to those who had earlier versions. There are changes. First the iOS version now works with the new iOS file system.

There are other changes which added functionality without adding complexity. One is that it is now easier to create tables in text.

iA Writer’s other big change is there is a new duospace font. Since the software first arrived there has been no choice other than a standard monospace, typewriter-style font. Now you can choose monospace or duospace.

This sounds like a big deal. In many ways it is. And yet, you’d hardly notice it. I knew I had set the new font in my preferences after downloading the update, but had to go back a moment ago to check I was using it. That’s how subtle it is.

Indeed, while typing away you hardly notice any of the improvements in the last seven years and five versions of iA Writer. That’s the whole point of a minimalist application.

You can find iA Writer in the app stores or visit the company’s website.

 iA Writer 5: When you want words without fuss was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

iPhone 6

There are times when even the lightest, slimmest laptop is more than you want to carry. And times when there’s not enough room to use a MacBook Air.

Earlier this month I tried to work with my 13-inch MacBook Air while flying in economy class. Although the tray-table had room for the computer, there wasn’t enough space to type.

Break out the iPhone 6 Plus

I’ve been using the iPhone 6 Plus for six months now. It’s a good size for two thumb typing. The text shows large enough to check your work, although that depends on the writing app you use at the time. Best of all, the screen shows enough words for you to understand the context of what you are writing.

The iPhone 6 Plus is the best writing tool that fits in a pocket. I’ve used it to edit, update or finish off news stories while traveling on Auckland buses and ferries or sitting in cafes. This was the first time, other than artificial review-style tests, when I needed to write long-form journalism on the phone.

Normally I find the iPhone 6 Plus is fine for emails, admin and short bursts of text, but prefer something with a physical keyboard for longer writing jobs.

There were deadlines to worry about so I decided to push the technology beyond my comfort zone. I wrote a lengthy feature, two news stories and two detailed article outlines during the flight.

Plenty of good iOS writing apps

There’s no shortage of iOS writing tools to choose from. I had five loaded on the phone. So I took the opportunity to try them all.

All my iOS writing apps have clean user interfaces and all work with OS X as well. That last point is important.

Byword is the cleanest, perhaps that’s why it is my favourite. I find the simplicity is well suited to iPhone two thumb typing. It uses Markdown to embed codes like bold or headline levels in what is otherwise plain text. Best of all Byword documents are easy to read while you are editing.

Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages iOS app performed just as well in the cramped conditions. It’s good to know serious productivity is possible in such circumstances.

Sideways scrolling with Google Docs

Google Docs didn’t do as well. It’s clean and straightforward, but I couldn’t discover how to restrict the page width on the phone, so found myself continually scrolling right to left and back again.

Maybe that’s avoidable. Sitting on a plane isn’t the best place to learn how to use unfamiliar software.

iA Writer is an old favourite that didn’t fare well as expected in my enforced iPhone writing test. Although the software works fine, I found the typewriter-like font it uses is difficult to read on the small screen.

Thumbs up to iPhone 6 Plus writing in an emergency

To my surprise I managed to write more than 1500 words with my thumbs during the journey. There was barely any physical discomfort, despite writing in such cramped conditions.

The onscreen keyboard wasn’t a problem. In practice I found using the keyboard in the portrait position, that’s holding the phone upright, worked far better. When you tip the iPhone 6 Plus on its side there’s a bigger onscreen keyboard with more keys, It was harder to use and took up too much of the display to be practical.

The biggest annoyance was constantly switching between the working document and reference notes.

When I got to my hotel thanks to the magic of Bluetooth, Continuity, WiFi and iCloud my iPhone output was available on my MacBook almost immediately. Microsoft’s OneDrive was the laggard at synching. It took minutes while iCloud and Google Docs took seconds.

Error prone after MacBook Air

Some of the work looked just fine. However, I noticed a couple of plane-written documents were riddled with typos and other errors. This has always been my experience with iPhones, they cope well with simple writing, but the small screen makes them imperfect tools for proofreading. I make a lot more errors than when I type on my MacBook Air keyboard.

The Google Docs document was in worst shape. I put that down to the horizontal scrolling problem. That made checking my work on the go next to impossible.

Lesson: iPhone writing works, not ideal

Overall I was happy with the experience. Battery life wasn’t an issue, there were no ergonomic headaches, the device worked well in the circumstances. About an hour into the experiment I wondered if an external Bluetooth keyboard would help my productivity. An hour later I was convinced that wouldn’t solve anything and would undermine the usefulness of a writing device that fits in a pocket.

I didn’t get as much done as I might have done with the MacBook Air. But I got far more done that if I read a magazine or watched in-flight movies.

Better still, I managed to hit the deadlines. That wouldn’t have been possible without the iPhone 6 Plus. I estimate I worked at about three-quarters my normal speed, allow a bit more for the extra corrections needed and that’s still a productive flight.

Writing on Apple computers has evolved since I looked at Mac writing apps in September 2013.

One change is Continuity: part of iOS 8 and OS X 10.10. In Apple’s words “Continuity seamlessly links documents” on different Apple devices. It means you can move between devices while writing or editing a document without losing a beat. You could start writing on a Mac, continue on an iPad and polish on an iPhone.

Not every writing app handles Continuity at the time of writing. Some app developers say they promise to include it in future upgrades. I guess the others will follow.

As you’d expect Continuity already works well with Apple’s Pages word processor.

Apple Pages 5.5

Pages has been through a major update since last year’s Mac writing tools round-up. Although Pages 5 shares a name with the earlier Pages ’09 and key elements are familiar, the code is all new. It has been rewritten from the ground up.

Apple Pages 5.5
Apple Pages 5.5

When it first appeared, Pages was as much about page layout as writing. There’s still a whiff of that. You can design great looking documents if that’s what you want from your writing tools. However, the move to Pages 5.0 means the application now works better as a more conventional word processor.

Compared to Microsoft Word:mac 2011, Pages 5 is stripped back.

That’s good for writers like me who prefer minimal word processing apps. Not everyone was happy when Apple first redesigned Pages because the company took out many of the more complex features, although some of these came back in a later refresh.

Mac, iPad, iPhone integration

Apple changes to Pages 5.0 — some critics call it ‘dumbing down’ — brought the desktop version more in-line with the iOS version.

That means if you have an iPad or an iPhone and a Mac, you can start writing something on your iPhone and polish it off later on the Mac. Or you can make last-minute edits to a document that started life on your Mac with your iPad.

You can do this with iCloud. Save documents in iCloud from one device, then open them from another. However, Continuity takes this a step further with  handoff between devices. You’ll need to set things up in advance, but once it is working it feels almost like magic.

Although I’ve only been using Continuity with Pages 5.5 for a little over a week, I’ve already noticed a huge productivity gain. If, say, I’m away from home and have an idea, I can jot down notes on the phone, then polish them into a story on my Mac. A client rang and asked for some changes to a document when I was at a press conference. Thanks to Continuity I could make the changes on the fly and resend within minutes.

Apple also added real-time collaboration in Pages 5.0. I’ve not used this other than to test it as I work alone, it brings Pages collaboration up to date with tools like Google Docs.

Since moving to Pages 5.0, Apple has moved fast, the 5.5 version arrived in less than a year. On a Mac it now looks a lot more like the new OS X 10.10 Yosemite. Apple added support for the iCloud Drive and made it easier to use Pages with Gmail and DropBox.

Before the 5.5 upgrade I found myself moving away from Pages to other writing apps. The new version has brought me back. That may change as the other apps catch up with Continuity.

Pages 5.5 is free to anyone who purchased an Apple computer after September 2013. Upgrading from an older version of Pages is free. For everyone else it costs US$25.

iCloud Pages

In May 2014 Apple updated the iCloud version of Pages as part of Apple’s iWork for iCloud suite. There’s still a beta label on the online word processor but it works fine.

Apple iCloud Pages 2014
Apple iCloud Pages 2014

iWorks competes head on with Google Apps and Microsoft’s Office for the Web. Unlike its rivals, Apple built iWorks from the ground up as an online suite. This means you get a more polished and streamlined experience, although perhaps not as many features as the more established suites. I’m comfortable with that, you might not be.

The extra polish is everywhere. iCloud Pages is more elegant than online rivals like Google Docs and Word for the web. By that, I don’t just mean pretty — although it does look good. iCloud Pages integrates more smoothly with the other cloud apps in the iWork suite. It’s also easier to use. I doubt anyone moving to iCloud Pages from another word processor will struggle to be instantly productive.

In practice the software is similar to the desktop version, with the same stripped-back minimalist feel.

Like the Pages 5.5 app, Apple has boosted iCloud Pages collaboration. Apple says more than 100 people can work on the same document at the same time. I doubt many projects will see 100 people sharing a document in this way. Nevertheless the update matches Google Drive’s collaboration.

Apple goes beyond Google or Microsoft by allowing cross device collaboration. You can have the same document open in desktop Pages, iCloud Pages and iOS Pages — a change made in any one of these will turn up immediately in the others.

Apple’s iWorks for Cloud is free.

While iCloud Pages is an excellent minimal word processor, it suffers from being, well, there’s no nice way of saying this, pointless.

Anyone thinking of using iCloud Pages will already have Pages installed on their computers and, possibly, also on their iPad and iPhone. Adding a cloud version to these versions doesn’t make much sense. I bookmarked iCloud Pages on my Mac when I first tested the app and found I never naturally returned between first testing the software and taking another look to write this round-up. On the other hand, it could be useful in an emergency, especially if I had to use a non-Apple device.

Microsoft Word:mac 2011

It has been four years since the last Apple version of Microsoft Office. Four years is a long time between software releases. This is now a fast-moving market, Apple Pages has been through two versions in the past year. Apple’s OS X and iOS operating systems get an annual overhaul. In recent years Microsoft has updated Windows at the same pace. Windows versions of Microsoft Office arrive about every three years.

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

Apart from a few tweaks Microsoft’s Word:mac 2011 hasn’t changed in the past four years. So the new version is overdue. Microsoft told me to expect an update in early 2014. Then I was told the second half of 2014. Now there are suggestions the next Mac Office upgrade will be in 2015.

The good news, is the late update means Microsoft should be able to have Continuity working when the next version of Word arrives. I suspect Microsoft is preparing a similar technology to use on Windows as well.

The most recent Windows version of Word has a cleaner user interface. Compared with earlier Mac versions of Word it does a better job of staying out of the way, letting writers focus more on words and less on word processor mechanics.

Even so, Word:mac 2011 now looks out of date compared to the Windows version and Apple’s Pages 5.5. For this reason Word is rarely my first choice. If I have a writing job that needs a heavy-duty Word session, I reboot the Macbook in Windows 8 and use Word 2013. It is worth the effort. Word 2013 sings and dances where Word:max 2011 plods.

It’s hard to avoid Microsoft Word, it is the standard. Clients expect to get documents in Word format.

Almost everyone buys Word as part of Office. These days that generally means a NZ$165 annual Office 365 Home subscription, although there is also a NZ$119 Office 365 Personal edition. I recommend the Home subscription, it means you can use Office on up to five PCs — useful if you have a family with school or university students. The subscription also includes phone and tablet versions of the software.

Word is the world’s most popular application after web browsers. Everyone knows it, everyone has come across it. I Some people love it. It is powerful and full-featured. Every imaginable formatting option is in there somewhere. It can be clumsy and confusing at times — just try to wrap text around an image on a page without cursing.

iA Writer

For a year or so Information Architect’s iA Writer was my favourite writing app. iA Writer is a text editor, not a word processor. It has few features. You can’t change fonts or text size. In use it doesn’t show bold text or italics. There is nothing there except your words. Even the title bar disappears when you start typing.

iA Writer Mac OS X
iA Writer Mac OS X

As I have written elsewhere, it’s the nearest thing to using an old-fashioned mechanical typewriter. It’s fast, it’s productive and it never gets in the way.

These are all reasons why I loved it. I used iA Writer for all my short form writing jobs. The lack of navigation cues make it impractical for long form writing.

Although I love minimalist writing tools, iA Writer’s brand of minimalism became a problem for me earlier this year when I started having eye problems. The app uses a thin, typewriter-style serif font. It has a fixed size and runs across a fixed width. These are to minimise the options and stop writers from being distracted: admirable goals.

However, in my case I found as my eyes got worse I struggled to read the text. Not being able to make adjustments went from being a plus to a minus overnight.

iA Writer allows minimal levels of mark-up using Markdown, you can transfer this text directly to other Markdown-supporting tools, like, say, WordPress or save your documents as .rtf, .html or .docx format. I often do the latter when writing for clients who prefer getting stories in Word format.

At the time of writing, iA Writer is on sale in the OS X app store for US$10. There’s also a iOS version. When I last checked iA Writer hasn’t been upgraded to use Continuity. This isn’t that big a deal — iA Writer mainly stores documents in the cloud either at iCloud or DropBox. So picking up where you left off isn’t difficult.

The last iA Writer upgrade was to version 1.5 in August 2013, so a new version is due. This may not happen as Information Architects, the company behind iA Writer released the US$20 iA Writer Pro late in 2013. This app now seems to be the company’s main focus. I haven’t tested the pro version yet.

Byword

There’s no such thing as a perfect writing app. And anyway, those of us who write for a living can’t get away with using just one tool. But if there was a perfect app and if I could use just one, Byword would be my choice.

Byword Markdown preview
Byword Markdown preview

I wrote a more comprehensive review of Byword earlier. It isn’t for everyone, but the writing app ticks all my boxes.

Byword has all the simplicity and minimalism of iA Writer. There are few distractions, almost nothing to tinker with And yet you can set up comfortable typefaces, type sizes and screen widths.

Like iA Writer, Byword lets you focus on your words, not how they look. That’s great for productivity. It also does Markdown. That’s useful, Markdown is a simple way of marking up text documents with information like heads, subheads, bold text and so on. Byword’s Markdown comes into its own when you use the Publish add-on to file stories directly to WordPress, Blogger or Tumblr.

No-one begrudges software developers making money from their apps. I’m happy to pay. I’m less sure about Byword’s price structure. You pay US$13 for the OS X app and another US$5 for the iOS app — there’s no discount for buying both. You need to stump up another US$5 so that each app can publish. That’s a total of US$33.

Byword is good value. I can see it makes sense to break out the publishing capability so those who don’t need it can get going for less. On the other hand, I’d have liked a buy everything for US$25 option. The pricing structure feels like a drip feed.

If you run Apple devices alongside your Mac investing in the iOS version is worthwhile. For now you’ll have to be content with moving between devices using iCloud, the software hasn’t been updated for Continuity yet. On the other hand, Byword works as well on a phone or a tablet as it does on a PC.

I now use Byword for almost all my writing. There are no obvious flaws and after two months of intensive use, I’ve not run into problems. Of all the writing apps I’ve looked at here, this is now my favourite, but it isn’t for everyone. You don’t get much handholding from the app and there’s little scope to pretty-up words before sending them off.

Google Docs

Google Docs is a sleek cloud-based word processor. It is the best tool for live collaboration. For years I used it as part of a remote team putting together a daily news report.

Google Docs
Google Docs

Although there are professional writers who swear by Google Docs — some are my friends — it always strikes me more as a tool for casual writers. Google seems to have put more effort into collaboration and functionality than into the user experience. So you’ll find there are fewer keyboard short cuts which means a lot more mouse work.

You’ll also find it harder to read or proofread documents. There’s less control over the way things appear on screen, so you can end up dealing with long lines of text stretching across the screen. It’s years since I first noticed a problem with zooming and it still hasn’t been fixed. I’m also nervous about privacy with Google Docs. None of that is good.

Some users don’t like the lack of features in Google Docs. This is a problem for a lot of writing tasks, but it’s never bothered me. A lot of the baggage in, say, Microsoft Word, gets in the way of my work.

Finding Google Docs is not as easy as it once was. The web writing app is now part of Google Drive — that’s where you’ll find it. Just to confuse things there are standalone Google Docs apps for iOS and Android.

However you get it, Google Docs is free. I barely use it except when I need to collaborate on a writing project. For any other task it is the least productive writing tool on the Mac. When it comes to the Chromebook, it rules supreme.

Writing apps missing in action:

Scrivener: A number of friends and readers swear by Scrivener. It looks like a specialist writing tool for people who like to work in a different way to me. I’m put off by the opening line in the iTunes description “powerful content-generation tool” which is both poncey and scary. Anyone who describes writing as ‘content’ misses the point.

Another negative is the Scrivener image on iTunes shows precisely the kind of clutter I need to get away from when writing. The asking price is a barrier too. Although NZ$56 is not expensive if Scrivener does what you need. I’ve not tried Scrivener yet. Hopefully that will change by the time I wrote my next update.

Marsedit also falls into the specialist category. The app is for desktop blogging. As with Scrivener, plenty of readers contacted me after my last wrap of Mac writing tools to sing Maredit’s praises.

I downloaded the trial and found although it works just fine, Marsedit does nothing for me. Apart from anything else, most of my writing isn’t for this blog. It would be a clumsy app for writing a case study or a white paper. When it comes to blogging, I’m comfortable typing directly into WordPress. If I had difficulties connecting to the internet it would be a useful tool for composing offline.

Marsedit is another cluttered app — they work better on big screen iMacs than on my MacBook Air.

ComWriter is another alternative that popped up after my earlier look at OS X writing apps. The app is aimed at academic writers. It has academic references baked in to the main software. Like the iCloud version of Pages and Google Docs, ComWriter is web-based. The basic package is free, you pay more to manage research libraries.

Byword on Mac, iPad, iPhone

Byword is the ideal Mac writing tool if you just want to focus on words. There are versions for OS X (US$12.99 in the Mac app store) and iOS (US$4.99 in the iTunes app store). This review looks at the Mac version.

The key to Byword and the reason it is ideal for focusing on words is that it is not a word processor: it’s a text editor.

Word processor mission creep

That’s important because while word processors are useful, they have moved beyond their original intention. Most do jobs other than writing. As a result word processor developers threw the writing baby out with the bath water.

Apple’s Pages word processor is good at document layout. Microsoft Word does mail merge and tracks changes.

Most word processors do countless things that go beyond writing. This means the apps are complex and bloated. Let’s face it, with all that other stuff going on, it’s easy to be distracted.

How text editors differ from word processors

Text editors do little more than manage strings of letters, numbers and other characters. In general they are not concerned with fonts, layouts, creating tables and so on. Being pretty doesn’t come into it. They usually create plain text (.txt) files — although that’s not the whole story.

It’s true, text editors also do many things that go beyond writing. You can write programming code in a text editor. In fact, that’s what many of them are used for. I wrote my first HTML pages using a text editor. Even now I tinker with HTML, PHP and CSS using TextWrangler. That text editor is optimised for code. Unlike Byword it’s not great for writing.

A text editor’s power comes from its relative simplicity. A word processor’s power comes from its relative complexity.

Good text editors, like Byword, do one thing, manipulate text, but they do it well and stay out of your face.

Typewriter-like, in a good way

Byword is the nearest thing to using a manual typewriter that I’ve found to date. That’s not a new thought. iA Writer and my iPad are like a typewriter.

The typewriter comparison is important. Typewriters made for productive writing because of their simplicity. They didn’t offer scope for unproductive fannying about.

Of course typewriters couldn’t store documents. Editing was a pain, usually involving a red pen and white-out. And you needed to buy paper and ink. Even so-called portable typewriters were anything but portable by today’s standards.

Byword shares much with iA Writer. Both are text editors optimised for writers not coders. They both work with Markdown.

You can sync documents across your Mac, iPhone and iPad using iCloud with both apps. Both can produce plain text documents readable on any device. And both can save text documents in popular formats like .docx.

Minimalist

Although Byword and iA Writer look different, they share a minimalist user interface that means nothing gets between you and your words. There are zero distractions.

However, much as I love iA Writer, it takes minimalism a step too far. Nothing illustrates this better than its inflexibility about the font it uses. You can’t change the iA Writer font, nor can you change the font size.

This is deliberate, in the name of simplicity and minimalism, admirable goals. And yet, the font is ugly and that is a subtle form of distraction.

You may be OK with that. What I briefly couldn’t live with is the inability to change the font size. Earlier this year I had an eye condition that affected my ability to read text on a screen. The work around was to zoom the document and crank up the font size — things I couldn’t do with iA Writer. This is why I spent four months back in the word processor world with Pages and Word.

Readability

Byword allows font and font size changes in a non-distracting way. There’s a minimal preferences panel. You can choose whether the display shows white text on a black background or black on white. Better still Byword also allows a choice of wide, medium and narrow text columns.

Byword preferences
Byword preferences

These are wise options and in my view, essential for productivity. Most of the time black on white text works best, but there are times and lighting conditions where the reverse is better. You might be working at night — possibly on a flight or train — where a bright white screen disturbs others.

Changing the font means you can pick something you’re comfortable with. I use Apple’s Myriad Pro font at a 17pt size — it’s perfect for my needs. I find it easy to read and non distracting.

A trick I learnt years ago is to proofread my writing using a different font and size to the one I used to write the document. Try it yourself, you’ll notice you’ll spot errors you didn’t see first time around. That’s all to do with the way you read on-screen text.

Never mind the quality, feel the width

Being able to change the column width is great for a similar reason. There’s a good reason old school printed newspapers and magazines used narrow text columns, the way eyes track across the page means people comprehend better when the width is less than 72 characters wide.

Wide column widths are harder to track and that means it’s harder to proofread your copy. Set Byword to the narrow measure, which given your font choices could mean the columns are about 60 characters wide. That’s ideal.

Byword’s preferences are only about what you see on the editing screen. They are not about what the reader will see. The font, width, colour information is not stored in a text document. Once set they are universal for everything you write.

iA Writer has a focus mode where everything but the three lines you are working on fades into the background. It’s a great feature when you need to concentrate on tricky passages. Byword takes this feature a step further with a line focus and a paragraph focus. Both do exactly what the name suggests.

Where Markdown sings

Another thing wrong with traditional word processors is that they still revolve around printed documents even though most writing is now purely digital. Byword is digital though and through.

It uses Markdown, which is an easy way of embedding simple formatting in a document. A single # character at the start of a line makes it a header, that’s H1 in HTML. Two #s marks a line as H2 and so on. A single * before and after a word indicates italics. Two stars mean bold text.

These days most of my writing is published online first. I spend more time in WordPress than anything else. Because WordPress also uses Markdown, it is easy to move between Byword and WordPress. This also works for Blogger, Tumblr and Evernote among others.

Writing blog posts with Word, Pages or any other word processor means ten minutes clearing up before hitting the publish button.

Byword Markdown preview
Byword Markdown preview

Byword handles Markdown beautifully on-screen and that brings a surprise benefit I wasn’t expecting. With iA Writer long stories are hard to navigate. When writing you often need to scroll up and down to cross reference and check others parts of the story. Because iA writer is wide and the text all looks much the same, it’s hard to quickly hunt down sections. Those heads, bolds and italics, along with the narrow column width and ragged right justification take a lot of the hard work out of navigation.

If that’s not enough, there’s a preview option. The upshot is what you see on the preview screen is close to what you’ll see on your blog post.

Blog integration

While you can cut and paste text from Byword into WordPress or another blog, there’s a more direct channel. A US$5 premium version of Byword allows you to post stories directly from the text editor without opening your blogging software’s back end.

If you’re cautious you can save the post as a draft. The premium add-on allows you to add categories and tags.

Using Byword

This post is the first long story I’ve written using Byword. I also tested it with some shorter posts and stories. It’s clearly a productive writing tool, I can see it becoming my main workhorse.

Byword manages to deliver a writing tool that’s made for writers. In practice it feels like it combines the best things that you’ll find in a word processor with the minimalism of a text editor. Much as I love iA Writer, it sometimes feels a little too much like working in a foreign territory, I don’t get that with Byword.

Here’s an experiment I’ve wanted to try for a while: write a post using iA Writer and send it quickly to WordPress.

The trick is to learn the formatting commands – the next word should be in italic type and this in a bold face. Then you save the finished document to HTML. At least I think. Let’s see how this test post works.

If I can get this right, it should speed up my writing.