Microsoft Word is my fourth favourite writing tool1.
I rarely use Word to write stories or blog posts. Yet, I never hesitate to renew my Office 365 subscription.
It sounds contradictory. That NZ$165.00 Office 365 subscription is good value. That’s true even though I don’t use Word to write and I almost never open Excel. I go out of my way to not let PowerPoint into my life.
At this point you might think this is throwing money away. Open source fans reading this will be aghast.
But there is a method in my madness. Writing is my work. A typical year’s work is 250,000 words. My writing output was even higher for a few years. After more than 40 years in the business, I’ve written, and publishers have paid me for, at least 10 million words.
Most, not all, of the time, I’m paid by the word. Which means my ability to produce quality writing puts food on my table and a roof over my head.
Writing is talking to people, researching, checking then putting it all into words. Sometimes it is about reviving my own work or dealing with words others have sent to me.
Microsoft Word is not optional
Like it or not, Microsoft Word is the lingua franca of digital writing. Almost everyone in the business uses it. It’s been more than two decades since an editor expected copy in anything other than Word format.
At this point, people who dislike Word might be thinking: “Yes, but everything else can save in a Word format. So it isn’t necessary to buy a subscription”.
They have a point. Except that sooner or later, something doesn’t convert between Word and another format.
The most troublesome issue is with edits marked using Microsoft’s Track Changes feature.
Yes, many non-Word writing applications can understand and deal with Track Changes markups. But this is not always straightforward.
The cost to me of failing to deal fast with one edit incident can be greater than the subscription price. It’s rare, but over 250,000 words, it happens a few times every year.
It costs even more than the subscription when we take into account it includes licenses for other family members. In effect my personal subscription costs 25 percent of $165, that’s $40 plus change.
Don’t go there
Even a quick dive down the troubleshooting rabbit hole costs more.
Multiply this by the two or more incidents a year and you can see that paying the subscription leaves me ahead. It’s a solid investment.
Open source fans tell me this attitude is wrong and that I’m paying a tax or even a ransom to Microsoft to be able to work. You could see it this way.
Yet it isn’t Microsoft that is holding me to ransom, it is the editors and publishers who commit to Word. If everyone accepted plain text2 I wouldn’t need to pay the fee.
It might be better to frame the fee as paying for membership of the hireable professional writers club. Either way, it’s a bargain.
In my world it ranks behind IA Writer, Byword and Pages. ↩︎
Text was fine for a long time. That changed about 20 years ago. ↩︎
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.
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.
Microsoft took five years to update Mac: Office 2011.
Mac Office:2011 was almost a generation behind the Windows version of Office at launch. It didn’t just look out-of-date, it was missing functionality.
At best Microsoft was paying lip-service to Mac users. It left a vacuum for others to fill. This includes Apple with its iWorks suite.
Office for Mac 2016 beta
Judging by the Office for Mac 2016 beta, that’s changed. I’ve used it for a month and I’m impressed.
Although I’ve looked briefly at the new versions of Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook, from this point on I’m going to stop writing about Office and focus on Word 2016.
The changes in the new version are obvious from the software loads. Mac Word:2011 had a messy, confusing user interface. It left the Mac user making weird cognitive jumps between the familiar OS X world and a faux Windows interface.
It was ugly to look at. This isn’t simply about aesthetics. Ugly can be productive. Mac Word:2011 was ugly in a distracting way. I found I needed to jump through hoops to get as much of the user interface out of my face before I could think about putting words on the screen.
Microsoft Word for Mac is clean. It isn’t minimal, but the screen furniture left behind stays out of your way.
There are still two menus. The OS X menu you get with almost every Mac app shows at the top of the screen, while a second menu sits just about the Windows-style ribbon interface.
The key is that you no longer find yourself jumping between two disconnected worlds. Microsoft Word for Mac actually feels like a Mac app, not a Windows app recompiled and shoe-horned into a different OS.
Microsoft has made huge strides with its cloud services in recent years. OneDrive is now central to Office.
The new OS X version of Word integrates nicely with OneDrive.
Most Mac apps run into a problem when saving documents. The save dialogue provides a list of folders, but it only includes favourites and recent. That’s difficult if you need to store a document somewhere that’s neither a favorite nor a recent folder.
The new Word save dialogue has the usual OS X elements, but adds an online button and allows you to navigate through your OneDrive folders to find the best resting place for your document.
Microsoft has also made it easier to share documents and to collaborate with others. Microsoft collaboration isn’t real-time like Google Docs where you can watch others edit. Instead you get notifications of changes after saving a document.
This may work for some users, but I find the Google approach works best when, say, a handful of editors are racing to get a story online.
A big step forward
Microsoft Word for Mac is still a beta. That can mean risky. So far I haven’t seen any instability or serious bugs. Nor have I seen any obvious performance problems. The code runs fine on my MacBook Air.
There are missing features. I often see a “this feature will be available soon” message.
Microsoft has made huge strides in the last year or so to focus on building great apps. The iOS Office apps are first rate. Microsoft’s web Office apps are a great way to get out of a hole when you only have a browser to hand.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
ComWriteris 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.
It’s a long time since I used a word processor to create a printed document. Yet word processors are still made as if the goal is a sheet of paper.
Take Microsoft Word:Mac 2011. It offers six ‘views. All of them pay homage to print. At least three of the views go out of their way to reproduce what looks like a printed page on-screen along with cheesy skeuomorphic designs. You can’t use Word for long before coming up against page breaks.
What an antiquated idea that is.
Apple’s Pages 5.0 feels more modern, yet it still offers a line across the screen to tell me where a page break might fall. And depending on the settings paragraphs move around to accommodate those page breaks.
It gets worse. The default setting of the standard Pages 5.0 template assumes you’ll want to have page headers and footers. I haven’t used headers or footers since WordPerfect 5.1 — kids ask your grandparents.
Google Docs has its faults, but at least there is an option to not show pages. Google can’t quite bring itself into the 21st century though. Google Docs’s default setting is what it calls the ‘paginated view’.
I would like to see Apple and Microsoft offer non-paginated views. Perhaps they do. I can’t find them in any documentation or support forums.
On one level this is just a grumble. I prefer minimal writing interfaces, the less distraction the better. A page line might not be much distraction, but I’d still rather not see it.
There’s a deeper complaint. The fact that word processor developers are so conservative that they feel the need to include paper-like views and make those views the default, tells me they are too conservative full stop.