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Mac writing apps November 2014

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.

Why I moved back from self-hosted to WordPress.com

In December this site moved back to WordPress.com. It was a self-hosted WordPress site for two years.

The site launched on WordPress.com. It stayed with the free hosting service for a year before switching to self-hosting.

It returned to WordPress.com because self-hosting no longer offered any return on the extra work involved.

The lure of self-hosted WordPress.org

Self-hosted WordPress is a great way to learn more about web-publishing technology.

I’m a journalist. Newspapers are the past. WordPress represents a possible future. HTML, PHP and CSS are likely more useful to the rest of my career than sharpening my typewriter skills.

Often, the best way to learn about technology is by doing.

I installed the WordPress.org software, found a local host, grabbed a domain name and built a tailored site.

Getting the site running took time and effort. I had to learn a huge amount. It was challenging and satisfying.

Learning minimalism the hard way

Self-hosted is more flexible than WordPress.com. Yet in the end, this proved unimportant.

A key lesson I learnt from my time with the hosted software was the virtues of radical simplicity. I took a minimalist approach to site design. My on-line reading experience taught me simple is good, complex is bad.

Building huge, complicated feature-rich sites is tempting. I never fell into this trap, but my site became more complex than necessary.

Apart from being harder to read. Complex pages load slowly and things – we’ll leave them unspecified for the moment – get in the way of the words.

There are also problems displaying complex web sites on smart phones.

Over time my site evolved – or should that be devolved – to a minimal format. I wanted to strip it back to focus on short, snappy stories. Self-hosted WordPress’s famous flexibility no longer mattered.

Minimal is as minimal does

Minimalism is a state of mind. I realised I could apply the same principles to managing the site. I simplified day-to-day site maintenance by leaving it all to experts. Running the site now takes considerably less energy and effort. I’m free to spend more time on writing fresh content. I can focus on the important things.

I haven’t given up on self-hosted WordPress or on learning more about the mechanics of on-line publishing, I look after a few self-hosted sites and will continue to experiment with WordPress.org, PHP and CSS. However, this one is no longer my test rig.

Paying for WordPress plug-ins

Starting today I’m paying the developers of the WordPress plug-ins used to build my web site. I urge you to do the same.

Although I picked up some Fortran and Pascal at school and university, I’m no programmer.

Even if I was, those languages are useless preparation for the modern tools used to build web sites. My only brush with programming was more than 30 years ago. And no, I’m not any good at it.

So when it comes to making this site sing and dance, I use WordPress plug-ins to add functions to my site.

At the time of writing, there are 20 plug-ins installed and active on this site.

Some handle administration tasks readers never get to see. Others are more obvious. For example, Tobias Bäthge‘s WP-Table Reloaded handle’s the tables in my NZ media on Twitter directory.

Many WordPress plug-ins are free. Most authors write them for love, not money. They share the results with others.

As if writing WordPress plug-ins wasn’t enough work, they also support users. I’ve called on support a few times, some of it is first class.

Which is why, from today, I’m making a point of donating to plug-in designers who have improved my site. When they ask for donations, the amounts are often small. Even paying all those who accept donations costs less than $100.

Publish Google Docs to WordPress site

Want to publish directly from Google Docs to your WordPress site? Setting-up Google Docs is a chore, but easy once you’ve done the hard work. Here’s how I did it.

Google Docs may not be the world’s best word processor, but you won’t find a better way of collaborating on documents. Sharing and collaboration works far better than with Microsoft Word.

Recently I used Google Docs to edit some shared documents which would eventually become WordPress posts.

After writing the first post, I cut and pasted the text into WordPress. It wasn’t pretty. Eventually I used WordPress’ paste as plain text function, but that loses formatting.

I decided to investigate posting directly from Google Docs to WordPress.

There are a number of guides explaining how to do this, but an online applications like Google Docs is a moving target – some of the steps explained in the guides have changed in recent updates.

Here’s what I did:

  1. Get WordPress ready to receive Google Docs. Go to the Dashboard, select Settings, then Writing.

  2. Select the box where it says:
    XML-RPC Enable the WordPress, Movable Type, MetaWeblog and Blogger XML-RPC publishing protocols.

  3. In Google Docs, open the document you’d like to post in WordPress.

  4. Pull down the Share menu in the top right hand corner of the screen and select Publish as web page.

  5. You should see two items, the second says This document has not been published to your blog.

  6. If this is the first time you’ve tried posting to your WordPress site from Google Docs, there will be a message saying: You need to set your blog site settings before you can post documents to your blog.

  7. Click on the link.

  8. If you use a hosted WordPress.com blog, then click the first button (which is selected by default) and choose WordPress.com from the pull-down menu next to the word Provider. If you run a self-hosted WordPress site, you’ll need to select the My own server / custom option then choose Metaweblog API and your site address. It is important to end the xmlrpc.php – which is normally in the home directory.

  9. Add your user name and password.

The process isn’t foolproof – I still ended up needing to edit some HTML code which came through from Google Docs – but if you’ve build your workflow around Google’s tools, this is relatively straightforward.