“This is a great idea. It brings a whole new perspective to our literature. And I know exactly how to write it down. Here it goes,…” And then nothing happens, except you staring at a blank page in your text editor or playing around with the formatting options. That’s why the world needs distraction-free writing tools such as iA Writer ($5, App Store).
Most people I know use Apple Pages or Microsoft Word for all their writing needs: from the first written word to the last proof-read. I did that. But it didn’t work for me. I diagnosed myself with “white-page anxiety” (who knows a Latin term for this?), because I get no writing done in any application that suggests to me that the first try has to result in a perfectly publishable end-product. And full-blown word processors do exactly that – at least for me. That’s why I prefer to write most of my stuff (including this post) in an environment that is as simplistic as it goes. Call it the “everything-is-temporary-effect”.
Simplicity is King
iA Writer comes both for the Mac and the iPad and positions itself as the godsend in distraction free writing. The first thing that you notice when you open Writer on the Mac is the spartan design. There are no icons, no borders, no inspectors, no rulers, no formatting options. All you have is a white, slightly structured canvas. Writer will also remember what files you have worked on before and will open these for you when you resume your work. Also, it remembers whether you used it in window or in full-screen mode the last time. While it might make most sense to use a distraction free app in full-screen mode under Mac OS Lion, sometimes the windows mode may be better (for example, when you are using two monitors). And I must say, Writer has done an amazing job to deliver a window in which everything disappears except your text.
In terms of features, iA Writer travels light, but this is okay given its simplicity philosophy (but see below). You have no settings, only one font, and no real option to format your text. However, you can use the “Markdown language” to give some structure to your text (e.g., headings, numbered lists, hyphenated lists, as well as bold and underlined text). It has a spell checker (you can disable auto-check) as well as a word count, a character count (really?), and some estimate of how long it will take to read the text you have written so far (2:15 so far, did you make it?). Also, Writer has a focus mode that will grey out all text except the one that belongs to the current sentence, and it will keep the courser in the center of your screen (typewriter mode).
First Non-Apple iCloud App
With these features, iA Writer is not alone, as there is a fierce competition when it comes to distraction free writing apps (e.g., Byword, OmmWriter, WriteRoom, MacJournal, or even Pages in full-screen mode). Where Writer has the edge over the other non-Apple apps is that Writer has a fully implemented iCloud support. That means that you can move your writing projects into the cloud and access it from your iPad as well. (Note, however, that iA Writer’s files do not show up in the iWork interface of iCloud on the web. Apple does seem to limit this to their apps.)
Have your Mac and iPad in Total Sync
Moving over your project into the cloud is super easy. I have just done this (it deletes your original local file, so there are no confusions). The iPad version of iA Writer ($2) is pretty much the same as on the Mac. Given that it is a limited feature set and the Mac version is designed to work without a mouse, this comes at little surprise. One exception that I noted is that the iPad app does not recognize the markdown codes in your text, but I imagine that this will be fixed in a future update.
What is nice though is that the guys at iA Writer included a keyboard extension that allows you to navigate through your text with more ease. For scrolling through your text, be sure though to have the focus mode disabled, or it won’t react to your finger inputs. Last, if you don’t need to have or don’t want your files in the cloud, you can also save them locally to your iPad.
The iPad version only lets you copy the text or email the attachment in its own format (*.md, for you nerds), but the Mac version is able to export your writings into Rich Text Format (*.rtf) or into HTML. It is not possible to export into a native Apple Pages or Microsoft Word file format. Of course, you could also just copy and paste it into a grown-up word processor, but this is just another step you have to do.
Writer excels in its simplicity, but suffers for the same reason
Unfortunately, the very limited options for exporting your text is just one of iA Writers many shortcomings. In my opinion, Writer takes its simplicity philosophy a step too far by not allowing for any customizations. If you don’t like the font (careful: the developers are very proud of their font), you are out of luck, because you can’t change it. For example, even after weeks of heavy use I still can’t get used to how the zeros look like in this typeset: . Also, there is no “night mode” which would invert the colors of the screen in order to be easier on your eyes when you are pulling an all-nighters to meet one of these conference deadline.
There is also no option to get rid of the reading time indicator. I am torn between calling this feature “silly” or “depressing”! I find it quite frustrating to polish a crucial paragraph of my dissertation for an hour just for iA Writer to inform me that it will be read in 24 seconds. Not very flattering. (I asked the developer whether this feature could be optional, but they cited some “market research” and that most of their customers “love” this feature. So… no.)
There are also some smaller things which I find cumbersome but that are no real neck breakers: The focus mode is different on the iPad (three lines, might be updated some time), the markup language sometimes messes up your text (see screenshot), and you can’t italicize text (EDIT: I was wrong here, as you actually you can italicize text through the * mark-up. Such text will be shown underlined in Writer, however, it will be in italics after you exported the text).
Update: The iOS app now also works on iPhone.
Its okay, but I like ByWord more
Since I have written this post, both iA Writer ($1, iTunes link) and its closest competitor, ByWord ($3, iTunes link), have seen some improvements. Both distraction free writing ecosystems now boast iCloud support and are available for iPhone as universal apps. I personally like Byword more, because it has a nicer design, customizations, and more features. However, it is slightly more expensive.
Thanks for reading such a long post. Now get back to writing!
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