Finding the perfect writing app is to a writer what El Dorado must be to an archeologist. There are occasional glimmers of home, but rarely do we find something that meets just about all of our needs. Except that I think I finally found my El Dorado in a product called Writer, made by Information Architects. I spent the weekend doing all of my writing using Writer and I fell head-over-heels in love with it. Let me explain why.
I have been an IT professional for two decades. I’ve been a professional writer for five years. This vocation and avocation have evolved together almost symbiotically, one feeding off the other. One thing I’ve noted over the course of my IT career is a preference toward simplicity in my applications. Early in my career, I liked complexity, but I’ve learned that simple is better. Do one thing really well.
As a writer, I think the same has become true. I started out, like many people using WordPerfect and then switched to Microsoft Word 5.5–the best version of the tool that Microsoft ever produced, in my opinion. Eventually I migrated to Windows and Office and was beaten down by the complexity of Microsoft Word over the years so that I can no longer stand it.
Scrivener became my writing tool of choice, and it is still among my favorites. But one thing I realized about Scrivener is that it is as much a writer “project management” tool as it is a writing tool. What I was really looking for was something that would let me write and get out of the way.
I first heard of Writer in an interview with Michael Chabon during which he plugged the app. It sounded interesting especially since it supported TextExpander on the iPad–something I’ve recently started making more extensive use of.
As a writer, my requirements for a writing tool are pretty straight-forward, but it is surprising how few tools meet these requirements:
- Full-screen writing with no distractions. I don’t need toolbars or menus. I don’t really want to see anything else on the screen except what I am writing.
- Separation between composition and presentation. This is what I love about Scrivener. I can make my screen look however I want, change fonts, colors, etc., but the presentation, i.e. the manuscript produced, is standard. I don’t have to mess with formatting. Formatting distracts me from writing.
- Platform compatibility. I do all of my writing either on my MacBook or my iPad. I need a tool that I can use in both places. With Scrivener, I have to export my project to Dropbox and then Elements on my iPad. I want to be able to use the same tool everywhere.
- Simple file format. All I really need to do my writing is a plain text file. An added bonus would be a tool that could interpret MultiMarkdown. The benefits of plain text files are huge. They can be more easily automated as part of workflow. They have virtually no overhead. They are almost impossible to corrupt.
- Cloud compatibility. I already has this more or less with Scrivener and Elements. But there was a manual step involved to ensure that I synced a project. And if I forgot, well, that could be really frustrating.
These were my basic requirements. If the application did some other things, that would be nice, too, so long as it didn’t distract from my writing.
Writer meets all of these requirements. Both the Mac and iPad versions display nothing but what you are writing. There is a status bar that disappears once you start typing and all you are left with is your words on the screen.
Writer works with plain text files of any type. This is all I really need when writing a story or an article. Or even a blog post. (Yes, this post is written using Writer on my iPad.) These files are automatically synced with iCloud (and optionally, Dropbox) so I don’t have to think about syncing them myself.
The interface on my iPad is identical to the interface on my MacBook, save for the fact that I have less screen real estate available on the former than the latter. The font used is non-proportional and the lines are spaced for easy reading on the screen. This allows me to focus on writing and not formatting because I know going in that the fonts I write with are not necessarily the fonts or formatting I present with. In this sense, I like Scrivener’s notion of “compiling” a manuscript when it is complete.
There are some nice features that Writer has that make it even more attractive:
- With a quick tap, I can get a word count and a second tap will get me an estimated reading time.
- I can put Writer into “focus” mode which dims all of the text except for a few lines centered around my cursor.
- And Writer works with TextExpander on both the MacBook and iPad so that my abbreviations are automatically expanded as I type.
When I use Writer on my iPad I use it in conjunction with a BlueTooth keyboard, giving me full screen real estate. That said, the build in iPad screen keyboard is extended for Writer, with several functions that speed up the writing process, especially adding opening and closing quotes, or moving from word to word quickly.
The application seems to be very light-weight. It starts instantly on my MacBook and iPad. It does spell-checking on the fly, but unobtrusively. And it is easy to email, copy, preview or even print
your file from within the tool.
But how does it work in practice? This weekend, I has a significant amount of writing I had to do. I needed to write the first draft of a nonfiction article. I needed to start a new story. And I needed to
work on revisions to another story. I decided to test drive Writer by doing all three tasks using the tool.
I wrote my article using Writer on my Mac, producing a piece close to 2,000 words. Then, I started my new story using Writer on my iPad, completing the first scene, about 700 words. By the time I was finished, I was hooked. I loved the simplicity, and the ability the app has to get out of the way and let you focus on writing. Indeed, I had to do my story edits in Scrivener, and as much as I am a fan of Scrivener, it felt unwieldy compared to Writer.
Since then, I’ve been taking every opportunity I can to use Writer to write. It is my dream writing app, bare-bones, clean and elegant and it does what’s intended really well. No, I’m not giving up on Scrivener, which is the best solution out there for managing writing projects and cutting down on the production effort. But for clean, distraction-free writing, I think I’ll be using Writer more and more.
My requirements for a writing tool may be different from yours, but if you are looking for clean, elegant simplicity, check out Information Architect’s Writer.