I’m not the sort of person to count how many words I type each week.
But it’s a lot.
I therefore need a tool that helps me get those words down as quickly and efficiently as possible.
I’m also a dreadful typist. I can touch-type, and I’m relatively quick, but over the years, I’ve found myself becoming lazier on the keyboard. I’ll mash multiple keypresses rather than being accurate and measured, and rely far too heavily on autocorrections.
The writing tool I use therefore has quite a task on its hands. But I’ve found two apps that deliver, big time, and they neatly illustrate why Word should no longer be anyone’s default writing app.
Game over, Microsoft Word
Word is an absolute powerhouse. You can do pretty much anything with it when it comes to crafting your thoughts, reports or notes.
But that’s the problem. Just take a look at the Word ‘ribbon’ bar; we have design options, a reference section, layouts and mailings (yes, that’s still a thing, according to Microsoft).
It’s overwhelming and, in many cases, archaic.
Granted – there’s no better tool out there (bar Google Docs, possibly) when it comes to collaborating on a piece of text with others or creating a beautiful piece of homework. Indeed, the former is why I still use Word occasionally, but that’s only when I have zero choice due to contractual obligations.
But if you’re in the business of writing for a living, it’s the worst possible tool you can use. All of those controls, options and user interface elements do nothing more than distract and slow you down.
For about two years, Ulysses has been my writing platform of choice, but, recently, I’ve been comparing it to iA Writer. Here’s what I’ve discovered.
Before Ulysses, I was an avid Scrivener user. But the latter suffered from an ageing design and ham-fisted Dropbox sync. So, reluctantly, I made the switch.
I haven’t looked back. Ulysses now forms an integral part of my blogging toolkit and has significantly increased my productivity levels when it comes to writing.
Ulysses is a raw text editor. You can format stuff, but it relies on something called Markdown to do so. Developed by John Gruber in 2004, Markdown is a simple form of programming for text formatting. For instance, to create a heading, you just add a hashtag before the first word, and to create bold text, you wrap them in double asterisks.
Markdown enables you to easily format text for pretty much any destination. For me, it means I can write my blog posts in a format that WordPress understands, rather than having to mess around copy/pasting/formatting everything I write.
Ulysses makes Markdown immediately approachable. It’s enabled by default but accepts the fact you might have been influenced by Word. Therefore, if you hit OPTION+B to enable bold, that’ll still work, but you’ll notice that Ulysses also places the aforementioned asterisks for you.
After a while, you’ll find yourself experimenting with Markdown yourself. It’s actually pretty fun and satisfying to know that you’re writing programmatically (ok, in the most basic of forms, but give me some leeway here).
Ulysses strips the writing experience down to the bare minimum. You get plenty of white (or black) space and lots of options for the typeface. If you’re used to Word, it’s transformative.
But Ulysses’ party trick lies in its ability to help you become a productive writer. There’s a brilliant library structure to the left-hand side of the app, where you can neatly place everything locally on your Mac or synced via iCloud. Folders can also be nestled, colour-coded and identified via different icons. I love it.
To the right, there’s a mini ‘dashboard’, which features stats about your work, the ability to set writing targets (I use this to keep tabs on word count), keywords, and a notes section. The latter is vital for me, as it gives me somewhere to place reference material and prevent constant app switching – something you cannot do easily in Word.
Ulysses has some lovely little tricks, too. For instance, if you want to add a hyperlink to a piece of text, you simply copy the URL, highlight the passage in question, and hit paste. This automatically creates the markdown required for the hyperlink. It’s so satisfying and speedy.
It also has superb integration with WordPress, which shaves so much time off my production workflow (you can export to Word too, if you wish).
The switch from Scrivener to Ulysses was easily the best I’ve made for this vital part of my business. It also finally introduced me to markdown, and I’ve not looked back since.
Perfect for: bloggers who want an easier life and anyone who is utterly fed up with Word
I used iA Writer many years ago when it first appeared on the App Store. It was my first experience of a stripped-down writing experience, and it was a bit of a revelation.
Back then, my career path didn’t feature quite as much writing as it does now, which is why I never really stuck with iA Writer. It was more of a toy to play with while writing for my personal blog than a business tool.
While I have indeed fallen in love with Ulysses, I recognise the importance of spreading your wings, so I recently decided to give iA Writer another go.
It hasn’t really developed much over the years, but that’s because these stripped-down writing apps don’t need to. In fact, that’s what’s wrong with Word; Microsoft just cannot leave it alone.
iA Writer is a really raw text editor, compared to Ulysses. It doesn’t feature the noob shortcuts for markdown (if you try and paste a URL into a piece of text, it’ll steadfastly refuse to do so and instead replace the highlighted text entirely), and assumes that you’re relatively familiar with Gruber’s markup language from the get-go.
Despite this, it somehow offers a slightly more addictive writing experience than Ulysses. I’m not sure why – they’re both nothing more than white screens and a flashing cursor – but it just feels more typewriter-ish in the way you can lose yourself in the words (it even has a ‘Typewriter’ focus feature).
I’m particularly fond of the typefaces on offer, too. This has always influenced my writing; if the words look nicer on the page and are more easily scannable, I tend to write better (I have iA Writer set to Quattro, if you’re interested).
Where iA Writer falls down is with its slightly more cumbersome file structure and library organisation. Your writing is actually stored in text files, which offers a degree of comfort when it comes to local storage and backup (they can still be synced via iCloud), but the library itself isn’t quite as customisable or enjoyable to use as it is in Ulysses. For instance, it took me far too long to work out how to create a new folder and navigate the folder structure, which suggests iA Writer’s library really is a secondary feature behind pure, unadulterated raw text editing.
There’s also no dashboard. You can add the word count and some other writing stats to the bottom of the screen, but the absence of a notes section for each piece you’re working on is a bit of a bummer for my workflow.
iA Writer exports to WordPress and does a good job of it, too. It can also export handsomely to Word, but I have found that the process for doing so isn’t quite as slick as it is in Ulysses. There are a few too many button presses and faffing around with filenames for my liking.
Despite this, I’ve found myself continually reaching for iA Writer now it’s back on my Mac. It’s the writing experience that captivates me, which is about as raw as it comes, and because Ulysses has taught me the basics of Markdown, I’m more than happy to manually format my text in that manner.
Perfect for: Markdown aficionados and anyone who works with raw text
If you’re still using Word as your default word processor, it’s time to move on.
Sure, like me, you’ll probably need to dip into Microsoft’s app from time to time (the world of work often dictates this), but both Ulysses and iA Writer reveal why, sometimes, it pays to step back and remove features.
Out of the two, Ulysses just pips it for me. The library organisation, ability to reference notes and those handy little user experience features make it one of the most productive tools I use.
But… hands-up: I wrote this blog in iA Writer. I just can’t keep myself away from it.