My iOS Writing Apps

In this dept4 x 4 post we look at my four most used iOS writing Apps. Generally my four ‘most used’ in any series of Apps would be my favourites, though this is not quite the case here, in part because of the need for a certain app related to my job.

Working within a corporate office environment in my day job necessitates a significant amount of time is spent in Microsoft Word, and with the iPad being my primary device for working at home or commuting. Pages is handy for reviewing and modifying these documents, then sending them back to the office completed without requiring further modification (apart from minor formatting) once I am back at my desk.

The morning I commenced planning this post, a new episode of the Generational podcast[1] came through my feed titled “Tackling iOS Text Editors”, in which Gabe Weatherhead and Eric Hess gave an excellent summary of not only some of their favourite Apps, but a few criteria of how to select the most appropriate Apps for your own requirements. I will run through each of the four main Apps I use at the end of this post, however I think the following possibilities are worth considering when you are looking for an app in which to do your writing in iOS (thanks to Gabe and Eric for this line of thinking).

Capture and push or write and manipulate?

The question here is whether or not you intend to use the text editor as a means of capturing quick notes on the go, or using the application for longer form writing which may be redrafted or formatted in some way.

In my experience, although the above may be achievable in one app, there are certain Apps with features to differentiate their ease of use in each of the above situations. By far the most powerful app on the market for grabbing quick notes of text and using a multitude of sharing, URL schemes, ‘open in’ or ‘send to’ options is Drafts by Agile Tortoise. This is my preferred app for this purpose and lives in the dock on my iPhone home screen.

However in saying this, Drafts also handles longer from writing and has Markdown support, however in my individual use case, I prefer doing longer form writing in a different app, as I rarely require multiple options for sharing with my longer pieces of writing.

I think it is certainly worth considering (or indeed trialling) some Apps to see where most of your output ends up, as this may dictate which features better suit your requirements.

Text Editor or Markdown Editor?

This question ties in a little with the one above, in that, if you are looking to use your text editor to format Markdown, then this feature should be one of your first considerations. Generally, if you are looking to write in longer from, post to a blog or even if you prefer having an Evernote entry or email formatted in rich text, then the Markdown features are of primary importance. Whilst any text editor can be used to write in Markdown, previewing the output is a useful feature (in line preview even more so) for these Apps to have, as is an additional keyboard row containing the more common Markdown characters (some of which are three deep in the standard on-screen iOS keyboard).

Not familiar with Markdown? I would highly recommend familiarising yourself with this type of writing and formatting, as it is the single thing that finally convinced me to create this site. Prior to learning Markdown, I was at a loss to determine how I would write largely on my iPad and iPhone, yet still easily format and post the text to a blog. Now 66 posts in on this blog, it is the first thing I recommend learning to anyone considering writing on the web.

There are many sites all over the web outlining the use of Markdown, however the way I learned, and one that I would highly recommend, is the Macsparky Field Guide on Markdown, written by David Sparks and Eddie Smith. This book explains the whole purpose, process, and Apps that are part of the Markdown system.

Anyway, should you wish to format your text for the web, or in replica text, having a strong Markdown feature set in the your app of choice is essential.

Additional Features

These are the features (though many are standard these days) that ensure an app meets your requirements for function, design, or both. Some are non negotiable to many, such as Dropbox syncing, TextExpander support, and a decent sharing menu. Others are nice to have, with varying levels of importance to different users. Here we are talking of things such as overall design, extra keyboard rows, Markdown support, light/dark mode switching, font selection and the like. If you work on multiple devices, whether or not the app is universal (that is, available for both the iPad and iPhone; and also how these sync with the Mac), and if not, at least whether a dedicated version of the app exists for each device. If Dropbox syncing is used, most text editors will be able to pick up the file and allow you to work with it across both formats (iOS and OS X).

The more features required, generally the narrower the app selection will become, however with so many text editors on the market, there are still more than enough to choose from. The definitive iOS text editor comparison document can be found on Brett Terpstra’s site, written as a table and comparing pretty much every text editor (dozens upon dozens) out there and includes just about every feature they contain as well. You will also find prices, a short outline on each app and links to the App Store.

It is impossible to go through all of the particular ‘extra features’ you may find in various Apps here. Features I find most useful are strong Markdown support (including preview; preferably in-line), an additional keyboard row (preferably with customisable keys), TextExpander support, Dropbox syncing, and plain or rich text sharing options. Three of the four Apps below have these features, and my introductory paragraph above indicates why the fourth does not. On with the Apps.

The Apps

Editorial (iPad)

Though I set out to write about these Apps in no particular order, Editorial is my number one. Plain and simple. Though only released in August this year, Editorial (App store, Website) has been my sole writing app on the iPad since that time, in which I am writing this post. For in-depth reviews I refer you to the first two of the following articles, both of which include screenshots and videos of the various workflows that are included or can be created in Editorial:

For me personally, and why I consider Editorial to be number one, is that it satisfies every mandatory requirement I have in a text editor as noted above, however the additional features of this app are unsurpassed. To name just a few:
* Local or Dropbox file storage
* TextExpander support (in addition, customisable in app snippets)
* Light/dark theme; line spacing and text width adjustment
* Swiping left to right reveals a selection (see image below) of a preview view, console, help documentation or in-app browser (customisable to either Safari or Chrome)
* Extra keyboard row with typical markdown keys, including ‘extra’ extra characters on tap and hold
* Sliding across the extra keyboard row will also move and place the cursor (solving a constant annoyance of mine in iOS – the difficulty in accurately placing the cursor); whilst a 2 finger swipe on the same row will expand a text selection (brilliant).

IMG_0588

There is really no way to accurately describe this app without giving it a go. The integration of python scripting (currently beyond the scope of my abilities) makes this app a powerful automation system as much as it is a text editor. There are also numerous workflows available for use (by simple download straight into the app), and of course you are free to create your own.

Photo 30-11-2013 4 46 13 pm

At the time of writing the app is available in the App Store for what I believe is an introductory price of $5.49 AUD, which, for the features included is an absolute steal. Definitely one to try out.

Drafts (iPad, iPhone)

Drafts (Website, App Store iPhone, App Store iPad) is my go to app on the iPhone as an entry point for grabbing text. It sits in the dock on my home screen, and upon opening, presents a blank note with a blinking cursor and keyboard at the ready. This is precisely why it is the perfect app for capturing an idea or small amount of information quickly, however what happens next is where the power of Drafts really lies.

Photo 30-11-2013 4 49 07 pm

Included in the app is a large directory of actions, with many more downloadable directly from the developer’s website. Drafts, along with Launch Center Pro was one of the first Apps to embrace iOS URL schemes (shortcuts that allow automated communication between Apps for specific actions to occur, reducing the required manual tapping and app switching).

My main actions in Drafts:
* General sharing – messages, email, tweets
* Sending text to Evernote, and appending to a specific note for blog post ideas (which are also date stamped automatically through a customisable action)
* Sending text to Due (as reminders), Day One (my weights workout data), Byword (ideas that may expand into blog posts)
* Adding tasks to Omnifocus or Reminders
* General note taking which may or may not be sent to another app or simply deleted once no longer required
Drafts does have Markdown and TextExpander support, with files also able to be saved to Dropbox, though syncing between devices occurs through Simperium sync. Drafts really is a great app to capture all text when you may be unsure exactly where it is headed at the time you are writing it.

Again, more in-depth reviews at Macstories can be found for version 2.0, and also for version 3.0.

Byword (iPad, iPhone, Mac)

I have previously written about my use of Byword (Website, App Store iPad, App Store iPhone, Mac App Store) as a text editor, and it was initially the app in which I began writing in Markdown and publishing to this blog.

Photo 30-11-2013 4 53 20 pm

In many respects, the strength of Byword lies in its simplicity and distraction-free writing environment. The main features I found useful are Dropbox syncing, TextExpander support, and an extra keyboard row for Markdown characters and inserting links. With version 2.0, Byword introduced direct publishing (via a one-off in app purchase of $5.49 AUD) to WordPress (along with other blogging platforms) and Evernote. A workflow I continue to use by opening documents (from Dropbox) in Byword that were originally written in Editorial, sending them to WordPress, and then archiving the post in Evernote.

Photo 30-11-2013 4 53 33 pm

Rapid Dropbox syncing and version conflict controls ensure Byword is a very useful tool if you perform longer form writing on both the iPad and iPhone, providing the ability to preview version conflicts and select which to keep. Despite my recent shift to Editorial on the iPad, I can see Byword continuing to play a significant role in my iOS (and Mac) writing workflow.

For your reference, a Byword review on Macstories, and an earlier review by yours truly.

Pages (Universal iOS, Mac)

As I mentioned in the introduction to this post, Pages (iPad, iPhone) makes this list primarily due to being my means of editing work (read day-job) related documents on the iPad. The office environment I work in runs the typical Microsoft Office suite of applications, and though I can email and quickly preview documents in Apps such as Goodreader (which I commonly do as many are also PDF documents which I then annotate), for tracking changes and editing the word formatted documents, nothing beats Pages for ease of use.

Photo 30-11-2013 4 52 08 pm

I have tried some other Apps for this purpose, such as CloudOn (a full MS office version running on a remote server), which does work very well, however I find because most of the work I do involves reviews and making edits to reports, the fully featured version is not really required, and as it is on a remote sever obviously requires an internet connection and runs a little slower. There are many mobile office suites out there, however for my limited use, Pages serves my needs.

Probably the features that are most useful include robust iCloud syncing, straightforward formatting options (those not carrying over from MS Word are so few, they are inconsequential – to me at least), change tracking, ease of inserting charts, media and the manipulation of text around such insertions. The sharing options for returning these documents back to the office are also adequate, however easy Dropbox syncing would be welcome. Also, the overall user interface is probably looking a little dated, though the recently announced iCloud web interface for the iWork suite of Apps looks interesting and is something that may come in handy.

In summary, after using Pages for around 10 months or so, I have never commenced writing a document in this app, only edited existing work documents, which probably sums up my use case for listing it here. However in saying that, there is no other iOS writing app I would have included instead, simply because the three listed above more than take care of everything else, which is not to say some other Apps may suit you better. However if you primarily prefer to write in rich text format, then Pages may be for you.

Conclusion

The first draft of this post was written a couple of months ago, and since that time we have seen the release of iOS 7, OS X Mavericks, along with new iPads and Macs. I have upgraded my old iPad 2 to a new iPad mini with Retina display, and also acquired a Mac mini for our home computing needs in that time. The delay in completing this post was due to thinking that some of these workflows (and hence the Apps I use) may alter in view of these changes. This has not happened, which is probably not surprising given how well the Apps suit my needs, and the cross platform integration achievable through Dropbox.

Probably the only alteration may come as a result of Google’s acquisition of the mobile office suite Quickoffice, and the integration of this with Google Drive. I can see a possible place for this in my “day-job” usage described above, in viewing and performing rudimentary editing of Microsoft Word documents.

I acknowledge the above Apps and workflows may not suit everyone, however I think they are a good example of how writing on the iPad has gone well and truly beyond tapping a few words into the native Notes App. Pair the iPad with an external keyboard, use the automation possible in Apps such as Editorial, and you have a pretty powerful way of getting words on a page and published to wherever they may need to go.


  1. The Generational Podcast in its original form has been discontinued, having morphed into a new show titled Technical Difficulties. Same guys, but newer!  ↩
Advertisements

3 thoughts on “My iOS Writing Apps

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s