Writing: My Writing System Revisited

If you’ve been coming to this site for a while, you may have noticed one of my earlier posts about a writing system I was using at the time. Well, two years have gone by and after years of faithful use, one of the main ingredients of that system, a Dropbox editor by the name of Elements, has finally been sunset.

Change is good.

So with that sad fact come and gone, I’ve been faced with task of finding a new Dropbox editor to fill the iOS void that was wonderfully filled beforehand. If you haven’t read the post that I linked to above in the first paragraph, I invite you to do so. Much of that writing system still exists today and if you write on the go like I do, you may find it useful. Also, I don’t plan on rehashing it here so if you are looking for context, definitely give it a quick spin, it’s not too long.

Back? Excellent!

So after some research I’ve found two beautifully developed and highly capable Dropbox editors that have been out for a good bit, so I guarantee that you’ve heard of them. That old adage “Change is good” definitely has its place in this tale and, truth be told, the ending of Elements might’ve been the best thing that’s happened to my workflow in a good bit.

Bridging the Gap.

The fun thing about workflows is that no matter how much you love a process, it can always be tweaked into something lighter and more efficient. Even though I loved how versatile my last writing workflow was, there were places where it was quite clunky process-wise or hampered by the limitations of iOS at the time. I dealt with it all because those things were mere quibbles and they didn’t slow me down that much. But with Elements out of the picture, it was an invitation to see if I could refine everything a bit, maybe get rid of a few things and, hopefully, add functionality that could make writing anywhere that much more efficient and enjoyable.

So without further ado, here are the editors I settled on.

Writer Pro by the development firm Information Architects Inc and Editorial by the one-man shop OMZ Software headed by Ole Zorn. Both of these text editors fulfilled all of the current needs I had and then some. Without a doubt, the three main stipulations I had were:

  • Markdown support
  • Instant sync across platforms, or robust export options
  • The ability to save my flat text files to Dropbox

Of course there were others on the list, but these were the main ones.

One thing to note, these two apps are still somewhat new and are constantly being developed to accommodate much-requested user features. If you don’t see something in this post that you like, I highly recommend that you go out to their respective sites and have a look a the complete list of features, as well as look at what’s in the pipeline for the future.

None of these editors are perfect, arguably they never will be, but they are a joy to use and are well on the way to being even more feature-rich with the raw talent behind them. I mention this because writers are a finicky bunch. We like our writing experiences to be just so.

So I write this post knowing full well that these editors won’t be for everyone, but maybe for a few. Let’s hit Writer Pro first and then Editorial.

Writer Pro for iPad and iPhone icon

Writer Pro.

Writer Pro was a bit of a tough sell for me. I already owned its older sibling iA Writer (which is still just as awesome now as it was then) and was curious how they were building off of the stark minimalism that they’d strived and gotten so many accolades for in the past. Would it now be cluttered? Not as easy to use? Or worse, would the extra UI/UX come off as unnecessary?

Luckily, the answer to these and all of my concerns were “no”. I can say this, if you are an iA Writer fan and can’t think of a single thing that it could do better, stay put. There is no reason to jump ship to Writer Pro. But, if you’ve loved the experience of writing in iA Writer but wished it had a more robust feature set above Writer’s wonderfully implemented “just open it and write” aesthetic, than Writer Pro is more than likely your answer.

Here’s my short-list of Writer Pro’s strengths and weakness.

Strengths:

  1. Fully supports MD (with inline preview support).
  2. Dropbox sync. I can already hear it now. “Well hold up Tad, I just went to the site and Writer Pro doesn’t sync with Dropbox at all!!” Calm down. You’re right. Writer Pro does not sync with DropBox… yet. But it will. Soon.
  3. A built in workflow that is natural and develops habits conducive to good writing. Admittedly, I didn’t like it at first, but having written a few pieces in it, it is a nice systematic flow that makes sense to me. You can completely ignore it too, but I recommend giving it a spin a few times. You may warm up to it.
  4. Syncs via iCloud to your Mac and your iOS device instantly. Truly. I know there is a lot info out there about how much of a pain in the ass creating adequate sync can be on iCloud, but iA nailed with Writer Pro. There is barely any lag at all. Write on your iPhone, and it immediately shows up on your iPad or Mac.
  5. iA Writer’s spartan layout is here in spades. Not cluttered at all and easily read. Even the sidebar they added on the right is minimalist and can easily be hidden if it bothers you.
    1. Incredible syntax filtering to keep you in check with exactly what you are writing. It’s hard to describe just how useful this is, or how amazing it is to watch it in action. I highly recommend checking it out. It’s truly a game changer for me and the general clean up I do while editing.
  6. Saves as flat .md but exports to pdf, clean html, .docx, or .rtf. More than enough for my mobile writing needs (but some may want more).
  7. Full markdown html preview. Command-R and a pop up comes up instantly, showing you your Markdown, rendered in clean html.
  8. Night mode theme. If you write at night as I often do, this will save your poor eyes from a lot of undue strain. It’s a small thing but I really appreciated it.
  9. Feature parity across platforms. I’m used to losing features when I move to my iPhone or iPad. So it’s an incredible development feat to see a writing experience expressed so completely across my laptop and iOS devices. Nothing (that I can see) has been lost when I move between environments and form factors. Everything you need is there and easy to find.
  10. Has a very talented development house behind it. iA has some big plans ahead for Writer Pro. If there is something missing now, chances are it’ll be added in moving forward. They are meticulous folks, almost to a fault.

Speaking of faults! Here are Writer Pro’s weaknesses:

  1. No Dropbox support currently. Like I said though, it is on the way. iA has already mentioned explicitly that it will be in the next update.
  2. As much as I appreciate the current export options, I wish there were more. I’d love to write a message to someone and export the html straight into an email app for instance. Currently to do that I have to highlight all text, copy, open mail, start a new message, and then paste. It’s clunky and it doesn’t need to be. Adding more options would make Writer Pro a bit more versatile. Though I somehow doubt that’s what they are aiming for.
  3. The structure of the workflow may be a bit rigid for some. Note, Write, Edit, Read is fine for my needs but it may not work at all for others. Want to edit it or add another stage to the process? You’re out of luck.
  4. It’s definitely (and admittedly) a work in progress. The good news is that iA is definitely listening to its user-base. So if you need anything, go on and ask for it. If enough do, they’ll listen.
  5. Not many options to tweak the writing experience. By design, just like iA Writer before it, Writer Pro is a very stark and flat experience. What you see is what you get. Want a different font or just change the font size? Too bad. If this tact isn’t your cup of tea, then chances are you should keep looking elsewhere.
  6. Cost. Getting the iOS and Mac versions will set you back just shy of forty dollars. In a five dollar app world, this may be a tough sell. To me it was worth it though.

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Editorial.

Editorial made major waves when it dropped and it’s been years since I saw such a rabid fan-base grow around an iOS text editor. Having used it a good bit now I definitely see what all of the fuss is about. I also see that I have only just barely scratched the surface of what this incredibly powerful editor can do! If you are looking for a humongous deep-dive on everything Editorial click this link right now,  and read Federico Viticci’s review on macstories.net. It’s so long he created a damn e-book out of it. Don’t let that deter you though, it’s brilliant and well worth your time.

If it sounds like Editorial is a sledgehammer to use against a tack nail, well, it can be. In truth, it’s the biggest reason why I didn’t download it initially. I just couldn’t bring myself to use an editor that necessitated another learning curve. Turns out I was absolutely wrong on that count and developer, Ole Zorn, created a text editor that is yours to use however you’d like. Everything you can do (and there’s a lot that you can do) waits patiently, out-of-the-way, allowing you to just get in there and write.

That all said, like Writer Pro it has its strengths and weaknesses too. Here they are.

Strengths:

  1. Super clean layout. The first thing you’ll notice is just how inviting Editorial is when you open it. It’s even more incredible once you start discovering what it’s capable of.
  2. Inline preview support for .md and .mmd. Writer Pro does this as well but I like Editorial’s presentation better. It’s not as stark and it is more readable.
  3. Full markdown HTML preview. A quick swipe left immediately displays how your markdown will render on the web.
  4. Dropbox support front and center. Out of the box, you can assign to a folder in your Dropbox account. I plan to link this to a synced Scrivener project folder at some point, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
  5. Utilizes Dropbox versioning. Need something from a previous version? Deleted something you need back? No worries. Editorial has you covered. Super easy to use and some nice piece of mind.
  6. In-app browser for research. This seemed a little kitschy at first until I used it. Now I dearly wish all of my editors had a fully functional browser built-in. Not having to leave my editor in iOS to look up a link or research a topic gets addictive fast.
  7. A huge amount of options to tweak your writing experience. Head on into the settings after you get comfortable. If there is anything you’d like to change about writing in Editorial? Chances are it’s in there. Fonts, sizes, line-height, font-spacing, whew… the list goes on.
  8. Support for text snippets baked in. Got chunks of text or maybe a markdown page layout that you reuse over and over again? Create a text snippet and watch it immediately fill your document with a few taps. Very handy.
  9. Contains a custom workflow framework that allows you to perform a myriad of automated tasks. With these tasks you can do just about anything – like post your text into your blog on WordPress for instance – I’ve only just begun to play with these, but it’s mind-blowing what you can accomplish. Don’t have an interest in creating workflows? No problem. You don’t have to.
  10. Export Options. Because of the workflows above, export options in Editorial are almost limitless.
  11. Has full console-based Python support. Not a Python developer at all but if you are? You’re in for a big treat!
  12. Has a night mode theme. Like Writer Pro, if you write at night, your eyes will thank you.
  13. Custom top keyboard row in iOS. A beautiful custom keyboard row at the top awaits you! Streamlining workflows, snippets, as well as a very novel approach to moving your cursor around your document with swipes – it’s all about one thing, empowering your writing in iOS and saving you time.
  14. Has very talented developer behind it. Like iA, only with one guy behind the curtain. It’s incredible to me what he accomplished in Editorial. The app been called a “game-changer” by many a seasoned iOS veteran and it’s absolutely deserved.
  15. Cost. At $4.99, this app is a steal for all that it does.

That all said, it does have a few weaknesses. Some of them big ones. Here they are.

Weaknesses:

  1. Editorial can do so much that it is truly overwhelming at times. If you are curious like I am, you can easily (and often involuntarily) start geeking out on creating workflows when you originally came there to write. Luckily, as I mentioned above, most of it stays out of the way. But it is there. All those possibilities…
  2. On the flip-side, using it to its fullest potential does necessitate a learning curve. That may turn people off.
  3. iPad only. No Mac or iPhone version. This is a huge point to be aware of. If you don’t write in iOS on an iPad, Editorial is useless to you. On the one hand this is infuriating. On the other, I can’t imagine this app working well on an iPhone. On the Mac though? Definitely. Until then, you’ll have to snag your flat text files from Dropbox and open them in whatever OS X editor you love.

The choice is yours.

So that’s how I filled the recent gap in my workflow. It is not perfect, but I have confidence that it will get close to that quickly. Writer Pro will continue to be my bridge for when I need to sync my words across platforms and Editorial will more than fill my writing needs for when I am just carrying around my iPad. Two apps, loaded with functionality, fully mobile, facilitating my writing from wherever I may be, at any time.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Helpful Links:

Writer Pro: OS X download | iOS (universal) download
Editorial: iOS download (iPad only)

Writing: My Current Workflow…

As you could probably surmise from the length of my last post, I’m not only into techie geeky stuff, I also love to write.

Since I was a boy I’ve always loved telling stories. It’s what I did then (with my toys, friends and Dad’s old typewriter he had in the office) and what I still do today (less toys, better friends that also write, and many, many word processors). Though the platforms I use have changed drastically and will continue to do so, the spirit of it all still very much there. So what do I like to write? I typically write fiction of a darker tone, focusing a lot on Horror and Science Fiction. I’m pretty much always in the middle of writing something novel-length that I’ll inevitably have a hard time finishing.

But as much as I love writing and telling stories, I’ve also been falling in love with the process of writing as well. More specifically, the tools that are available to all of us today. So, with this in mind, I thought I would take some time to describe my current writing system to you all. My hope is that might inspire some to write more often and in more places. Because inspiration can happen anywhere!

Ok, full disclosure. I’m a Mac user and enthusiast. It’s what works for me and it all works quite well. I’m not going to debate the merits of other platforms, they all have their strengths. That all said! Here’s my setup on a hardware level:

  1. A 2011 Mac Mini in the office.
  2. An iPad (3rd gen) for writing remotely. Had a laptop, the iPad replaced it recently. I also use a stand and an Apple bluetooth keyboard.
  3. iPhone (this gets replaced every other version. Currently it’s a 4)

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When I’m home, I generally use the Mini, it’s a little powerhouse, has much bigger screen and has a full size keyboard. All make for easier writing in general.

iPad SetupiPad Setup side view

When I am out and about and I know that I am going to write, I’ll bring my iPad setup. This consists of the iPad, a stand (The Compass by TwelveSouth) and Apple’s bluetooth keyboard.

Otherwise, I always have my phone on me, so note taking or even full on writing is always at hand. Though, admittedly, it’s tough to pull off a full-on jag of writing on an iPhone, I have done it a few times, which to me is kind of amazing.

So that’s the hardware involved. I’ve yet to have a serious problem with this setup. In fact, in the last year I paired down a good bit of my setup when it became clear I could supplement my iPad for a laptop with very little sacrifice.

But we all know that hardware is only as good as the software you run on it, so here are the tools of my trade, as well as the two scenarios I constantly run into that they accommodate.

First Scenario: I know that I am going to be writing on my iPad in the morning, finishing up a thought on my iPhone during my commute and tidying up on the computer (iMac) in my office. One document, on 3 separate devices, saved and synced each time.

Solution: iA Writer (OSX and iOS Universal)

iA Writer

This little gem of an app utilizes Apple’s iCloud service to sync between all of the above devices almost instantaneously. It’s pretty amazing to watch actually, and I’ve yet to see it fail. Not even once. Because it works so well, I’ve come to rely on this first system 75% of the time. It saves your files in text format or in straight up markdown (which is quite handy for blogging). While it’s preferences are basically non-existent (it’s a focus-based text editor), it performs it’s function, letting you write, quite well. I do wish it had better sharing options but there are a lot of easy ways around this. All versions of this app are full screen and very easy to read, leaving just you, the screen, and your words. Highly recommended and a silver bullet solution to the scenario above.

Second Scenario: I know I’ll be writing on any platform on the planet, PC, MAC, Unix, iOS, Android, etc… and will need to edit it on my iOS or OSX device later.

Solution: Elements for Dropbox (iOS-based) and a free Dropbox account for cloud storage along with the free corresponding Dropbox iOS apps (also found for Android devices as well).

If you have an iOS device and any kind of computer the solution above works great! It’s not as streamlined as the first solution but it isn’t difficult and it achieves the same result. Your writing will be synced and available across multiple devices. In fact, I have to hand it to Dropbox. Their service/product alone has enabled SO many opportunities to folks who need mobile cloud-based storage it’s pretty amazing. This solution worked perfect for me the other day when I was working on a text file at the office on my PC. When I was done, I saved it to my Dropbox account and headed out. I had some time at a coffee shop a bit later and fired up my iPhone to edit it more there, once complete, I synced it with Dropbox again and headed home where it was waiting for me to edit on my Mac with any text editor I had at my disposal. Easy peasey!

Elements is also a WAY more robust and full featured editor compared to iA Writer, which is incredibly spartan intentionally by design. I’ve used Elements for many other text editing functions other than writing. I’ve actually coded web sites in it on my iPad! Lots of options and very easy to use. In fact, if it supported iCloud sync and had a corresponding Mac app, I would be inclined to ditch iA Writer entirely and just use Elements. It’s that good. But both text editors are superb, they just were built for different purposes that’s all.

So that’s it! That’s my current writing system. I personally couldn’t love it more. I can write literally anywhere and when I don’t have a data connection, everything saves locally and syncs the next time that I do. With this setup, the technology finally gets out of the way, and with my full screen, distraction free text editors I am focused. Which is important when you are in a public place and get distracted easily. ;)

I whole heartedly recommend one or both of the solutions above for your writing. I currently use both weekly (sometimes daily depending on my needs). Hopefully it will encourage you to write more, in more locations and give you less excuses not too.

Here are all the links above in one place:

  1. iA Writer (OSX and iOS Universal)
  2. Elements for Dropbox (iOS-based)
  3. A free Dropbox Account
  4. Dropbox app iOS apps (also found for Android devices as well)
  5. The Compass by TwelveSouth
  6. Apple’s bluetooth keyboard

Also, if you are even remotely interested in an exhaustive list of all of the text editors available on the iOS platform, I recommend checking out this incredibly thorough article by Brett Terpstra. I can’t even imagine the time it must’ve taken to put this together.

Lastly, the very popular tech site “The Verge” just recently did a post about this very topic! So if you are looking for another take on all of this. Check it out here..

UPDATE: One of my favorite Mac and tech writers out there, Federico Viticci, literally today (04/27/12) just posted a very in depth article about his personal writing workflow as well! Be sure to check it out here.

Thanks for stopping by! Hopefully you found this useful!

~Tad