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)

Software: Thoughts on Facebook’s “Paper”

Full disclosure:

I am not a Facebook fan. At all.

I pretty much have an account for the few dear friends that continue to use the service to contact me via messaging and for me to stay abreast of all things “social” for my day job and freelance gigs. I use it sparingly and when I do I rarely enjoy it. The UI/UX (user interface and user experience) on their website has been a veritable, well-documented train wreck for years now. And when you add in the convoluted, borderline impossible privacy settings… it elevates the FB experience from nuisance, to possibly damning in every social regard.

High drama I know, but in my defense, the “content” (if you can call it that) is a far pinker elephant in the room than my disdain.  In my humble opinion Facebook will end up being one of the biggest missed opportunities my generation will have to fess up to before we die.

Why we changed one of the greatest opportunities in history to connect with each other into an open forum to show our ugliest selves will always bother me.

It’s not ALL like that of course. But come on… We all know what I am taking about.

A new take on a hopeless problem.

So while we won’t ever change the way FB churns its gears day in and day out, that hasn’t stopped the social juggernaut from attempting to change the way we look at it all.

Over the years, they’ve iterated on their official app several times with limited success in changing anything I’ve listed above. But this week? This week was different. On Monday they launched a reimagining of their service, a not so cleverly named app called “Paper”.  And, by golly, all of that developer poaching they did over the years has finally paid off!

Making Lemonade.

The first thing you’ll notice right out of the gate while using Facebook’s Paper is that this is a far cry from the Facebook you use on an hourly basis. In fact, I would go as far to say that if it wasn’t for the ill-placed “Facebook” at the top of the initial feed you see in Paper, that you wouldn’t even know you were using a Facebook app. This is a good thing.

Gone are the columns, the click-bait ads, the blue, the shotgun blast of options, the overt notifications, the noise (dear god the noise)… pretty much everything I didn’t like about the UI/UX of the original Facebook app, has been replaced by something entirely different. You launch the app and after you get through the initial onboarding process, you are met immediately with pictures of your friends (and their kids/infants – no, that hasn’t changed), clean lines, clean fonts, very little chrome and an intuitive navigation that is almost entirely gesture-based.

It took me roughly 5 minutes to find literally everything I needed to make Facebook work as it always has for me in the past. Even though everything had changed, miraculously, nothing had been taken away. And just like that, the overall experience of using Facebook had been made exponentially better! This isn’t another rehash of the Facebook a lot of us apparently love and adore – this is its reinvention, and if I was a betting man? I’d say this is what Facebook will be in a few months.

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Facebook replaced their official iOS app entirely with Paper. If only to get rid that awful app icon that Paper currently has, but I digress.

Is there anything else? What’s up with these other news feeds?

I almost didn’t mention the fact that Paper also has a limited number of “feeds” that deliver content from external sources like CNN, NYT, The Verge, The Wire, Politico, etc… covering a range of topics like “Tech”, “Creators”, “Planet” and “Ideas”. Why? It’s because, frankly, I already have several tried and true, thoroughly enjoyable ways to syndicate and consume information from those kinds of channels. Facebook is immensely late to this game and adding it in now (as pretty as it is) seems like gross afterthought on their part and it definitely, unfortunately for them, comes across that way.

Will you like it better than the zillion other ways you can consume headlines on the computers on your desk and in your pocket? I highly doubt it. But they do exist in Paper if you want to check them out. Just follow the steps during the setup process when you fire up Paper initially.

Like everything else the developers did with Paper, it’s pretty, and straightforward.

So why continue using Facebook’s official app?

That’s an excellent question. After a day of use, I’ve already deleted the official FB app from my iPhone and made my Facebook mobile experience solely Paper-based. And guess what? I’ve used Facebook more in 48 hours than I have in the last 3 months. No joke.

Yes the content is still the same, a lot of what I dislike is still there (I can’t blame Facebook for my feed’s complaints, topics, taste, or… well, you get my point), but man is this a great study in how changing something as subtle (and immensely complex) as an experience can change the way something old can feel.

If you are a fan of Facebook or if you’re simply curious about what the future of the service will more than likely be, I encourage you download Paper from the app store today and see for yourself.

Interesting Ideas: “Knock to Unlock” software…

I’ve been using this for a little over a week now and while it does have some issues with the LE Bluetooth connection to my phone (iPhone5), periodically causing me to quit and relaunch both apps (on the Mac and iPhone)… I gotta admit, it’s pretty awesome when it works.

There is about a 10 second lag from when I open up my rMBP in sleep mode to when I am able to knock on my phone (yes, I timed it), but it actually seems much shorter than that. I imagine this would be quite handy for folks out there with iMacs that are always on, locked, with a screen saver. When my computer is sitting there, locked and at the ready? It works like a charm with no wait whatsoever.

Other things I noticed:

  1. People out there flipping out about knocking on an iPhone clearly don’t own one. You’d think they were hitting it with a damn baseball bat instead of the knuckles on your hand! Please calm down. You don’t have to knock that hard at all for it to work.
  2. The initial setup is a breeze once your computer recognizes and pairs with your phone.
  3. True to their site description, your phone’s battery life doesn’t take a hit at all. It is one of the first interesting (and awesome) uses of Bluetooth LE that I’ve seen to date.
  4. Check out their site: knocktounlock.com, there’s some fun stuff going on in there.
  5. Before you buy, make sure your computer and phone are compatible!
  6. If, for whatever reason, your computer doesn’t find your phone via BT, don’t worry, you can still type your password in. Though that admittedly will make you snicker and doubt your purchase.
  7. If this app doesn’t make you hunger for the day that NFC (near field communication) proliferates our lives and devices a bit more, I don’t know what will.

I really hope they continue development for this fun idea! As I said, when it works it’s a lot of fun to watch (not to mention it’s a legit time-saver)!

Sold!! Where do I get it?

  • For your Mac, it’s free here.
  • For iOS, you can find it here, for $3.99 USD.

Tips: Stretching an iPhone 5 Battery Through a 6 Day Hike in Yosemite National Park

This will be a quick one folks! I just wanted to share how I made a stock iPhone 5 battery stretch 6 days on one full charge while using it only as a camera.

When traveling, I really love using my iPhone as my main point-and-shoot. Does it best my wife’s DSLR? Hell no, not even close. But it does take decent photos if you’ve mastered its quirks and the portability of it is second-to-none.

Upper Cathedral Lake

But what about on hiking trips? Not car-camping mind you, but hiking out in the middle of nowhere, where the nearest power outlet is literally days away?

In those cases you could either bring one of the many portable solar chargers that are now available at any camping/outdoor gear store, or even a hand-crank generator, but that’s just extra weight for me to lug around, not to mention misplace or lose. So when my week-long hike in Yosemite came along, I wanted to see just how far I could stretch a single charge on my iPhone 5, all while using it to snap frequent pics of the stunning beauty out there (and man, there is SO much!).

Now, on a typical day I use my phone to such a degree that I rarely get through a full 24 hour period without plugging it in. I am sure many of you can relate. So how did I accomplish 6 days straight? Let me tell you!

Dim Your Screen Brightness

Brightness Settings

Go under “Settings” and tap “Brightness & Wallpaper”. In that menu, use the slider to bring your brightness down to 50% (or as low as your poor eyes can stand).

Airplane Mode is Your Friend!

Turn off Airplane Mode

Tap “Settings” (if you aren’t still in there) and right up at the top you’ll see a toggle for “Airplane Mode”. Turn this bad boy on and leave it. This turns off your cellular service, WIFI and your Bluetooth connectivity. With this turned on, your phone stops continuously looking for something that, out in the middle nowhere, it will never find. If it was constantly searching? Your battery would be dead in way less than a day. So at the very least, switch Airplane Mode to the “on” position.

Turn Off Location Services

Turn Off Location Services

Tap “Settings” again, go down to “Privacy” and in there you will find “Privacy Services”. Click on that and hit the toggle at the top to turn that off. You will lose the geolocation of the pictures you snap, but the accuracy of that gets dodgy anyways when you are that far off of the grid.

Basically an iPod Touch…

That’s all I turned off! With all these services off, you’ve basically got an iPod Touch, but you can still utilize your camera (which I used continuously from the slider on the lock screen), snap a pic, check it out and lock the phone immediately afterward.

So how did this all work? Quite well! So well in fact that I took well over a hundred shots (a bunch of panoramas too) and, with less than 48 hours until I was back in civilization, I still had 50% battery left! I know! Not bad!

I am sure a lot of folks have tried this combo with varying degrees of success, but sometimes it’s good to read about a use case that actually occurred and worked. If there are any other services I missed let me know!

A Bit on Common Sense

I know it goes without saying but… I when I was hiking, I was with 4 other people who all had charged phones, compasses and maps on them… in other words: don’t take chances. If your phone is the only thing you have as a link to possible rescue, don’t try this out. It’s not worth it.

But, if you are properly prepared, I whole-heartedly recommend leaving your iPhone charger back in the car.

Out there it’s not going to do you any good anyways. ;)

Have fun and be safe!

Software: How and Why I Use Vesper…

UPDATE: On February 27th 2015, Vesper is officially universal! More info here.

UnknownWhen Q-Branch dropped its note taking app “Vesper” weeks ago, it caused quite a splash in the tech community. Mostly because of the design team behind it (John Gruber, Brent Simmons and Dave Wiskus) but also because of how divisive it was on a functional level. Everything it did right (and there’s a lot) was somewhat obscured by everything it didn’t.

What I am NOT going to do…

To date, if you Google “Vesper App” you’ll get 589,000 results, most of which crab about the app’s faults and what’s it’s missing or extol it’s design achievements thoroughly. My opinion? For a variety of reasons, both camps are right, so I won’t waste anyone’s time going through the arguments on each side. You can read those elsewhere (don’t worry, you’ve got a lot of articles and posts to dig through).

What I wanted to do here is pose my argument for buying a note taking iOS, iPhone-only app that is beautifully designed but has no syncing capabilities (to iCloud or any other devices).

Where I fit in

On my iPhone I currently have about six text editors, Vesper makes that total seven. I am one of those geeks/writers who appreciates text editors for the experience they provide. For text that I need sent anywhere I go with the oft-mentioned Drafts . For long-form writing on iOS, I still use iA Writer and Elements. When I need to write a letter to someone, I use OmmWriter. If I have notes that I need to share with my wife I use iOS’ Notes app. Naturally I hedged on purchasing Vesper because if I am being honest, I really didn’t think I needed it.

Why I folded

In the end, it was all of the talk about the UI/UX that got the best of me. Everyone of those apps I listed above I use frequently and not because of the service they provide, but because of how they deliver it. For most people, that aspect of software isn’t all that important. For me though, it’s always had value because it assigns a purpose to its respective app. Because of this, I get better quality results out of different apps for different reasons. And it’s on this point where Vesper ended up performing a sneak attack on me – because of its design, I ended up finding a distinct purpose for Vesper in my day-to-day workflow.

Less is more

Aside from being an absolute joy to use (and the hype on this is thoroughly true), ironically, it was its lack of sync that ended up being the reason I started using it almost every day. Before smart phones and apps, we all carried around Moleskins to jot down thoughts and reminders and we were overjoyed when apps replaced that function; one less thing in the pockets right?

But, the thing is, those apps ended up doing so much more – syncing on other platforms, sometimes with other people. Dead tree notebooks never did those things: they were never backed up or magically synced to other notebooks. When they were burned or dropped in a swimming pool, they were gone completely.

Vesper is very much like that old experience and in a way I find that to be its biggest strength. As a simple app, it recreated that link I used to have with notepads and scratch paper.

Sure, there are excellently implemented search, in-app browser, archive and sharing features mere taps away and you can even tag notes (hallelujah!) and add pictures if need be. But those are options I find that I seldom use (outside of the tagging, which I admittedly use a lot) and I feel the app serves me better for that. Because of its stripped down approach, I don’t write “mission critical” stuff in Vesper. It’s all disposable and very temporary. And the fact that it’s in such a distinct silo (only in one app on my one phone) makes it easier for me to know where I wrote what. In other words, for me, in this case – less is definitely more.

Sledgehammers and tack nails

I am sure I am alone in this, but I actually hope they don’t add much more. Outside a few minor things (at the end of the day, I do wish there was a back up of notes to iCloud, if only for disaster recovery and getting a new device) I find this app to be one of those thoroughly complete iOS experiences that doesn’t really need much refinement.

It’s a total joy to use, is fast, stable as hell, intuitive to navigate, and does exactly what it was advertised to do: help you “collect your thoughts”. There are plenty of all-in-one text editors out there that do a lot of things Vesper doesn’t. But, for me anyways, many of those are heavy lifters and they are two clunky and complex for the tasks that Vesper accomplishes so well. Sledge hammers against tack nails. Some times you just need a tool that fits in your hand perfectly, is counter balanced just right and won’t potentially obliterate your target.

For me, Vesper is that tool for notes and I am glad I finally started using it.

Where you can find it: iOS App Store