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Review: Finding the Write App | Seth Thomas

Through my time spent writing in an academic format, as a freelance writer and an amateur blogger, I’ve found that finding the right medium is the key to being productive. Gone are the days where Microsoft Word - a tool more primitive than pen and paper - is your only option when it comes to word processing. Both Mac and iOS App Stores are littered with excellent alternatives, because for me, Microsoft Word offers little in the way of useful features, and those it does offer are cluttered and hidden in a jungle of menus and options that are so niche to certain markets, that they forget the everyday writer.

During this article, I’ll discuss a few of my favourite writing apps, and the apps that have become essential to me reaching a diverse audience and writing in a range of styles. Because let’s face it, if you can’t write effectively, your writing will never be at its best.

iA Writer

iA Writer had been the home of my writing for years. It was the first app that showed me that Microsoft Word - or Pages for that matter - was not the only way to write. In fact, it showed me that Microsoft Word and Pages, were never the way to write. If you haven’t cottoned on by now, I really hate the traditional word processor…

So why iA writer, and why anything but Word? Well, iA Writer was the first to pitch ’Distraction-Free Writing’. This isn’t just marketing jargon, iA Writer is absolutely distraction free. Upon opening the app, you are greeted with just a blank white page, and a blinking cursor. Everything you need for writing is there, just you and the page. So how do you format?

iA Writer, like many apps in it’s class, encourages you to format your prose through either HTML code, or Markdown. From these, Markdown would be the format that I recommend anyone to try and use. The benefit of Markdown, is that all of the formatting can be done without having to move your hands away from the keyboard. All Markdown formatting is created by typing, for example, to write in italics, simply bookend the text with asterisks. To embolden, use two asterisks either side. Couldn’t be simpler. Ident quotes with the use of the '>' key, add different level headings by using the desired number of '#' keys. Markdown couldn’t be easier to pick up, and a full list of shortcuts can be found here.

It may sound pedantic, but Markdown allows me to write more completely, as my hands never have to leave the keyboard. It helps me stay in the zone when I’m writing, rather than having to flit to and from the trackpad to make things look that way I want them to.

iA Writer was the first app of this nature to come to my attention. However, since my initial discovery, many other apps have emerged on both iOS and OS X that perform a similar function. If you find that iA Writer is not for you, other apps to consider are 1Writer, Focused and Byword.

For those looking for more power, try Editorial. Editorial allows you to perform more complex actions with the ability to run fully functional Python scripts and interact with workflows.


I had been searching for a piece of software to write my thesis in for a long time. I’ve attended a number of courses on processing long documents in Microsoft Word, only to become more disillusioned with it. Nothing about writing long documents in Word feels natural, nothing about the process to me was coherent and it seemed as though to get what I was hoping for from the software was becoming more difficult than the writing process itself. Writing a thesis is hard enough, without battling for a good workspace. Thankfully, I have since found an alternative, and that God sent gift is Manuscripts.

Manuscripts is written by academics, for academics, and as such they understand the needs of the academic writer much more than that smug little paper clip that follows you around Microsoft Office. Everything about this app screams coherency, well thought out design, and above all else, functionality.

Take smart referencing for example. Created by the same development group as another of my favourite academic apps Papers, means these two apps talk directly to one another. Simply double tap your ‘ctrl’ key, and a quick reference tool appears. Type in the author you need, find the relevant paper and press insert citation, and voilà, your reference not only appears in the text with a link to read the whole article in papers, but it also appears in your reference list correctly formatted. Gone are the days of EndNote and Mendeley, and good riddance.

Formatting is also a breeze with Manuscripts. The overall format of your article is dictated by the addition of sections. Sections can take a number of forms, either as text, a figure, table or formula. The task bar at the top of the Manuscripts window allows quick addition of either of these, simply by one press of a button. Simple right?

Not only are these sections easy to add, but they are easy to keep track of in a handy slide over side bar, enabling you to go back and edit these sections with ease, rather than trawling through a bulky word document to find the place where something needs adding or tweaking.

The inner format of these sections is also simple. Take entering a formula for example. Rather than using Microsoft Word’s rather antiquated formula entry panel, Manuscripts adopts entry though elegant LaTeX code entry. Where this may be a learning curve for some, once you’re at stage where you are familiar with this however, writing neat, elegant formulae becomes easy.

One last point to note, is how easy it is to add figures. Any scientist worth their salt knows that making graphs in excel does not cut it for publication. Therefore, using additional graphical software such as ’R’ or ’IGOR’. Importing more intense graphs for figures, or even images is as simple as dragging and dropping them to a place holder. Figure labels are easier to add, and numbers automatically change dependent on adding further figures either earlier or later in the document, which is a real time saver.

All in all, Manuscripts takes away all the clutter of Microsoft Word, and lets you focus on the most important matter, the writing. The struggle is gone, and the prose flows, and that’s why Manuscripts is lightyears ahead of any of the competitor academic writing apps.


Ulysses was the next logical progression for personal writing from apps like iA Writer. Where it still relies on writing in either HTML or Markdown, it houses a number of more powerful features that the simpler apps are lacking.

The first of these features is flawless iCloud syncing across devices. Ulysses 2.5 is available across iOS and Mac, and unlike competitor apps where you have to save to an iCloud drive folder, or even dropbox to sync progress, Ulysses pushes the changes across devices. This means that I can work on an article on my MacBook while at work, and pick it up with minimal effort on my iMac at home. Think of this like Apple’s own Handoff ability, except it works seamlessly.

The iCloud sync is helped in part by Ulysses own file system. There is no saving to a folder in Finder, no endless searching of directories to find the article that you were working on. Ulysses keeps all of your work within itself, in a column to the left hand side of the text editor. You can create sub folders in this window - I like to split my articles into destination and subsequently into topics - or display all of your articles, or just those you have worked on in the past seven days.

Ulysses builds on the distraction free writing principles of the more basic apps. Where still minimal, there are additions to the writing display that have become incredibly useful for me. The first of these is attachments. The attachments side bar sits to the right of your text editor, and is capable of displaying a variety of information.

The first choice, is keywords. This allows you to tag your articles, to make them easier to find, filter and edit. The second choice, is goals. In the goals pane, you can set a rough word or character limit for your article. Ulysses will notify you when you reach this goal, which is great for letting you keep an eye on whether you are rambling, or being to concise in your writing. Thirdly, comes notes. Notes is self explanatory, it’s a window to add thoughts about your article. I tend to record the direction it goes in, but also quotes that I’m not sure where to place yet. Finally, there’s images. Once again, a no brainer, store the images that you want to use in your article here.

Ulysses also boasts a large array of export options, enabling you to export - and preview that export - your work in either markdown, plain text or a text bundle into text, HTML, PDF, ePub or RTF containers.

I am confident that unless something changes drastically, Ulysses will be personal writing destination for years to come. Ulysses’s tag line is ’Do You Write?’, well until Ulysses, I didn’t. Ulysses changed this.


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