Byword: A Beautifully Minimal Writing Environment

When you open up your computer to get to work, you open up a world of distractions. As a writer, you could just pick up pen and paper, and forgo the entire digital realm – until, that is, you have to type up what you’ve written and double your workload. Minimalist writing apps like Byword attempt to recreate the simplicity of the pen-and-paper experience while supplying the benefits of digital convenience.

Whether or not these apps are necessary is itself a whole argument (Kevin Whipps’ article proved that people are very passionate about their workflows) but love them or hate them, how does ByWord stack up? Read on to find out whether it’s worth giving a try!

Using Byword

The app itself couldn’t be simpler: open it up, and you’re presented with a blank page. Writing with Byword is like writing with any other writing application – everything performs as it should, a Tab is an indent, Cmd + I italicizes, misspelled words are underlined in red.

The file you open by default is a Plain Text (.txt) file, meaning you can’t format the text (e.g. no underlines or italics). To convert to Rich Text (.rtf), hit Shift + Command + T or select it under the format menu.

Byword doesn’t have a boat-load of features like many other apps do, but the features it does have are mostly accessed through keyboard shortcuts. Command + T will bring up a popover with basic typographic options (size, bold/italic/underline/highlight) and formatting (alignment, bulleted list). Functions not accessed via a shortcut appear in the menu bar, which appears if you mouse over the top of the screen.

Byword popover menu

Byword popover menu

Features

Full-Screen View

The full distraction-free experience involves a full-screen interface, with nothing but a white background and cursor on the screen. Full screen mode is easily toggled via keyboard shortcut (Command + Enter).

I would agree that full-screen applications are very helpful for productivity, but most Mac users probably (hopefully?) know that Pages has a full-screen mode that is similarly distraction-free, so this feature isn’t exactly unique.

Byword in all its minimal glory

Byword in all its minimal glory

Focus

One of the more unique features of Byword is the ability to “focus” on only the line or lines that you are currently writing. You can choose to focus on 1-9 lines a time (or one paragraph) and other lines will fade away, re-appearing when you mouse over them.

I personally didn’t find this feature terribly helpful, but I do know people who have a hard time focusing on one sentence at a time when they’re panicked about the entire paper, and I would definitely encourage such people to try this feature out.

Focusing on 3 lines

Focusing on 3 lines

Word Count

As a student and freelance writer, word count is essential, especially in an app like Byword where the formatting and typography is non-standard, so you have a hard time judging page length. This was added in v1.1, and is a welcome feature to have.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Most of the functionality of Byword is accessed from the keyboard. One feature I appreciate here is the ability to select a word the cursor is focused on by hitting Command + Option + Up Arrow, and then select the entire line by hitting it again, or decreasing the selected area with Command + Option + Down Arrow, so you can apply formatting to a word or line without having to reach for the mouse.

There are keyboard shortcuts for all formatting, as well as for controlling the focus feature.

Substitutions

Byword offers a pretty powerful substitution feature for cleaning up typography. Using substitutions, you can correct quote marks, add em dashes, and turn URLs into links.

Byword also has a set of text replacements that you can add to, for example, replacing (c) with a copyright symbol. In addition to this, you’ll find the usual “find and replace” feature that functions like many other text editors.

Substitutions panel

Substitutions panel

Attractive Interface

Byword’s greatest appeal to me was the appearance of it. Rather than a harsh black or white, the background is a light grey, and instead of plain old Times New Roman (or worse – Cambria) you have the option of several pleasing, easy to read typographic styles.

Integration with Word

Any student knows that nine times out of ten, only .doc will do. While we wait for the end of this outdated standard, any useful writing application will be easily copy-and-paste-able into Word, or into any plain-text writing situation (like email).

When pasted into Word, writing from Byword retained the majority of its formatting, preserving indents, typography, and bulleted lists, but did not preserve highlighting. As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t really that big a deal, and for most purposes “keep source formatting” will give you a predictable result.

A Minor Gripe

One thing that became increasingly irritating to me while writing using Byword was that when I got to the bottom of the page and started writing a new line, the new line was sometimes half-faded out off the bottom of the page, so I had to scroll down with the mouse.

This has now been fixed in the latest release, and it’s great to see such a fast response from the developer.

Conclusion

Overall, Byword is a pretty useful little app. It does exactly what it sets out to do and has some surprisingly powerful features. Whether you need such a distraction-free environment is up to you, but I personally will continue using my clumsy combination of Word, Pages and Evernote.

The designer in me really loves the gorgeous look of Byword, and there’s no denying that I am productive when using it (I wrote this article about 30% faster than normal), but the lack of word count is a deal-breaker for me.

Unlike some other minimalistic writing apps, Byword maintains a minimal price: I got it for $2.99, and the price will increase to $4.99 over the next few weeks, which seems pretty reasonable considering the scope of the application.

If you’re looking for a break from the clumsy, crowded interface of Word, or need an app to strip away distractions, give Byword a try. You might just find yourself working a little more productively!


Summary

Byword is a minimalistic typing interface that aims to eliminate distractions and allow to focus on your writing in a beautiful, minimal, full-screen environment.

9
  • http://bywordapp.com Byword

    Byword 1.1 update added the missing word and character counters, and fixed the minor gripe with scrolling issues at the bottom of the page.

    Regarding font size, the base font size can’t be adjusted in Preferences—under Font Family, choose Other… and select your preferred font and size. Default text format also changed to Rich text in the 1.1 update.

    The update is already available on the Mac App Store.

    Thank you for the excellent review.

    • http://bywordapp.com Byword

      Of course I meant you *can* adjust the font and its size in Preferences.

    • http://tessathornton.com Tessa Thornton

      Thanks for responding! I’ll see if I can update the review.

    • http://davidappleyard.net David Appleyard

      Thanks for the response – We’ve updated the review to reflect the changes in the latest version.

  • http://joaobarreiros.com João Barreiros

    Byword has been updated already with word count and some bug fixes like the half-faded line so you should correct that in your review.

  • Mailia

    Wait, no demo available? Hhrrhmh..

  • Mark

    I have been using this app for a couple of weeks now and have been really impressed. It presents enough to get the job done without all the needless icons and functions I just don’t want to see or think about while writing. Now the half fading bottom line has been fixed a minor gripe has been removed. A pleasure to use and a pleasure to look at.

  • http://www.hammyhavoc.com Hammy Havoc

    An absolutely gorgeous piece of software; I really do find myself more productive when using it when compared to something with an overwhelming number of features that I’m unlikely to use on a daily basis.

  • Steve

    I really enjoy writing in Byword. I prefer it to Ommwriter Dana II. Although I do miss the music ;)

  • http://thefreelancepinoy.com/ Stephanie

    Aww if only there was a free version I could try before buying it! I’ve been buying way too many apps since I got my new laptop, so I’ll wait a bit before purchasing Byword.

    But anywhos, Byword looks amazing and I hope to give it a try someday. I’m using Ommwriter Dana I right now and so far it works for me and for my needs.

  • insane dreamer

    Looks like a nice program. I already have both Ommwriter and WriteRoom though, so I don’t think there’s enough here to make me jump ship from either of those.

  • http://antiweblog.wordpress.com Simona

    I bought it yesterday. I would add only 2 or 3 little things such as support to the images and the ability to use different fonts for the same document. having said that, I really like byword and makes me want to write, write and write again …

  • http://tessathornton.com Tessa Thornton

    The new updates were much appreciated. Writing an intense philosophy of mind essay at the moment, using Byword the whole time. Probably the first app I’ve reviewed that I’ve continued using. All my friends are asking about it.

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