There are already many options available to those of us who’re after simple writing tools. These apps encourage their users to focus in on the evolving text, minimizing distractions by cutting back both on visual clutter (I’m looking at you Microsoft Office) and on informational overload in the form of too many options and tweakable settings. We’ve previously reviewed Byword and Writeroom, as well as running a round-up that added a few alternatives. We also published a discussion piece on whether such apps are necessary, which got some interesting debate going in its comments.
Such apps abound on the iPad too, and on that platform one of the most popular choices has been iA Writer. Now Information Architects, the design firm that developed iA Writer for iPad has turned it into a Mac app, available for purchase on the Mac Appstore.
I’m going to settle down for a while, open up iA Writer for Mac, and walk you through its features.
What it Does
Well, actually, this won’t take very long. That’s because iA Writer has been deliberately pared down to the essentials. It saves your writing in plain text, so there are no formatting controls or layout features to think about. So that means no agonizing over what font to use, no time-wasting about anything to do with how your text will look on the printed page. In fact, the app doesn’t even have a Preferences menu, so there’s absolutely nothing to adjust or fine-tune.
In fact, there’s really only one thing you can adjust in iA Writer: whether or not you’re in Focus Mode. With Focus off, your text fills the screen.
In Focus Mode, the app switches to typewriter scrolling, placing your current sentence in the middle of the screen. You’ll also notice from the screenshot that all but that current sentence is greyed out.
In Focus Mode you can use [CMD]+[arrow keys] to jump backwards and forwards between sentences and quickly jump through your document.
If you want to add some basic formatting – headers, italics, bold, lists – you can do so using the popular Markdown syntax. This is decidedly not WYSIWYG editing, but it does allow you to prepare texts that other apps can convert into formatted pages.
iA Writer is a very nicely designed app, full of thoughtful and effective little touches. Colours and fonts are well considered, so your text is easily legible onscreen. Rather than ordinary white, the background is eye-savingly slightly-off-white, with a subtle paper-like texture. And that blue cursor – well, I find it lovely.
When you exit fullscreen mode, the windowed view includes some useful information: word and character counts and an approximate reading time.
The developers have said on Twitter that the next update will include fullscreen word count too.
How Does it Compare to Writeroom?
Of all the ‘distraction free’ writing apps I’ve tried, the one I’ve come back to again and again is Writeroom.
I believe Writeroom was the first of the lot. It aims at the same end, but gives you a lot more control over how the app looks, and various other things – from adjusting text and background colours to changing the default document encoding.
All these things are useful, but the truth is that I set things as I wanted them a long time ago, and haven’t made any changes since then. And even with that fine-tuning, I far prefer the appearance of iA Writer. What I do miss, though, in switching from Writeroom is realtime spell-checking – I hope that iA Writer might add this feature in the future.
I think the difference between these apps points to an interesting observation about freedom and constraint. Writeroom gives you enough power and control to be able to set things up more-or-less exactly as you want them (though you can’t get a subtly textured background, sorry). iA Writer, by contrast, gives you no control – in fact, rather, it takes away options. In a sense, then, Writeroom offers freedom and choice (within the limitations of a full-screen, distraction-limiting writing app), where iA Writer imposes limitations. And yet, I for one will be choosing to use Writer from here on – and I expect many will agree and do the same. Well-considered constraints and limitations occasionally win out over power and freedom.
In a way, that truth is demonstrated over and over in the world of Apple hardware and software. In choosing a Mac over a PC, or just in choosing iPhoto to manage your photos and allowing it to arrange them in the opaque folder structure it uses, you make a choice to allow someone else’s solutions to govern your world. Some PC users find that a maddening fact about Macs. But when those solutions are as well thought through and carefully designed as iA Writer, the choice to accept limitation and embrace constraint seems easy.