Writer Pro is an Exercise in Disappointment

Writer Pro is a bit bipolar. On the Mac, the app takes writing to a different level; elevating Markdown and a clean workflow into a smooth running system that is a pleasure to use. But on iOS, it’s a mess with very little reason to appear on your homescreen. And both apps cost $19.95.

And so, I’m conflicted. I like using Writer Pro, but I don’t enjoy using it on both platforms. In addition, new additional information about the developers has appeared, making me feel even worse. So should you spend $20 or $40 on the Writer Pro app system, or is it best to just walk away? Let’s find out.

The Backstory

A few years ago, the app world blew up with all sorts of plain-text editors. They all seemed to function with a few similarities, including a lack of adjustable preferences, and a “distraction free” writing workspace. One of those apps was iA Writer.

Being a writer myself, I purchased iA Writer for my iPad and Mac, but it just never worked for me. It functioned just fine, but I couldn’t get into the way it looked and flowed. I chose Byword for my plain-text needs, and that’s what I’ve used ever since on both my Mac and iOS.

Side by side, iA Writer (left) and Writer Pro.

Side by side, iA Writer (left) and Writer Pro.

Writer Pro is made by the same people who built iA Writer, and they’ve put a lot of thought into the product. But understand that it’s still not an in-depth word processor the way that Scrivener or Ulysses III are, it’s just a ramped up version of iA Writer. And even then, it still shares the same distraction-free environment and a lack of adjustable preferences, there are just more features to be had. Point is, this will not replace Pages or Microsoft Word if you need either of them in your workflow. However, if you are a writer who enjoys writing in Markdown — oh yeah, the entire system is based on the format — then this is yet another option to consider.

What Makes It Special

Writer Pro is about your workflow. Like I said, they’ve put a lot of time into researching how writers write:

Inspired by Hans Blumenberg’s mind bending Book “Sources, Streams, Icebergs” (Quellen, Ströme, Eisberge), we referred to the writing process through the metaphor of a river while designing Writer Pro. A river grows when multiple sources (Note) join into a stream (Write), which spreads into a delta (Edit), before flowing into the ocean (Read).

That’s how things flow in Writer Pro. There are visual clues that separate each section — different fonts, colors and options — which keep your focus on the task at hand.

Syntax Control is pretty neat, but is it worth $20?

Syntax Control is pretty neat, but is it worth $20?

But the big kicker here, the selling point as iA is pitching it, is Syntax Control, their “Patent Pending” system that’s supposed to change the game. When you write, there are times that you find yourself using weak adverbs, adjectives or sentence structure (most of the times unintentionally), and Syntax Control pulls out all of that information and highlights it on the screen. If you’re not used to editing your documents thoroughly enough to recognize the issues yourself, then this will definitely help your end product.

Then there’s the not-so-good part.

What Isn’t Cool

Syntax Control is pretty neat, and it seems like the type of thing that’s so obvious that someone had to think of it before. As it turns out, someone did.

Apple.

The Verge recently wrote an article about the topic, and to give you the tl;dr version, Syntax Control appears to be pretty easy to implement if you know anything about the NSLinguisticTagger Class Reference. What makes this worse is that the developers are threatening to sue anyone who takes a similar path on iOS or OSX (or were, anyways), and that’s not very sporting.

Their militant stance on that issue is also opening them up to criticism from reviewers in the App Store as well — 18 five-star and 17 one-star ratings puts them right at three stars. People are feeling ripped off, and when you hear their complaints, it’s hard not to consider their merits. For example:

  • The “read” view is not a markdown preview? Seriously, this one is so obvious. I can’t even imagine what the thinking behind it was.

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But the way modes are implemented does not jive with the way that they are presented on the product website. The ONLY thing that happens when you switch modes is a font and cursor color change. Things you write in the notes mode to prepare for your drafts carry over to each successive mode. Read mode doesn’t even strip out the markdown characters and present the text to you as a proper preview. Dropbox support (a crucial part of the original app) has been removed entirely.

One other glaring omission is the lack of link support. For the uninitiated, if you want to create an inline link in Markdown, you wrap the words you want to link in [ ] and then follow them with the link in (). Example: I want to [link](http://mac.appstorm.net) to this website.

The only way to preview Markdown in Writer Pro is with the Preview window (right).

The only way to preview Markdown in Writer Pro is with the Preview window (right).

In Byword, you highlight the word you want to link and then hit ⌘k to wrap the word in brackets and paste the link you copied onto the clipboard into the parentheses. There is no option to do this in Writer Pro that I could find. None. And it’s based on Markdown, a format designed for the web. How ridiculous is that?

Then there’s the iOS version.

Stripped and Dysfunctional

My initial impression of the Mac app was that it was pretty awesome because it was fun to write in, easy to use and had enough of the additional features to get me by, but not so much that it turned into the ribbon on Microsoft Word. So I bought the iPad app, thinking it would translate straight across. I was wrong.

Both the Mac and iOS versions of the app sync with iCloud, putting each item you write into folders labelled “Note,” “Write,” “Edit” and “Read.” But there is no other option for cross-platform syncing, such as the aforementioned Dropbox. The additional keyboard bar, a standard feature in many iOS apps nowadays, doesn’t contain any Markdown characters, such as the # sign and *. Instead, you have to do the same three-tap process you would normally to get your Markdown text into the app. Oh, and it doesn’t preview Markdown, nor does it do Auto Markdown like the Mac app, even though it’s a primary feature of the system.

The functionality on iOS is severely crippled.

The functionality on iOS is severely crippled.

Wait, what?

No really, no Markdown support. I mean, yes, like any plain-text editor you can write in Markdown and not have any issues displaying it, but you can’t preview in Markdown in any fashion. I mean, what’s the point of that?

The iOS version is just a clunker, and I don’t see any reason to spend $20 on it when Byword functions better, has Markdown preview and is a quarter of the price. I mean, really?

It’s Not All Bad

Even though I’ve blasted this thing to bits, there are a few high points that do give me hope. One problem I often find myself dealing with is converting documents into Markdown. I’ll have a Word doc or something similar written in a rich-text format, and I want to put it on the web. I used to have to manually export the file to plain text, then markup everything manually — a painstaking process.

Although it doesn’t always do a flawless conversion (it can choke when items are both in bold and italics), it’s a heck of a lot better than the alternative. That alone means that Writer Pro has some kind of use in my workflow, even if it’s not a daily thing.

Also, the Statistics field in both versions of the app is quite handy. I can see the reading time, characters, words and sentences that make up any document, and that’s nice to know. Although Byword does have some of those options, reading time isn’t in there at all.

The Sum of all Fears

The high price point of Writer Pro almost implies quality. In today’s app market, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to price any app over $5, much less $20, and then claim it’s a “Pro” version. I’m sure that there are lots of features coming to Writer Pro on both the Mac and iOS in the coming months, and yes, this is a 1.0 release. But I shouldn’t have to pay $20 (or $40) to be a beta tester, particularly when it’s just so clunky.

All that said, I do enjoy using the Mac version of the app, I just don’t feel like it’s a worthy replacement for many of the writing tools I use today. Whenever I write a post for the web, I’ll still reach for Byword. When I’m working on my novel, it’s to Scrivener I go, and I’ll continue using Pages and Word for work that goes towards magazine design.

Writer Pro is close to being the best all-around app for many different types of writing, but right now, it’s just not there. If you’re a professional writer, I can’t recommend Writer Pro on the Mac to replace any of your current options, because it needs work. And if you’re considering the iOS version, don’t. Save your money, it’s not worth it.


Summary

A disappointing follow up to iA Writer, this "pro" version of the popular plain-text editor just can't hold up to scrutiny.

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