OS X: The Best OS for Writing

Macs may be used by everyone from NASA to the White House, but they can’t shake the perception that they’re designer goods. People readily accept that Macs are good for creatives, but not for real business work, no matter how many times they’ve been proven to simply be great computers for anyone that cares about a good computing experience.

But maybe it’s because Macs are really just so good for creatives. There’s so many little things in OS X that make it great for writing, for one thing, that I think you can easily say it’s the best OS for writers.

The Keyboard is Mightier

For the most part, Apple’s more known today for touch screens and touchpad gestures than they are for keyboards. iOS is designed around the idea that you only need a keyboard for the times you’re typing text, and OS X gets more iOS-like with every release.

But you’d be very mistaken to think the keyboard isn’t important in OS X. If anything, OS X is the best OS for keyboard usage. There’s so many keyboard shortcuts in the OS, from standard copy/paste shortcuts and ways to switch between apps and spaces to shortcuts to automate tasks and jump between words, lines, and more when editing text.

You can even tweak most of the system keyboard shortcuts in OS X to make it work like you want

Some of the best shortcuts are Emacs-style, while others are specific to OS X. You can find many of them listed on Apple’s official OS X Keyboard Shortcut page_US). They’re all designed to make it easy to jump right to the text you need to edit, including the following ones I use all the time:

  • Alt-left or Alt-right – jump to the beginning of the last word or the end of the next word, respectively
  • CMD-left or CMD-right – jump to the beginning or end of a line
  • CMD-up or CMD-down – jump to the top or bottom of the text you’re editing
  • Control-a – jump to beginning of paragraph
  • Control-e – jump to end of paragraph
  • Control-n – move down one line
  • Control-p – move up one line
  • Control-b – move one character backward
  • Control-f – move one character forward
  • Shift + any of the above shortcuts – select text while moving your curser
  • Control-d – delete the character in front of the cursor (much like the Delete key in Windows)
  • Control-t – transpose the character behind the cursor and the character in front of the cursor
  • Control-o – insert a new line in front of the cursor (like the return key)
  • Control-l – center the cursor and line you’re currently editing in the visible editing area (much like focus mode in many plain text editors)
  • Option-Delete – delete the word behind the cursor, including any punctuation after it

Transform Your Text

If editing shortcuts aren’t enough to help you write quicker and edit exactly what you want without having to touch your mouse or touchpad, the contextual menus in most places you can type text in OS X make it even better. Just right-click or control-click on the text you’re editing, and you’ll have a ton of options at your disposal, both from OS X and from 3rd party services you might have installed.

Transforming your text automatically

Right there, you can turn on text substitutions to, for example, use smart quotes, dashes, or links, or let OS X automatically expand snippets you type into phrases you’ve saved, much like a basic TextExpander. You can also make your text uppercase, lowercase, or capitalize the first letter of each word, tricks that can make editing text a whole lot easier. Then, you can listen to the selected text using OS X’s built in screen reader. In Mountain Lion, or with 3rd party services, you can share selected text directly as an email, Tweet, and more.

Turn your text into whatever you want with your Mac

The OS for Bad Spellers

I’ve got a secret to share: I’m insanely awful at spelling. Seriously. Without spell check, I’m afraid it’s be impossible for me to make a living as a writer and editor.

That’s why I love OS X’s built in spell check and dictionary. Anywhere you type, OS X will automatically be checking your spelling, and if it’s not turned on, you can turn it on from the right-click menu. You can also let it check your grammar automatically, and in Lion and newer, you’ll see iOS style spelling suggestions pop up as you type.

Definitions everywhere. Who would think a dictionary could be so insanely useful?

Best of all, the built-in Dictionary app makes it easy to research whether you’re typing or reading an article. Just three-finger tap any word to see a dictionary popup with definitions, synonyms/antonyms, the Wikipedia entry about that word, and any other language dictionary entries you have installed. I have a Thai dictionary installed, so I can quickly find the Thai word for the English I’m writing, or vise versa, which is quite a good learning aid. Pair that with the many language voices on the screen reader, and OS X could even help you master a new language!

Conclusion

That’s just a few of the ways OS X is the nicest OS for writing and typing. If you take the time to master keyboard shortcuts, you’ll find yourself working faster than ever without having touch your mouse at all. All of these features in OS X work throughout all of your apps, from editing an email on Gmail in Safari to writing an your favorite 3rd party writing app like iA Writer. With some of the great writing apps you can get on your Mac, combined with OS X’s text features, you’ll have your Mac turned into an absolute writing powerhouse.

What’s you favorite Mac typing tips and writing apps? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!


  • NSDocument

    I’ve also find Emacs-style killing/yanking to be useful in OSX:

    Ctrl+K – Kill (copy then delete) anything after cursor to the end of line
    Ctrl+Y – Yank (paste) the yanked data. You can yank multiple times for the same data.

    Kill and yank different from copy-and-paste in that they’re application-specific and separate from clipboard. It works in all text input in OSX (as long as they’re native widget).

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      I’ve never gotten used to using those, but they definitely can be helpful. It’s like a second clipboard, in-app.

  • Jón Ólafsson

    I like the OS X keyboard because it is so flexible with non-English characters.

    My default keyboard is Icelandic. Naturally, it gives easy access to special Icelandic characters such as þ, ð and æ, and characters which Icelandic shares with other European languages, e.g. the acute accent (á, é, ó) and the quotation marks „“. But there is also very good access to many characters not used in Icelandic such as the grave accent (à, è, ì), the umlaut (ü) and the French/Swiss quotation marks «» to name a few.

    This is very convenient for someone like me who constantly has to switch between Icelandic, English and German (plus the occasional French words and phrases).

    The keyboard layouts in Windows and Linux pale by comparsion. (Unless I’m doing something terribly wrong; any pointers would be welcome.)

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Good point; how’d I forget to mention that?!? The quick access to alternate characters is just great.

  • Henrik Strøm

    How did you install the Thai dictionary?

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      iStudio, Thailand’s Apple Store, had a download on their site, which I’d found from http://banktip.wordpress.com/2008/06/13/download-dictionary-thai/. It works great, and is so handy for me as bilingual English/Thai guy. Do you speak Thai?

      • Henrik Strøm

        มีเมียไทย
        พยายามที่จะเรียนรู้

        • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

          Oh, that’s very cool! I’ve lived in Thailand since I was 11, though my reading/writing skills could definitely use some work ;) Did you get the dictionary installed?

      • Henrik Strøm

        I installed it, but it doesn’t turn up in the dictionary, or when I look up words with the three finger tab.
        Too bad, ’cause it looks very handy.

        • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

          Once you’ve installed it, open your Dictionary app, then open the Preferences, and enable the Thai Dictionary which should be near the bottom of the list as in this screenshot: http://cl.ly/IwDm. That should get it working :)

      • Luke Andrew

        where did you get the rest of your dictionary’s like the screenshot you uploaded, I could use a good medical medical medical

        • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

          All of the dictionaries in my screenshot, except for the Thai dictionary, are automatically installed in OS X.

      • Henrik Strøm

        Works like a charm now – thanks a lot.

  • windows user

    You don’t know anything about windows 7 do you? Everything you said here can be done in windows 7, + a whole lot more.

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Actually, I used Windows 7 full-time for over a year, and while you CAN do similar things in Windows 7, there’s no way to use that many keyboard shortcuts to jump deftly in text. Plus, I would have killed for system-wide high quality spellcheck, and the dictionary Actually, I used Windows 7 full-time for over a year, and while you CAN do similar things in Windows 7, there’s no way to use that many keyboard shortcuts to jump deftly in text. Plus, I would have killed for system-wide high quality spellcheck, and the dictionary is just icing on top.

      Just the option to switch text to lowercase or capitalize first letters, built-in to every text box, saves me more time than you could imagine.

      I was a PC user for years, but for me, the way plain text works in OS X is the biggest reason to switch. No joke.

    • GV

      Windows User, do you realize that this website is named Mac.App.Storm?

      • SimonR

        GV that’s your counterargument?
        I’m a Windows user as well AND a Mac user, and must say this article is a biased review. Windows 7 has very powerful text editing functions, the problem is that most Windows users do not seem to find the full power which is available at their fingertips.
        The title of this article to me is overstated.

  • http://www.appforthat.de Julia Altermann

    I love the iA Writer suite and the Byword suite of apps. Not just do they look great, but they are available for OS X and iOS, enabling me to write on my iPad or iPhone on the go and finishing off articles at home, with Cloud-sync making sure everything is up to date everywhere.

    On top of that, I am in love with Scrivener, which is a blessing for anyone attempting to cobble together a novel. And Mellel (+Bookends) is a must for anyone writing a scientific paper. I wrote my thesis with that combination (the first big writing project just half a year after I started using a Mac). Coming from Windows, I never thought writing and formatting could be so easy and so much fun. It just works.

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Amen, amen, amen. Spot on, Julia.

    • GV

      Scrivener is also fantastic for non-fiction writing. Being able to access research files from within Scrivener is a significant time-saver and reduces the umber of open windows on the desktop.

      I’d also like to mention DEVONthink, a database with artificial intelligence that makes it unique among Mac databases. DEVONthink can ingest just about any type of file you can think of and display most of those files without having to open other applications.

  • http://edwardsung.com Edward Sung

    I would just add the best reason, for me, which is that when you double click a word in OS X, you actually select that word, not the space and/or punctuation after it like in Windows. Hopefully Microsoft will someday figure out how to develop this mind-blowing technological feat.

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Good point!

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  • http://wwww.twitter.com/oliverschultz Oliver

    iA Writer would be enough reason for me to switch! :P

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Honestly, it would be for me as well. I bought it back when it was $17.99, and would do so again in a heartbeat.

      • http://pinoyteens.net Kevin Paquet

        Ditto. My Macbook Pro and iPod touch [iA Writer on both] setup might not be the most awesome ones, but it does it job for me in terms of getting things done (writing). Specially since I can use the Bluetooth Keyboard that I bought for my Mac with the iPod touch.

  • Colin W

    Unfortunately this article doesn’t mention the single biggest problem with typing in OSX: the hardware – i.e., the keyboard. There’s no Delete button, or rather, what is labelled Delete only backspaces. So on my MBA, I need to do fn-Delete if I want to actually delete.

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Or you can use Control-d as mentioned in the article.

      That really is more of a Windows hold-over, though, and I’ve not found myself missing the Windows-style delete button at all. Backspace (or delete in OS X) feels more natural to me, anyhow.

      • Connor Turnbull

        I can’t believe I didn’t know about Ctrl+D before!

  • David

    What makes writing so much better for me is the distraction free environment, and gestures. And the former is made possible by the latter.

    With the aid of the free Mac-only app BetterTouchTool, everything from centralizing to enlarging the words and indenting and whatever can be done by tapping different areas of my trackpad. So when I’m writing my screen is totally white with no sidebars or toolbars or scrollbars and all that.

    In Windows I’ve tried making the Word screen more minimal and it’s just impossible. And the (copycat) dock doesn’t hide very well.

  • Joe

    I was using Byword as my primary minimalist, distraction free writing enviornment for a while. That is, until today. One of this weeks App Store specials is a program called Grandview.It allows you to truly focus on your writing by displaying one word at a time in the editor. I initally thought that this concept would be kind of awkward but it actually isn’t at all. Once you try it, you’ll get it. :)

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  • Kan

    Thank you very much for sharing with us your knowledge. Really appreciated it, especially for dictionary part.

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