iOS Writing Apps — The New Wave

Prompted in part by Jason Snell’s article, “My iOS writing app of the moment is Editorial”:

Though people have raved to me about Bear, I don’t think it’s for me. I can configure it to be a usable text editor, but it really wants me to use its internal tagging and linking system, and that’s not how I want to work. It doesn’t sync with Dropbox and makes some styling choices (like hiding the content of Markdown links) that I don’t really appreciate. In short, Bear looks like a thoughtful notebook-style writing app, but it doesn’t really fit with how I work today.

And in part by “Bare-Metal Writing: What Our Word Processors Are Missing”:

I’m writing these opening lines in Markdown, using a Mac app called Focused, one of many attempts to rethink the word processor as a minimalist exercise. Every one of my articles starts out in this app (or at least in John Gruber’s neglected gift to the world), and yet, I always find myself looking for another option, periodically launching into a Google deep dive that rarely leads to a better solution. I always feel like my words deserve a better vessel, something that will allow me to write them faster, more efficiently, and with as little friction as possible.

(Full disclosure, one of the links in that Tedium article points to my post, “Standard” Markdown Controversy on this blog, which is how I found it.)

Text editing apps have been a very popular category of the iOS App Store from the beginning, but there has been a recent second wave of note-taking and writing apps that support Markdown.1 While past iOS apps could sync files, most of them didn’t have OS X / macOS versions, leaving that to built-in tools like TextEdit or third-party text editors like BBEdit or TextMate. These new-wave editors have macOS counterparts that integrate coss-platform.

While I have been happy with Editorial , it has been a while since it was updated, and so I re-evaluated my options when new versions of Bear and Ulysses came out recently.

These are both excellent apps, but I have not adopted either of them for writing on macOS or iOS. My preferred apps for writing on iOS are still Drafts and Editorial. I use mostly nvALT, with BBEdit for some tasks, and have Marked 2 as my preferred previewer/converter on macOS.

Obstacles to Switching

The main problem with switching to one of these apps is that my writing process is antithetical in one way or another to how Ulysses or Bear want me to work.

I think one of the main reasons that many developers are now expanding their offerings to Mac apps for cross-platform integration is because of Apple’s improvements to iCloud sync. With iCloud sync, app developers don’t have to depend on the cooperation or existence of a third party solution like Dropbox.

Apple’s expansion of the types of apps that can charge subscription fees is the other change driving cross-platform development. Sync has become valuable because it’s viable, and since it’s valuable, it can be a source of revenue.

This is both a strength and a weakness. I don’t mind paying for good apps, and I understand why going with a platform-native API is preferable in many cases. The problem from the user side is that iCloud is not a replacement for Dropbox.

In iCloud, each app gets its own file bucket and no other app can normally access it. With the changes introduced in the iOS 11 Files app, you can access text documents, but you can’t edit them in-place; you must send a copy to another app. That means that the ease of using different writing tools for different tasks on the same file is just not possible the way iCloud currently works.

I don’t want to import my files into an app, because then I have to keep track of two versions of files, or fully commit to having the canonical version in a proprietary format or location. I don’t want to have to export for the same reasons.

I don’t want to use a special syntax that works only in that app, because then I lose the fluidity of changing apps whenever the task or the situation dictates. It also means that if I want to switch apps, I have elements that I may need to revise or migrate in the future, which is one of the problems that writing in plain text was meant to avoid.

Dropbox Is My Everything Box

I use a folder (very originally named Notes) in Dropbox as my Everything Box. I might create a note in an iOS app — usually Drafts — but my notes sometimes begin as highlights and comments on an article saved in Instapaper through Instapaper notes, or the file could begin life as margin notes on Kindle. On the Mac side I work primarily in nvALT, but I could just as easily start directly in BBEdit or TextEdit and simply save that file to my Notes folder in Dropbox.

The important thing is that everything can read and write to the same place, and that place is Dropbox.

When I first started keeping the majority of my notes in digital form rather than using paper, I used Simplenote because it was fast and its sync system was simple and reliable compared to the built-in Notes app on iOS. When I started working on my note files directly, syncing across iOS and macOS, Dropbox integration wasn’t a given, and Notational Velocity had Simplenote sync built-in. Later, when I’d built up a large enough library, the sync started to run into problems.2 I had already been paying for “premium” and switched to the alternative Dropbox sync which was offered for Simplenote subscribers.

Dropbox sync opened the door to using anything I wanted at any time to work on those files. Evaluating a new note-taking or writing app was as simple as pointing that app at my Notes folder and going to work. It was thanks to the ubiquity and ease of use of Dropbox sync that I tried out Notesy 3 and Byword, experimented with Drafts, and eventually adopted Editorial as my main writing tool on iOS when Notesy development stalled.

Bear and Ulysses

I tried out Bear and even paid for a year up front because I liked it, a lot. It’s beautiful, well-designed, and easy to use, but I soon found that I can’t get over the friction of using its iCloud sync system. I use different tools for different jobs, and I may use 4 or 5 apps to interact with the files depending on what I’m doing with them at the time.

Bear

Good:

  • It’s pretty, it’s well designed and well thought out.

  • It’s theme-able and comes with a particularly nice theme that is unlocked with the very reasonable annual sync fee.

 Panic theme in Bear

Panic theme in Bear

  • It’s relatively powerful already for a new app, despite its surface simplicity. The developer is already promising some changes and improvements in the first couple of updates. There is support for x-callback URLs, with many common actions available, as well as some uncommon ones.

  • I liked it enough on trying it out to go ahead and pay for a year of sync (¥1,600) up-front when I could have just gone the cheap route of a monthly plan, just because I want to encourage Shiny Frog to keep developing it.

Bad:

  • No Dropbox sync. You can import everything from Dropbox, and then it syncs with Bear on iPhone, iPad, or Mac automatically through iCloud, with no need for signing in, exchanging tokens, etc. But once it’s in, you have to export to get it out again. It’s a one-way process; no editing files in-place with different apps from then on.

  • Bear hides links, as does Ulysses. I prefer Bear’s implementation for editing links because it provides a better tap target and the popover is faster and less intrusive than the whole-screen slide-down Ulysses uses, but I still can’t just glance at a link to see if it goes to an appropriate URL.

  • There’s no footnote support yet. I use footnotes a lot.4

Ulysses

Good:

  • I remember trying a version of this (Ulysses 1.5, I think) on OS X before the iOS App Store existed, back when Open Office was a thing. Because it’s not a new program and has been hammered on by users over the years, most use cases have been tested pretty thoroughly. The new version is a substantial re-write and presumably incorporates what they’ve learned.

  • It’s extensible. There are styles and highlighting themes and ways to import fonts5 for use on iOS, as well as other customizations.

  • It’s powerful. You can define your own markup, publish to various platforms right from the app, organize files, and add non-text elements. There are many x-callback URL actions, and it has an extensive set of keyboard shortcuts for iOS.

Bad:

  • Dropbox support feels like it’s only grudgingly supported. Sync with Dropbox is slow and buggy on iOS. I tried using Ulysses for several non-work writing projects during the 14 day trial period. It sometimes took over 10 minutes for sync changes to propagate to the actual files on Dropbox. This doesn’t take more than a few seconds with any other Dropbox-synced app.

  • It’s slow to start. Editorial takes about 3 seconds to load, and usually the full list of files from Dropbox loads in about the same time — depending on available bandwidth and the number of files that have changed. Search on Editorial is also very quick. Ulysses takes about 8 seconds to load on my iPad, and the list of files pops in over literally minutes. nvALT is lightning-fast compared to Ulysses on macOS.

  • Even after I set it aside to give it time to completely sync all files after authorizing Dropbox access, Ulysses still seems to want to load everything from scratch and becomes extremely unresponsive for several seconds every time I open it.

  • I don’t like some of the additions to the syntax. For example, comments could use Critic Markup syntax or even HTML. Instead, Ulysses used their own markup. Critic Markup is useful across applications, and HTML comment syntax will be hidden on export by default without any application-specific processing needed. Ulysses comment syntax 6 shows up as regular text unless you process the file with Ulysses’ export. So, to make your files Markdown-processor agnostic, you can’t use that syntax, nor several other app-specific additions.

  • I don’t like the hidden links or the interface for editing links. It’s slow and wasteful of interface space. Double-tap. Wait for animation. Edit. Tap to exit. Sigh in frustration as you have to do it again for the next link. I want to be able to determine the link URL at a glance and edit everything directly. That’s one of the reasons I started writing Markdown in the first place; transparency.

In the course of evaluating Ulysses (including using it for early drafts of this piece) I also found something that is truly a deal-breaker: Ulysses automatically moves references to the end of the file and then numbers them in the order they occur. It does the same with footnotes.

Don’t do that. I deliberately name my references in ways that make sense and convey meaning to me. If I don’t include an inline link, I put any references directly after the paragraph while writing a draft. In the course of writing I’ll often insert the Markdown bracket syntax for a link without bothering to actually find a URL at that time. That’s a signal to future-me that I need to find that information, but doesn’t interrupt my writing flow at the time.

In editing read-throughs or my final proofreading pass I’ll fill in the targets for those links. Just before publishing, I will often use one of Brett Terpstra’s Markdown Service Tools to move inline links to reference links at the end of the file, but while I am writing I want the reference to appear in context.

When Ulysses changes those reference links from something like [Ulysses][Ulysses iOS] to a number, based on the order that item occurred in the text, it destroys information and disrupts context. In the example above, the reference text tells me that I need to find a link for the iOS version of the Ulysses app, not the macOS version. This is much easier to understand than [Ulysses][5].

When I encountered this behavior and didn’t find a way to turn it off, this automatic switching of link style and reference re-naming got Ulysses summarily kicked to the curb, despite some other appealing features.

Editorial’s Shortcomings

While it is powerful and customizable, Editorial is not perfect. My wishlist for a new version includes:

  • Settings sync, so that iPad and iPhone versions have the same workflow tools and shortcuts in place, and changes to one propagate to the other.

  • Adoption of the TextBundle spec to simplify the inclusion of images.7

  • More regular updates, including better support for external keyboards — like arrow key navigation of file lists — and iOS 11 improvements.

I can see the appeal of both Bear and Ulysses. They include interesting features that, if I were starting out fresh, without established preferences or workflows, might be enough to give up the flexibility of Markdown-agnostic syntax or Dropbox’s universal access and edit-in-place capability. However, Editorial is still the iOS app I prefer to use for most long-form writing.

Given the amount of use I’ve gotten out of this app over the last few years, along with its stability and robustness, I’m more than willing to throw money at Ole Zorn if he came out with a new version. Even if my wishlist items weren’t included right away, I’d have hope that some similar feature was coming in the future, and honestly at this point I almost feel indebted for the time I’ve used Editorial without paying anything more than the very reasonable purchase price (¥600, about $5).


  1. Well, some flavor of Markdown. Both Ulysses’ Markdown XL (go to the Editor section of the FAQ) and Bear’s Polar Bear add elements to standard Markdown. You can elect to ignore their additions to the syntax, however, as both properly support Gruber’s original Markdown spec.  ↩

  2. Detailed here in a post from a few years ago about my writing workflow. As of this writing, I have over 1,700 notes in that folder, compared to the 500–800 I had when I first started having problems with Simplenote’s sync system.  ↩

  3. Notesy is now, unfortunately, completely defunct. The old website, http://notesy.net is no longer in service.  ↩

  4. Even though this meta-footnote was the second footnote in an early draft, I’m dead certain it will not be the second in that order by the time I publish, nor will it be the last footnote. Edit: Oh, look, there are 3 4 5 6 7 footnotes now.  ↩

  5. Look in the FAQ under iOS Editor → How do I add fonts to the app?  ↩

  6. Since I don’t have Ulysses installed anymore, finding a useful reference for the comment syntax was unexpectedly difficult. Apparently, there’s no comprehensive Markdown XL reference guide outside the Ulysses app itself. You have to dig through the FAQs or the blog posts to find references.  ↩

  7. Including inline images in Editorial is possible using standard Markdown syntax. Gabe Weatherhead wrote a post about the iOS tools he uses to make “rich plain text notes” with Workflow and Editorial’s macro tools.  ↩