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.  ↩

Serendipity

Serendipity is virtually absent in online discovery. We have an unprecedented level of access to information, but because of the sheer volume of it, discovery relies on search algorithms, or directed browsing — which is really just algorithms with a false-front. With Facebook and Twitter, your peer groups serve as a filter and serve up information that is (sometimes) suited to your interests…but only if you’ve picked the right friends.

One interesting experience back in the dark ages of the 80s and 90s used to be going to a local video store, which usually had an idiosyncratic stock of videos since they were mostly privately owned, not chain stores. Before the Blockbuster model of super-stocking the latest releases while having a very limited back catalog took hold, you could have the experience of browsing the aisles and finding something odd slotted there among more mainstream movies. And you just might take a chance and rent it, and be delighted, or disgusted, or have your mind blown.

For all the talk that Amazon suggestions are bizarre, those suggestions are the result of some correlation between the things that you searched for and things that other people have bought in the past. (It’s probably also cross-referenced with things Amazon would really like to get rid of.) If you’re buying straight-razors and Amazon is giving you suggestions for monster-sized dildos, you might think that it’s pure randomness, but it’s not. Frighteningly enough, there’s some past real-life correlation that the system is using to serve up that recommendation.

What I’d really like online is more randomness. While I do want a search to return a precise focused list of results, while browsing I’d often like to have a more organically semi-organized experience.

For instance, in used book stores, I would often find interesting books by authors I’d never heard of — by authors that sometimes no one I knew had ever heard of — simply because I’d pick up a random book with an interesting cover or intriguing title while walking through the stacks. Serendipity is finding something you immediately love that you never knew existed before then.

Recommendations from people I know rarely convince me to buy a book because my tastes are very different from most other people’s, even if we have read a handful of similar books. But I’ve bought probably hundreds of random finds at a book store.

I most often choose based on both a quick flip-and-read-through of a couple pages at the beginning, and at some spot in the middle of the book, in order to get the flavor of the writing. Because of that, I still find it hard to buy anything by an unknown author online because Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature usually has only the first couple of pages. Beginnings are easier to get right. Sustaining interesting writing even in the middle of a random passage buried in the middle of the book is much harder. I find that I fall into a rut much more easily now, where I buy more things by the same small set of “safe” authors that I know I’ll like because I don’t have a broader more varied mix of things to browse through and choose from.

Randomness doesn’t just help you find books or movies or other entertainment, it helps you solve problems. I’ve taken trips to hardware or hobby stores to find specific materials for some project, only to change my plans because I found a part that would work better than my original conception. That kind of happenstance is much harder to experience online. Most of the time, you either find exactly what you want, or you don’t find anything at all.

How I Write, Updated

It’s been about a year since I posted How I Write, and my workflow has changed a bit. Some of the changes have been due to external forces, others are simply due to writing more often. I’ve posted over 130 entries in the last year, and while that’s not prolific by some standards, it was more than sufficient to make every rough spot apparent.

Tagging

Since I don’t use dedicated blogging software, I do everything through the Finder. I use tags in the content of text files to provide hooks for sorting, searching, and categorizing. Implemented this way, tags are bombproof; unless the file is corrupted to the point where it’s inaccessible, you can read the tags. It also makes it easy for Spotlight to find something even if you haven’t used OpenMeta tags or the new Mavericks tagging implementation. While I don’t use Windows at all, this would also have the benefit of working cross-platform.

I have made heavy use of Spotlight comments in the past, and later OpenMeta tags. It’s immensely easier to find information if I can type something like “kind:bookmark bone density” into Spotlight, or use a tag browser to home in on what I’m looking for than it would be to browse through dozens or hundreds of nested folders to find all of the files in various formats (bookmarks, PDFs, etc.) that I’ve saved on a subject.

Hazel

I use Hazel to move and sort files based on simple rules. When I publish a blog entry, for example, I enter a “published” tag at the bottom of the text file, Hazel grabs it from my Notes folder and files it under Blog > Published, and then further auto-organizes by year and month subfolders. This provides a very simple but robust organization as a backup to search. As I wrote about several years ago I’ve long since stopped spending a lot of time organizing my files, and instead rely almost exclusively on search.

Hazel is a way to automate the minimal remaining organizational structure I do want to implement. It works with OpenMeta or Mavericks metadata tags too, in addition to (or instead of) file contents. Like I said in that earlier piece, handling tedious repetitive tasks is what computers are meant to do. Hazel is the best tool I’ve found to date for automating filing and hierarchical systems, with minimal attention after setup.

Drafts

At first, I resisted using Drafts because it seemed too fiddly. When Merlin Mann talked about it on an episode of Back to Work and again on Mac Power Users. He introduced some interactions that sounded interesting, but possibly more trouble than they were worth. I installed Drafts just to check it out, but barely touched it for months afterward.

Two things made me switch to using Drafts almost exclusively. I started using TextExpander, both on my iPhone and on OS X. Simplenote relaunched their app in September 2013, and made some significant changes, one of which was suddenly eliminating support for TextExpander. I liked the cosmetic changes in Simplenote quite a bit. The Simperium syncing backend seemed to have been improved as well but — primarily because of the lack of TextExpander integration — I decided to take another look at alternatives.

Notesy was one possibility. I had already been using it in parallel with Simplenote for Markdown previews and was experimenting with using it for longer writing. One of the things I like about it is having feedback as to which files have been synced to Dropbox. While Simperium’s syncing generally just worked, there had been a few hiccups (detailed in last-year’s post) that made me leery of trusting it too much. There’s also no feedback; you either see the changes, or you don’t, and there’s no progress indication of any kind.

One thing I don’t like about Notesy is the need to generate a title before you can do anything else. Simplenote just grabs the first line of a note to use as the title, which fits very well with how I want to interact with a note-taking app. Notesy has that slight friction and interruption of my thoughts that made me take another look at Drafts.

Drafts, like Simplenote, uses the first line of a note as the file name. It launches in roughly half the time of Notesy, a couple of seconds faster than even Simplenote, and auto-creates a new note on launch. Both of the other apps require an interaction to create a new note. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Notesy and Simplenote have to balance note reading with note writing because they are general-use note-taking apps. Drafts is more streamlined because it is narrowly focused on capturing and processing text.

Of course Drafts supports TextExpander. When Apple brought down the boom on the slightly hacky way Smile had leveraged Reminders to make snippets available in iOS, Drafts was one of the first note-taking apps to update its integration, and in fact the developer has been consistently aggressive in updating and developing Drafts. Notesy took until 2.5.2, released just a few days ago, to restore TextExpander support. Notesy is still a great app, but development has slowed significantly.

(My fallback if Notesy stops working well is Byword, but Byword is more suited to longer-form writing and final drafts than note-taking. It is beautifully designed and well-suited to writing in Markdown, however. The way it deemphasizes the markup characters, which lets you focus more on your words, is especially nice. It also has continuing support for TextExpander.)

Besides TextExpander support, launch speed, and frictionless note creation, Drafts lets you perform a metric assload of actions with your text. This is what Merlin Mann was talking about, and why I initially thought it would have a huge learning curve. You can go way down the rabbit hole if you want to, but I use just a few regularly.

Anything you enter into a Draft can be sent to a number of other applications and/or manipulated. Notes I write in Drafts get sent to Notesy, if I’m going to be writing in Markdown, or Simplenote if it’s just a memo or thought. Drafts auto-generates a title for Notesy based on the first line of the note, which eliminates that friction.

The single action that I use the most often, besides sending a note to another app, is a modified “Prepend to Dropbox” action that I use for capturing links. I copy the URL, open Drafts, use a TextExpander snippet to paste it and wrap it with Markdown link formatting, type in a description of what the link is, and trigger the action. I based the action on the included Drafts action, and modified it to include a timestamp and divider so that when I view my Links file in a Markdown preview, I see a nice list of timestamped headings, tappable links with meaningful titles, whatever notes I made, and a divider line between entries.

TextExpander

My use of TextExpander has gradually expanded (no pun intended) over time. I’ve started using it for code snippets as well as tagging. The good and bad thing about using a macro program is that you quickly become dependent on it. While most of the things I use TextExpander for are short (like expanding “TE” into “TextExpander”) not having it available causes constant minor irritation since I have to peck out tags and other content in long form instead of using one of my short triggers. Lack of support of TextExpander in an iOS note-taking app has become a deal breaker for me.

Markdown

I use Markdown as the starting point for nearly everything I write now, including most of my work documents. I export to RTF or other formats as needed, usually using the newest version of Marked. If I have to lay out a document with more control, I copy text into Pages and do the formatting there, but notes and draft text start in nvALT. I could technically use CSS to do layout and formatting, but I haven’t learned enough CSS yet to do all of the things I want.

You can use HTML alongside Markdown. Gruber writes for the web almost exclusively, and so reserves underlines in his mind for links. He has no markup for underlines in Markdown. For work printed on dead tree carcasses, it’s occasionally necessary to use underlining, so I added a TextExpander snippet for underline formatting. I also started adding HTML comment blocks to hide tags in preview mode, which makes me contemplate switching my tag delimiter character back to # from @. Hashtags are used as one of the two methods of marking up header text in Markdown, which is why I switched characters initially.

Squarespace

This blog is hosted on Squarespace. On the whole, I like it better than my previous WordPress one, but there are some aggravations:

Poor Content Management

If I want to link to a past entry, I often do a site search instead of going through the content manager, but that doesn’t work for edits. In the posts view on Squarespace, you can only see 10 entries at a time. It takes forever to find a past article and update or change it. This is one place where WordPress’s uglier and clunkier interface is actually superior for most use cases.

No Offline Mode or Editor API

There is no integration with MarsEdit or other blogging software in Squarespace 6. When I started writing more, I realized the limitations and frustrations of having to do everything through a web interface, and started looking at editors. Squarespace 5 used to support MarsEdit and other offline editors through an API. Support for that API doesn’t appear to be secure even in Squarespace 5.

Squarespace’s editing interface is generally well-designed and stable, but not ideal. The current post editor doesn’t make links or formatting stand out well; it’s a lighter gray than the gray body text, which doesn’t provide nearly enough contrast to distinguish links from other content. Image blocks work better than they used to, though. It used to be more difficult to lay out a page with images smaller than full page-width in the older version, and you couldn’t do it in the editor view at all before.

Limited Markdown Support

Markdown is supported, but it’s plain standard Markdown. Features like footnotes, made possible and easy in MultiMarkdown, aren’t supported. Neither is SmartyPants. I’ve fallen back to copying the HTML source from nvALT’s preview instead of pasting Markdown text because I want proper typographical marks, and I’ve often found a need for footnotes as well.

Some Simple Things Are Difficult

This is probably more reflective of my shortcomings as a coder than of Squarespace itself, but two features that I would like to implement are pop-up footnotes, like those on Marco Arment’s site or Lukas Mathis’. Mathis also has details on his implementation method, but I haven’t been able to get it working on Squarespace. I’ve used a Safari plugin called Footnotify for years that presents footnotes in-place. I think it’s the way footnotes should be done, and since I’m an opinionated bastard, I want to do it right on my site. [Update 2014–03–19: I’ve since been able to get this working due to a post by Sid O’Neill. Many thanks, Sid!]

The other feature I would like to is to provide a permalink next to the post headline. Right now, I’ve got a permalink code block working in the post footer, but I’ve found no way to inject the necessary code to place it immediately after the heading link. This style is nearly universal for linklist-type posts on blogs, and I wonder why it’s not a standard option.

Finally (!)

I write these posts about my workflow to share some of the things I’ve found either useful or difficult. When I run into a problem, or want to know how to better utilize a new tool, I’ve found material like this very helpful.

When I was running into syncing problems in Simplenote, I found the lengthy posts of Michael Schechter and Shawn Blanc to be helpful for tweaks to my revised setup, and their thoughts provided reinforcement for my decisions. If like-minded borderline-obsessives agreed substantially with my assessments, then I must be doing something right.

Dr. Drang is about 1.22x109 times geekier than I am, so I can’t use everything I read in his posts, but they make interesting and informative reading. Brett Terpstra is similarly geekily useful. Because of his writing on tagging, I explored using Tags and Default Folder X again, both of which I had played with but not fully appreciated earlier. Yuvi Zalkow put together a video on Scrivener that, last year, helped me get a handle on more of the advanced features of Scrivener.

Some people find fellow paraphiliacs and enablers online. I’ve found other people who share my enthusiasm for finding the best, most efficient, and elegant ways of doing things, and who want to write about it. Hopefully something in this post has helped you in some way.

How I Write

If you’ve read my past blog posts, you know that I’ve complained (and moaned, and whined, and sometimes even whinged) about long work hours and working 6 days a week. I’ve also got a kid and a wife who I’d really like to spend time with. My update schedule is not particularly rigorous, but I do manage to post occasionally. I would never be able to write anything at all if I didn’t use the little time I have in between other responsibilities as efficiently as possible

These are the main tools I use for writing:

  • Simplenote
  • nvALT
  • Markdown

Simplenote

Simplenote is an iOS app and also a syncing service. I originally started using it because the Apple iOS Notes app was both ugly and clumsy. I got an iPhone 3GS when the only way to sync notes with Apple’s Notes iOS app was to email them. That’s probably less of a problem now with iCloud, but at the time iCloud wasn’t even a twinkle in MobileME’s eye. The legal pad theme with unchangeable Marker Felt font made for a really horrible user experience. It wasn’t good even for short-form notes, and longer sections of text were rendered virtually unreadable.

Simplenote, in contrast, is an app with very lightweight design. It features a plain white background with Helvetica type. It makes note creation absolutely painless because you just start writing; Simplenote uses the first line of your note as the title. It may seem silly, but that one little feature is the main reason I haven’t switched away from Simplenote. Note creation was so frictionless that I had dozens of notes within just a few days of installing Simplenote. Compare this to a handful in Apple’s Notes app after months of having an iPhone.

Apps like Notesy and Byword have some features to recommend them, but because of the ease of note creation in Simplenote, I haven’t switched to using either of those full time. Notesy is my second-choice app, and if you’re dedicated to Dropbox syncing, would be my top suggestion as the best text iOS app for an iPhone. Byword is great on an iPad, but doesn’t feel quite as good on the iPhone’s smaller screen.

nvALT

One of the points of installing Simplenote was the sync support. While you probably can write long-form articles on an iPhone, it’s far from ideal. I really wanted to be able to view and edit my notes on my Mac too. From the Simplenote website, I picked the desktop app that most people seemed to like using: Notational Velocity.

NV has a really different paradigm for note creation than most applications: you just start typing. The top entry field works both as a search and a note creation function. As you type, it culls the list of notes in the lower pane based on the words you type. If you enter a unique string, there’s your title. Hit enter, and the note file is created automatically. The note body is in the lower pane.

Once I’d used it a bit I realized that this method of note creation was really, really fast and easy. It now seems odd that I have to separately enter a title for a file in other programs instead of having one automagically created for me. You don’t explicitly save either; Notational Velocity always autosaves on exiting a note. Sync is seamless and usually propagates to other devices in a matter of seconds.

I used Notational Velocity for a few months before I found nvALT, which is a fork of Notational Velocity. I immediately liked it a bit better than the original Notational Velocity due to some interface tweaks. nvALT also has MultiMarkdown support including autocompletion features, which I found useful later when I started using Markdown. A preview window allows you to see the results of your markup side by side with the plain text original. You can even make your own custom CSS file if you’re really particular about seeing exactly what the finished product should look like. You can view and save the HTML generated from Markdown from the preview window.

nvALT syncs through Simplenote by default, but you can sync through Dropbox instead of or in addition to Simplenote’s API. This is useful for those iOS apps that don’t support Simplenote sync. I use nvALT more often than any other piece of software on my computer besides Safari.

Simplenote and nvALT are the linchpin of my writing workflow. Simplenote lets me capture ideas whenever I have them, and nvALT lets me work on them when I get a chance to expand on those ideas, check my markup, and painlessly generate HTML for web publishing on any platform.

By default, both NV and nvALT store notes in a database file, but there is support for storing notes as individual RTF or TXT files. Back in college, I got burned by the incompatible format problem. I had half my life in WordPerfect and MS Works files, both of which became imperfectly readable as newer software came out. I ended up having to convert a bunch of files and clean up conversion errors by hand. After that, I decided to stick with plain text instead, and no proprietary databases whenever possible.

For future-proofing, so that I can use Spotlight to search my notes, and so that Dropbox syncs are faster and more granular, I store my notes in TXT format. My setup is basically the same as A Better Mess’s recommendations for working in plain text files with nvALT.

Markdown / MultiMarkdown

So, I’ve mentioned Markdown a few times. What is Markdown? If you’re any kind of ’net geek, you probably know already. For anyone “normal” who actually got this far (close to 1,000 words of geekiness) into this post, Markdown is John Gruber’s1 markup language, created specifically for writing on the web. It’s a subset of the things you can do with HTML, and has deliberately been kept simple. MultiMarkdown by Fletcher Penney is a slightly expanded version of Gruber’s original that makes it viable for more complicated writing tasks. Output from MultiMarkdown (MMD) can be HTML, PDF, LaTeX, and through scripting damn near any other text file format.

I only use a few of the things MMD is capable of, but I learn more about it all the time as I run into situations where I want to use more complicated formatting. It’s extremely useful since it’s much more succinct and easier to use than HTML, and it’s far more readable.

Other Tools

  • Dropbox
  • Notesy
  • TextExpander
  • Scrivener

Dropbox is not completely essential to the way I write, but it’s very useful. If I were doing my finishing work on an iPad instead of a MacBook Pro, I’d probably share the experience of many other people who find that Dropbox is the linchpin for their entire workflow. What I do use Dropbox for is syncing everything else that doesn’t go through Simplenote, and for redundant syncing. While Simplenote’s sync works well most of the time, there have been at least two occasions when the app locked up and became unusable when I had a lot of notes — somewhere between 500 and 800 when I had that problem. I’m not sure if the cause was a syncing backend issue, or the sheer number of notes, but I’ve since culled my pile ‘o’ notes and haven’t had the same problem.

Shawn Blanc experienced the same kind of syncing problems. Like him, the occasional wonky sync led me to look for Simplenote alternatives — the best of which for my usage patterns is Notesy, which doesn’t use Simplenote sync. My nvALT setup syncs to both Simplenote and Dropbox, so I can access my text files in any text editing app, and it also gives me a secondary backup. I use Notesy for some final editing and writing when I don’t have access to a full computer. It has Markdown support (which is oddly not available in Simplenote’s iOS client, but is supported in the web client) so I can check to see that my markup works properly before I commit to posting.

I also use Dropbox to sync TextExpander snippets across both OS X and iOS platforms. I came to TE late in the game, only having installed it in the last few months, but I do find it useful for some tasks, especially for typing common things on my iPhone. I use it mostly for tagging, and some markup and formatting tasks that are more painful on a small keyboard. One extremely useful element is that it can reposition the cursor after expanding a snippet, which is much nicer than the (probably unavoidably) fiddly magnifying glass interface in iOS. In addition to my own snippets, I’ve found Brett Terpstra’s iOS Markdown snippets to be useful.

In the past I used Scrivener for my blog posts, which is an excellent writing tool, but I found it is a bit too heavyweight for the shorter length of blog writing. I’m currently using it for working on several articles meant for magazine / online periodical publication and an outline for a book. If you do any long-form writing, it’s fantastic.

I’ve probably barely even scratched the surface of what it can do, but here are some features I’ve found useful: Scrivener can sync through Dropbox or Simplenote. It supports MultiMarkdown and — via MMD — LaTeX. A Scrivener file is a package, and there are no proprietary formats for the content inside that package. Text is stored as RTF by default, but you can store in plain TXT files instead. It can read OPML files, which most brainstorming / mind mapping programs either use or can export to, so you can automatically create an outline for writing from a file you created in something like MindNode Pro that lets you access radiant / gestalt thinking more easily to spark creativity.

You can work on your document in many small chunks, each stored as a separate text file, and compile them together into one large document at the end, processing text with a variety of scripts to generate just about any kind of text file, including Final Draft, Word .doc files, PDF, and ebook formats, among many other possibilities. For any kind of long-form writing, especially fiction, it’s an extremely useful application.


  1. John Gruber writes Daring Fireball, a site you might have heard of.  ↩