If you’re like me, you’ve been writing for a long time and have probably tried all manner of writing apps.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the fanciest, or most expensive, or the one with the most features, because if you’ll use it… then it’s the best for you.
With this in mind, here are three writing applications that I’ve used for extended periods of time and can recommend to anyone still trying to find an app they can happily use.
First off the block is the writing app that I love the most. Of all the applications that I’ve used in the past, Ulysses takes the cake.
There are numerous reasons why Ulysses is my writing application of choice and I could spend an age talking about it. So instead I’ll just run through some of the features that I find the most helpful.
Like the other offerings on this list, the paramount reason here is the distraction-free mode. I find that a distraction free writing/editing environment is essential to getting actual work done.
I’m one for being interrupted by the world around me, so being able to shut out all the other elements my MacBook provides to me is a must.
Ulysses is a joy to use, easy to pick up, and doesn’t get in your way. Yes you could spend a few hours learning how to configure and fine tune each element of Ulysses, but you don’t need to. You open the app, connect it to iCloud, start a new sheet, and get to writing.
Speaking of iCloud, Ulysses uses CloudKit to keep all your information safe and syncs seamlessly between your other devices. I personally use Ulysses at work on an iMac, home on my MacBook Pro, and on the go on my iPad and it hasn’t missed a beat yet.
Stats, oh my lord, stats. It seems like such a no brainer to have good statistics baked into your writing applications but for some reason a lot of writing apps, even relatively expensive ones, seem to miss the point on the quality of statistics a writer craves.
This could be a symptom of developers of software who don’t often write themselves.
Ulysses has you covered in several different ways, you can get overall statistics for each of your sheets, collectively across multiple sheets, and even set word limits and target goals for you to strive to.
It’s this simple, yet powerful group of statistics available that allows me to achieve a higher word count every time.
One of the best features I find though is the freedom you have when using a plain text editor and Ulysses goes even further. The app allows you to get your hands dirty and monkey around in the theme code for both its writing environment, and the different types of documents you can output.
To begin with there are a plethora of themes and styles available over on the Ulysses Style Exchange which has a very active community that uploads new styles and themes for you to download for free and apply to Ulysses.
From there you can open each style or theme in your favourite code editor (Mine is Visual Studio Code) and edit the properties to your hearts content using the Ulysses Styles Reference to help you make changes.
Exporting is a crucial step it gets right. It’s not limited to simple plain text markdown, or rendered PDF export. Ulysses offers Text, HTML, PDF, ePub, DOCX, and publishing to WordPress, and Medium as options for you to export your work. Each of the export options (except for direct-to-platform publishing) is where your downloaded styles shine.
Giving you the flexibility to export with an existing style, hack a style to suit your needs, or create a unique style from the ground up means you can output beautiful writing, no matter your needs.
Personally I use Ulysses for many different types of writing, for fiction (obviously), articles (like this one), business, and technical, and Ulysses allows me to do it all in one place without needing to switch through multiple applications.
As you can see I have a lot of reasons to love Ulysses. I take my hat off to the developers and support team as they have crafted a truly fantastic application I use every single day.
BEST. WRITING APP. EVER.
iA Writer is a close favourite, and is the app I left behind when I switched over to using Ulysses.
Unlike Ulysses, iA Writer leaves all customisation at the gate. Which in itself is a blessing. I cannot count the amount of time I’ve spent sitting in front of my computer without actually writing anything, instead trying to tweak my chosen writing application to be *exactly* what I wanted.
Rather than just getting on with writing, I’d change the colour, the theme, the choice of font, and where I couldn’t customise it would become a bugbear to focus on.
iA Writer is like a breath of fresh air. It opens to a crisp white page and blinking cursor, much like other plain text editors. Other than simple changes like enabling Night-Mode to darken the editor and the size of your on-screen text, you really can’t customise the experience too much, can’t even change the font.
With the customisation options removed, it immediately lets you put configuration aside and get onto the thing you purchased the app for in the first place… actually writing.
But don’t let its simplistic interface fool you. There are plenty of features in iA Writer that beat out its competition, including a few that I wish Ulysses also had baked in.
One of the most obvious of these features is the ability to have iA Writer analyse your writing and colour the text you’ve written to indicate the syntax of words you’ve written.
The options here are to highlight adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs, and conjunctions. Depending on what school of thought you adhere to, this gives you the ability to quickly scan your text and correct contractions, eliminate those pesky adverbs, and obliterate adjectives from high orbit with a nuclear-powered laser.
This in turn means you can detect issues with your writing faster, and strengthen your overall writing.
I find that this feature is very, very useful… but it also drops me into editing mode and to constantly perfect the words I’ve written, which doesn’t help word count at all.
The other feature that I also wish Ulysses had was the ability to use MultiMarkDown, specifically working with metadata. To those who aren’t familiar with this feature it allows you to write a small amount of text, such as:
Which is incredibly handy when you are writing correspondence, business documents, or even in prose when you haven’t figured out a character or place name and want to quickly alter your story elements.
iA Writer also uses iCloud, but rather than syncing with CloudKit, your writing occupies a set of folders in iCloud, which leaves your documents still very accessible to be used with other Markdown applications and publishing methods.
The iOS applications on both iPhone and iPad are just as functional as the desktop app for writing on the go, and are both great to use when you have that quick thought on a train, or away from your regular writing machine.
Like Ulysses, you can also add iA Writer to other folders outside of iCloud, etc. and you can also connect to both WordPress and Medium to publish right from iA Writer.
Personally, if Ulysses didn’t exist, I’d still be using iA Writer as my primary writing app. I still use iA Writer when I need to use metadata features of MultiMarkDown and writing some technical documents.
If you’re looking to try out a new writing app with cross-platform features that won’t break your budget the give iA Writer a try, I thoroughly recommend it.
When distraction-free text editors became popular there were (and still are) a tonne of options, and could be excused for confusion on which option to take.
Being a forever digital nomad, FocusWriter is the app I left behind for iA Writer when I switched platforms from Windows / Linux to Mac.
After being enamoured by WriteRoom for Mac, my initial search for a distraction-free platform for Windows (my then platform) lead me to many other offerings, Q10, DarkRoom, WriteMonkey, and a host of others. Eventually I came across a fledgling piece of software by a coder named Graeme Gott called FocusWriter.
FocusWriter is a feature-full application that stacks up against other offerings quite well. You can theme almost any part of the application, font, colours, background image, and you can spend quite an amount of time configuring it to your specifications.
It also includes the ability to use multiple dictionaries that are compatible with LibreOffice dictionaries, so if you write in a language other than English then you are fully catered for.
There are a couple of downsides to FocusWriter, its default file format is basic Rich Text Format (RTF). While RTF is functional as a file format, if you work with other applications to edit or publish your writing this can be a pain.
It also supports Text File Format (TXT), which is better for portability and re-usability. You can also save your files in OpenDocument Text if you also use LibreOffice or other compatible software to write, edit and publish.
The biggest downside is its inability to work with Markdown (MD) files. Yes you can still write Markdown in FocusWriter, but it won’t process Markdown syntax and you’ll need to change the file extension if you want to use the de facto MD file extension.
As an excellent plain-text writing environment, its disappointing that FocusWriter doesn’t support such a popular formatting syntax.
As cross-platform apps go, FocusWriter has desktops in the bag as its available on most OS environments and because its compelled from a common code-base it has feature parity across its different flavours.
If you’re looking for a distraction-free writing application that is robust with well thought out features (even if it doesn’t support Markdown), and caters to your wallet (being essentially free), then you’d be hard-pressed to find a better application better than FocusWriter.
Also published on Medium.
Tim is a Copywriter & Brand Storyteller from Bendigo, Central Victoria. He has been designing and developing both written and motion digital content on the web for over 15 years.