Whether you are tentatively planning your first ever blog post or are a best-selling novelist working on your latest blockbuster, there are plenty of apps out there designed for writers. But as writers are sometimes known for their procrastination techniques, and choosing the right app could be the excuse for putting off work on your Great American Novel for several days, we thought it would be helpful to provide a few pointers.
All of the apps featured are available for both Mac and iOS, as I feel it’s important that you can work on the move as well as at a desk. In my comments, though, I’m focusing on the Mac versions as that’s the platform on which most people are likely to do the bulk of their writing.
The obvious starting point, of course, is the app Apple gives you for free: Pages. In fact, some might question why you would ever need anything else, so let’s start with this before considering some of the alternatives …
Pages is a deceptively powerful app on both platforms with a superbly-designed user-interface. That’s because the app is intended to look simple and non-intimidating to new users, while offering plenty of features under the hood for power users. It achieves this by keeping the bells and whistles tucked away out of sight until you need them.
For example, create a new blank document and you’ll see a pretty clean view (below). By default, none of the formatting or page setup features are shown, just a single row of buttons with largely intuitive functions.
But as soon as you want to apply formatting, for example, clicking the Format button opens up a column offering everything from bold and italics through line-spacing, justification, indents, bullets, links, columns and borders – through to more advanced features like widow & orphan control (ensuring that a single word or line from a paragraph doesn’t end up on a new page). If you want to add tables, illustrations or photos, you can.
Pages uses iCloud by default, so you can create a document on your Mac, continue writing it on your iPad and add the finishing touches on your iPhone. That functionality is baked right in, so you don’t need to do anything special to take advantage of it.
If you’re writing for publication, you can export your manuscript to Word to send it to agents and publishers, or choose ePub to turn it into an iBook. Pages doesn’t, though, support other ebook formats like Kindle’s .mobi – which is one of several reasons I recommend using a more sophisticated app for a novel. But if you’re writing shorter pieces, and want to get to work straight away, Pages is a solid choice.
If you’re one of those people who seems to spend more time choosing your typeface and tweaking app settings than you do actually writing, iA Writer may be your saviour. The app has a super-minimalist UI designed to give a typewriter-style feel.
While you are actually typing, everything else disappears from the screen. No toolbar, no status bar, not even the header strip with close, minimize and maximize buttons. All you see is your virtual sheet of paper and your words.
If you want an even more typewriter-like feel, you can select typewriter mode, in which the text you’re typing stays centred on the virtual page and previous text scrolls upwards. This mode has an additional feature designed specifically for those writers who can’t resist going back to rewrite the paragraph they’ve just finished: text grays out as it scrolls up and away. I know some writers for whom this would be a godsend!
The minimalism of iA Writer continues under the hood: the file format is plain text, and the default location to save files is on iCloud. There are no decisions to make unless you specifically want to store the file elsewhere.
If you love the approach but can’t bring yourself to part with basic formatting, like italics, iA Writer supports Markdown. This allows codes to be used to indicate things like **bold** and *italics* while retaining a plain text format. If you’re not comfortable with Markdown, you do have the option of using the usual CMD-B and CMD-I keyboard shortcuts, and you can also select formatting from a status bar that appears when you mouseover the bottom of the page. (The top bar, too, appears only when you mouseover it.) However, the plain text format means that your Markdown codes will be visible.
The status bar additionally holds a wordcount, that you can change to characters, sentences or read-time.
Markdown supports HTML-style structures, so you also have the option of using things like multi-level headers, bullet-points and so on – with sensible keyboard shortcuts for each – but these are all tucked away out of sight.
By default, you see only the document on which you’re working, but you can show a sidebar with other documents if you need to switch back and forth between them – for example, between different chapters of a novel. But really iA Writer is all about that single-page view, with no distractions in sight.
In my view, if you aren’t writing things with complex structures or which require lots of formatting, and you are easily distracted, then iA Writer is the perfect writing app. It’s you, the words and very little else.
If you like the core idea of iA Writer but are working on more complex documents or are someone who likes to see an overview of their work – such as a series of novels – then Ulysses is well worth a look. This is essentially a more sophisticated version of iA Writer with a significantly steeper price: $24.99 on iOS and $44.99 on Mac.
Like iA Writer, it is essentially based on plain text with Markdown – though it actually uses a proprietary file format – and offers many of the same features. It has typewriter mode, for example, but in a more configurable form. For example, you can decide whether or not you want the previous text to gray-out. If you do want this, you can choose between having the current line, sentence or paragraph highlighted. And so on.
That proprietary file format isn’t a big deal, by the way, as Ulysses allows you to export your work to HTML, docx (for compatibility with Word and Pages), PDF and ePub.
Ulysses offers three different views when writing. In the screenshot at the top, I have all three panes showing: Library, Sheets and Editor. You can see under iCloud, I have two different books listed, and I’m editing book 1, 2184. Pane 2 shows two chapters of that book, while pane shows the chapter I’m working on. But switching panes on or off is as simple as CMD-1, -2 or -3. This makes it really easy to jump between different chapters or sections while still retaining a clean, uncluttered view while actually writing.
The app can do pretty much everything iA Writer can do, so I won’t repeat features here, but it offers a lot more configurability. Whether this is a good or bad thing, of course, depends on your viewpoint!
For example, Ulysses supports multiple versions of Markdown, so if you have a preferred one, you can either select it from the choices offered – or even configure your own. If you choose one of the standard Markdown versions, you can customize it. For example, a hash mark (#) is the standard way to indicate heading level 1, but if you want to use a different character instead, you can.
You can also use various different themes and templates.
Ulysses automatically creates versioned backups of your work: hourly for the last 12 hours, daily for the last seven days and weekly for the past six months. This could be a life-saver if you do something silly like delete a chapter of your novel after deciding against it, then realizing that it would be the perfect event to happen later in the story.
If you are writing for a WordPress or Medium blog, Ulysses can be configured to allow direct publishing in either or both.
You can set wordcount goals and be notified when you hit them – something I find really useful when working on a novel and setting myself a goal of 2000 words per writing session. You can also tag text with keywords, enabling you to search for them later, as well as attaching notes or images.
In short, Ulysses is the app you want if you like the ‘text with markup’ philosophy of iA Writer but are working on more complex documents or want greater customization options.
I’ve saved my favorite writing app for last! I’ve written two technothriller novels (11/9 and The Billion Dollar Heist), a rom-com (not yet available in ebook form), a travel guide and – most recently – the first two books in an SF novella series, 2184 (which will be free next week) and Replicate. All of these were written in Scrivener, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t even consider writing a novel in anything else.
To me, Scrivener is the app that does it all. Want an iA Writer-like distraction-free interface? Scrivener can do that. I have my Composition Mode set to white paper on a black background.
But the beauty of Scrivener is it can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Here are all the available preferences for this mode.
As you can see, you can set foreground color, background color, left & right margins, choose the type of scrolling (normal, typewriter, with or without fading) and more.
The configurability of Scrivener is unmatched by anything else I’ve ever seen. I consider myself a power user of the app, but I doubt that even I have ever delved into more than about 10% of the available settings.
One of the things I love about Scrivener is that it’s as useful for planning and editing as it is for writing. For example, when planning a novel, the app offers a corkboard view. You can write notes on virtual index cards, rearrange the cards, stack them, unstack them and so on until you have a plan.
By default, the corkboard looks like one, with a texture background and lined cards. I’m not a fan of either, but Scrivener’s famed configurability comes to the rescue and with a few clicks I have plain white cards on a plain grey background.
Once you’re ready to begin writing, those corkboard cards can be viewed as binder entries:
Again, I’ve changed the default appearance. I use color-coding to indicate the status of each chapter: green for written, orange for in progress, yellow for planned but not written, white for not planned and red for a problem I need to resolve or research I need to conduct. Once I’ve completed the first draft, I set everything back to yellow and then use the colors to indicate editing status.
You can also assign keywords to do things like bring up all the chapters in which a particular character is present, or which takes place at a particular location.
My technothrillers have multiple viewpoints, and I switch rapidly back-and-forth between them. Each time I switch viewpoint, I need to be able to see exactly where I left things. Scrivener makes it simple to do so, either clicking back and forth in the binder, or placing two chapters or sections side-by-side. Or one above the other. Or one free-floating. Again, customization options for the win.
Like Ulysses, Scrivener allows me to set wordcount targets – and it will by now come as no surprise to learn that these can be as simple or as complex as you like. Want a wordcount target for your current session? Go ahead. Want to complete your novel by 26th of April, writing on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons? Give Scrivener your target wordcount and it will automatically calculate targets for each writing session, adjusting them as required.
Need to refer to reference materials while you’re writing? You can have free-floating documents off to the side as you right. Same with graphics, be it a blueprint or a photo you’ve downloaded as inspiration for a character.
Researching things on the web? You can save offline copies of webpages and have them to hand as you write.
Oh, and don’t look for a Save button in Scrivener. The app does allow you to do a CMD-S just to make you feel happy, but by default it automatically saves your work each time you pause in your typing, and it also automatically creates versioned backups.
Once your manuscript is finally complete, Scrivener can output to just about every file format imaginable – including ebooks. Again, you can choose between the simplicity of output templates, or an insane degree of configurable options.
Check out the full reviews of Mac and iOS versions for more. But if you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the apps available to you and just want a single recommendation, mine would be: buy Scrivener.
If you have your own favorite writing apps, do share them in the comments.