Every writer knows the feeling: you’ve just sat down at the keyboard, ready to write your next masterpiece. Suddenly, your mind goes blank. What seemed like the perfect idea late last night now seems impossible to put into words. Or perhaps you have no ideas at all and you wonder how you’ve ever managed to write anything. Unfortunately, your iOS device can’t write your articles, essays, stories or blog posts for you, but combined with a bluetooth keyboard it can make your writing life a little easier.
The app store offers a range of writing apps, from basic note takers to more complex word processors, each with its own unique feature set. Some, such as Apple Pages and Microsoft Word, allow you to format your text as you write. I prefer to use Markdown, a set of characters for formatting plain text. If you are unfamiliar with Markdown, you can learn more about it by reading the documentation here. The advantage of this method is that you don’t need to worry about selecting the text, finding the formatting controls in your app of choice, and then wondering whether the style has been applied correctly. Instead, once you’ve learned the code, which is easier to learn and use than HTML, you can type in a few characters whenever you need to format some text. You can, of course, use HTML tags if you prefer.
Most iOS text editors support Markdown, and can convert it to formats such as HTML, but I want to highlight two apps in particular. Drafts is one of my most frequently used apps, and I keep it in my dock so I can access it quickly. When launched, it presents you with a blank document or “draft”, so you can start typing as soon as you open it. It works very well as a basic note taker, for those times when you want to write down that idea or bit of information before you forget it, and it’s easy to use for that purpose. But it also has powerful automation features. If you’ve used Workflow, “Actions” in drafts are similar. It doesn’t allow folders or sync with dropbox, but you can set it up to put your text exactly where you want it. If you have a text file in Dropbox that you use as a journal, for example, you can set up an action to append your current text to that file, with the date at the top. It can send your text to multiple places at once, for example, posting to your blog or a social network and making an archive of your post in Dropbox or iCloud.
Drafts is good for taking quick notes and storing temporary pieces of text, but for sustained work on multiple projects I want an app that can use multiple folders and sync to dropbox, so I know my work is safely backed up and accessible on other devices. For that, I use Notebooks. Despite the name, this app is not just a note taker. It can write plain text or HTML documents, in as many “books” or folders as you need, and can sync it all to Dropbox. It has some useful keyboard shortcuts for use when editing, for inserting markdown characters and date and time stamps. When you’ve finished writing, you can convert your document to HTML or PDF, or put all the notes from one book or folder together into a single ebook. As well as being a very capable text editor, it can display most types of files, save web pages, has task management features and can even act as a basic voice recorder.
I like these two apps because both are easy to use, but have a lot of functionality; the extra features are there when you need them, but won’t get in your way if you just want to use them for basic text editing tasks. Together, they make a convenient system for me.
Other Apps to Try
While I thoroughly recommend the above two apps, every user has their own needs, and you might find that a different app is best for you. There are far more iOS text editors than I can review in detail in one blog post, so I will briefly discuss a few of the other apps I’ve tried, and I encourage you to comment with additional thoughts on the apps mentioned here, or with your own app suggestions.
Voice Dream Writer An app designed especially for people who are visually impaired or dyslexic, aims to help you improve your writing. When you need help choosing the right word, it can search for a replacement for any word in your document, either phonetically or by meaning, and also displays definitions. It produces an outline of your writing, and you can restructure your piece by dragging paragraphs, sentences and headings. To help you proofread, it can read your text aloud, and its speech is separate from VoiceOver. This used to be my writing app of choice, but I don’t use it much anymore. Its tools for selecting text and checking spelling are no longer necessary for me, as recent iOS versions have made these tasks easier in every app. It has very limited file management capabilities, presenting all of your documents in one list, with no ability to create folders or sync with Dropbox, so if you are working on several writing projects at once, you can’t keep them separate. It’s also not ideal for taking quick notes, because creating a new document takes a few too many taps. It doesn’t quite fit in with the way I like to work, and I’ve found other apps that have more of the functionality I need, but I know that many AppleVis users have found Voice Dream Writer very helpful.
If you’re working on a book or other long writing project, you might like Scrivener. It allows you to write in any order, in segments as large or small as you want, which you can easily rearrange. You can also store your research files and project notes alongside your writing. At the end of the process, Scrivener can compile all the pieces of text that make up your project, putting them into a single Word document or PDF.
Ulysses is popular with writers. Everything I’ve read about it suggests it’s a good, simple markdown editor which can sync to Dropbox and export to several formats, but it’s expensive for what it does, and in a recent test of the app I found that navigating the editor with VoiceOver was very slow. There are other, cheaper apps which have much of the same functionality. Try Permanote (formerly Nebulous Notes), iA Writer, Byword or Bear.
If you’re looking for a text editor with automation features, you might like Editorial or 1Writer. I tried both of these apps some time ago, and my thought at the time was that the automation was fun to play with, but not really useful. Having just tried these two apps again, I think Editorial’s workflows may be worth some further exploration. 1Writer, on the other hand, is more difficult to navigate. It’s usable with VoiceOver, but has some poorly labelled buttons.
A Writer’s Toolbox
Text editors aren’t the only apps that can make your writing life easier. Terminology is a dictionary, thesaurus and research tool. A dictionary is included, but it can also look up your search term on other websites and apps, making it easy to find definitions and information from multiple sources.
If you need some inspiration for your next creative writing project, Lists for Writers might help you find a character name, setting or dramatic situation. You could also try Wotja. This is primarily a music generation app, but can generate creative writing ideas by making a cut-up of up to five source texts. This app is rather complex, and it may take some time and patience to work out how to use all of its features, but you might enjoy experimenting with it, especially if you are interested in music as well as writing.
These are just a few of the extra tools that can help you with your writing, but if you know of any that I've missed, please mention them in the comments.
Which apps do you use for writing? Do you have any recommendations of apps not mentioned here? Please share your thoughts!