A man becomes preeminent, he’s expected to have enthusiasms.

_Robert De Niro as Al Capone, right before he clubs a fellow gangster to death with a baseball bat.

Capone’s enthusiasms (at least, in the movie) were baseball and murder, and he combined these like a skilled adventure game player. I, also, like baseball, but strongly prefer writing tools to mob-style execution, so I’m pleased that the establishment of a dominant word processor has proceeded without violent incident through computer generations: Apple Writer (Apple II), Wordstar(CPM, early MS DOS), WordPerfect (MS DOS), and finally, longtime champ, Microsoft Word (Windows, MacOS, OSX). Then iPad-induced Hell broke loose — dozens of writing apps: we can choose from minimal writing tools, full-fledged word processors, writing apps with built-in Web browsers, and code editors. To simplify, I will refer to all of the above as writing tools.

My enthusiasm for writing tools has resulted in auditioning more than a couple of hundred word processors and text editors on numerous platforms. So mark me down as doublely enthusiastic that a new platform, sans the dominance of Microsoft Office, has unleashed creativity in desktop apps not seen since the early days of personal computers.

When I approach a text editor or word processor, what I’m looking for is an invitation: Write me. What I see in a typical modern writing instrument, Microsoft Word, for instance, is a very different message: Bite Me. Modern writing tools have become so complex and intimidating that it’s created a backlash. Most new writing apps brag that they do even less than yesterday’s leader in doing less. It’s the opposite of the late 80s and early 90s, when lite versions of flagship word processors, such as Microsoft Write and LetterPerfect, were dead-on-arrival. (Never heard of them? My point.) The backlash is because Microsoft Word, the only word processor that’s mattered in the last two decades, has been feature adequate for at least 15 years. New releases are about the money, not about creating an ideal writing instrument, and many authors now express more interest in an simple tool than in a assemblage.

While the backlash to bloated writing tools may have begun with WriteRoom for the Mac, the iPad platform is where minimal apps have flourished. For example, except for the Apple-mandated, iCloud on or off, iA Writer has no settings. You can’t choose your font or even the size of the font. The publisher, Information Architects, believes their custom Nitti font is the optimal design and size for writing and that’s that. (Apparently, what’s optimal can change, as the latest release has a smaller font.) While minimalism and elegance defines their approach to design, I believe the the popularity of iA Writer stems from being the first iPad writing tool that augmented the standard keyboard with movement and punctuation keys. Information Architects took away what they thought got in the way of writing, and added what they thought would make it easier.

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iA Writer pioneered the extra key row for writing apps

The history of software applications has been a history of feature expansion with a parallel of interface evolution that attempts to make those features accessible. For example, the dominant word processor of the 80s, WordPerfect, used ten function keys with ctrl, alt, and shift as modification keys, giving 40 major commands. By the end of the decade, WordPerfect had become sufficiently complex that it needed a full range of drop-down menus to augment the function key set.

MacWrite, the second fully WSYWYG personal computer word processor (Lisa Write, bundled with the barely sold Apple Lisa, preceded it by a year), and the first popular one designed from the beginning with a mouse interface, had very few commands to populate its drop-down menus. In contrast, its most successful descendant, the humongously complex Microsoft Word, has had a series of novel interfaces in attempts to make it accessible.

iPad writing tools are faced with an interface challenge not seen since the early days of personal computers, which had neither mice nor arrow keys. But even they, unlike the iPad, had mod keys (Ctrl, Alt, Esc, and so forth) that allowed developers to hack together movement interfaces. If you’re not blessed with the fine-motor skills of a surgeon, packaged in the size of a ballerina’s hands, your iPad and (even more awkward) iPhone cursor and selection movement is an ongoing exercise in trial and error — a big step backwards in user interface design. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, following the example of Web apps, iOS apps have given us a chance to consider whether our daily writing application really needs hundreds of commands.

The relatively tiny tablet and phone screens, and lack of mouse and keyboard, limit the integration of the many commands seen in PC applications. But these limitations have also inspired interface experiments, something not seen in a long time. The standard GUI of Macintosh, copied by every other operating system’s interface, has been a mixed blessing: learn one application, learn them all — no matter how awkward they’ve evolved.

I stated above that iA Writer pioneered the augmented iOS keyboard with cursor keys and punctuation marks in a row above the standard keyboard. Since, a number of writing apps have attempted to create even more useful augmented row bars. To call these attempts a mixed bag is generous. Aside from one or two (depending on your priorities), most of these extra rows are so busy that searching for the right command key can take more time than just descending down the keyboard character levels

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Textastic’s Where’s Waldo key bar

Mark Me Up

When both PageMaker and MacOS (Classic) went to heaven (a generous ending considering that their last iterations belonged in bug hell), I lost access to my self- written, designed, and published journal on educational software, a total of about 200 pages of reviews. It’s not as if my journals were going to land in a museum, but I put a lot of work into them, and I would have liked to have permanent access to my efforts. Following that experience, I decided I would never use use writing-tool formats other than plain text. Since, except for a few business-related forms, I’ve used only mark-up for formatting: LaTeX for print, and HMTL, Textile, and Markdown for blogging.

There are two approaches to designing a writing tool for the iOS platform: one that regards the platform as a complement to the Mac, and one that regards the iPad and iPhone as a platform in itself. An example of the former, Information Architects states that the primary purpose of iA Writer for the iPad is for (only) getting that first draft out. From their support forum:

It’s intended for quickly getting that first draft out […] and we expect that after this you’ll do any formatting for print in an application like TextEdit or Pages.

I’m not complaining about Information Architects taking away what they thought got in the way of writing. But one of the things I want to take away is my MacBook, and Information Architects won’t help me with that. As I said, I’m not concerned with printing, I write mostly for the Web, and these days it takes very little to support writing for the Web. For instance, most popular blogging software — Wordpress.com (the hosted version) is the notable exception — supports Markdown mark-up. iA Writer provides no Markdown assistance other than preview.

Navigation

I’ve read many reviews of writing tools espousing the love of simplicity in their app, but I wonder how many of these writers flog their keyboards for more than 500 words per article. Once you get past a few hundred words, editing without a means of some navigational help can drive you batty. Do you want to spend your time writing, or scrolling in search of crouching nouns and hidden verbs? Write a few thousand words in one of the minimal apps such as iA Writer, Byword, or Writeroom, and you will (or should) question your judgement in choosing your wimpy tool.

Navigational help can come in one or two ways: search or a document structure view. Every personal computer writing tool has a search command; many iPad apps do not. Even the advanced app, UX Write, doesn’t yet have a search command. A document structure view commonly shows you headings, links and, sometimes, inserted graphics, and lets you jump to that position with a touch. A search command is included with Textastic, Daedalus, Nebulous Notes, and Writing Kit. A structure view is included in Textastic, Phraseology, Writing Kit, and UX Write.

Before I get to my choice, I’ll quickly summarize the contenders in reverse order of preference.

Elements

Nothing that distinguishes itself. Has Markdown preview, as do a zillion other iOS apps. That it was one of the first iPad writing apps probably keeps it a viable product. I can’t think of another reason.

Encouraging feature(s): dunno; lots of people use it, so there must be something I’m missing.

Discouraging feature(s): its lack of encouraging features.

Elements as house: starter home, not any nicer than the apartment from which you moved.

WriteUp

As does UX Write, WriteUp uses swipe — a virtual trackpad — to move the curosr. Unlike with UX Write, there are no mode keys for the virtual trackpad. You sweep two finders along the virtual keyboard to scroll the insertion point, and three fingers to scroll with selection. In theory, elegant. In practice, it’s not easy to control. Worse, I can’t select and scroll below the virtual keyboard border. At the border, it loses selection. UX Write’s virtual trackpad works. I can’t seem to make WriteUp’s work. Too bad, as Writeup has many great features such as search, an integrated Web browser, a well-designed key bar for mark-up, export formats, nice themes and fonts, and more. Writeup is an illustration of how execution matters more than piling on features.

Encouraging feature(s): good Markdown support.

Discouraging features(s): its most important feature, swipe, doesn’t work well.

WriteUp as house: In the 80s, some friends built an expensive house on Mercer Island, which included an expensive stone roof, dining room, nice home office, large living room, and a master bedroom with separate sinks, commodes, shower, and tub. The dwelling size was restricted by the hill lot, so there was hardly any space left for the family room. They spent 90 percent of their evenings on a small couch, watching TV from an offset angle. If they had guests, someone would have to sit across from the couch on a stone fireplace setting.

Phraseology

To iA Writer’s movement keys, Phraseology adds selection, undo and redo keys. Sounds great in theory, but the key bar is too busy, and the moments I spend searching for the correct key to use each time, balances time lost with time saved. The novel feature of Phraseology that does work is the rearrange screen for sentences or paragraphs.. But even if all of Phraseology’s novelties worked, I still wouldn’t use it, because it’s the only writing app here that does not save a copy off the device — no DropBox or iCloud support, no thanks. While a minor update was released as recently as February, it appears that the developer has taken his talents to Drafts, and has put Phraseology in maintenance mode. I think it’s easy to tell who Mom likes best.

Encouraging feature(s): sentence and paragraph reorganizing window; pretty.

Discouraging features(s): no off-device storage; key bar is too busy.

Phraseology as a house: every convenience, every built-in appliance, but forgot heat.

Plaintext

A dead-simple, app from Hog Bay, the inventor of minimal writing apps. Free, but so is Notes.

Encouraging feature(s): free.

Discouraging feature(s): no features to consider.

Plaintext as house: treehouse.

Pages

The iPad version of Apple’s word processor, Pages, is one of the few iOS apps with Find/Replace, but Pages is of little use to me because it’s designed for creating print documents rather than for the Web. Because it doesn’t have an augmented keyboard, I use it with a physical keyboard on the rare occasions when I want to create a business form.

Encouraging feature(s): Apple-made slick; Find/Replace; formatting.

Discouraging feature(s): no movement help; solely print oriented; icons instead of file names in iCloud; skeuomorphic design.

Pages as house: Pages is not a house; it’s a Plymouth Cordoba, with soft, corinthian leather.

WriteRoom

The iOS version of Hog Bay’s minimal writing application for OSX. Much the same as iA Writer, just not as nice. The bracket keys in the augment bar helps speed Markdown formatting, and it has movement keys, but you have to tap for each movement. I hate that. Hold down the movement keys on Textastic, Byword, iA Writer, Nebulous Notes, or tap in the margins in Daedalus, and your cursor scoots along. Not so with the others, where it’s tap tap tap. Writeroom just added a bunch of fonts, which makes it far nicer to use, but I still prefer iA Writer’s key bar and font.

Encouraging feature(s): okay key bar; nice fonts, pretty.

Discouraging feature(s): There’s nothng special about this app.

WriteRoom as house: A-frame vacation home, but that’s your only home.

Nebulous Notes

I once worked at a mental health agency that decided to simplify its four-page intake form, but the new version simply compressed and combined the categories into two pages, meaning that simplification translated to writing smaller — as if my handwriting wasn’t already sufficiently illegible. Welcome to Nebulous Notes. The favorite iOS writing tool of the venerable Tidbits team, Nebulous Notes has macro keys that enable you to create a sophisticated text editor. For example, enable cut/copy/paste to join the default select, movement, and find keys in the augmented key bar, and you’ve got a sophisticated editor. But there’s no design creativity that respects the iPad. In trying to recreate an advanced text editor, it just comes off as an inferior solution to Textmate running on a MacBook Air.

Encouraging feature(s): customizable key bar, delete-forward key; search; clever movement and selection keys.

Discouraging feature(s): key bar is visually distracting; I like everything about Nebulous Notes except using it.

Nebulous Notes as house: you think it’s a house, but it’s a movie set.

Daedalus

From the developers of the sophisticated writing tool, Ulysses. I wish there were more font choices than the current three (or just one great one), and I wish it had Markdown preview. Worse, it takes way too long to open a large file. Otherwise, Daedalus has great balance between what helps and what gets in your way: a spare, but useful augmented key bar (why doesn’t every writing tool have delete-forward); move by character or word by tapping one or two fingers in the margins, with auto-repeat when you hold your finger(s) down; find in current document; a built-in Web browser to aid in research; and off-device save in both iCloud and DropBox, a feature it shares with only iA Writer, and a feature that enhances my confidence that I won’t lose my data.

Encouraging feature(s): great key customizable key bar; search; built-in browser; Dropbox and iCloud support; export to ePub.

Discouraging feature(s): large files take a long time to load; no Markdown preview.

Daedalus as house: small, elegant, traditional Japanese, except floors aren’t hardwood, they’re vinyl.

Textastic

A really nice code editor, with editions for iPhone and OSX. Being on the iPad, means that Textastic can’t process code, but it does highlight syntax, making it useful for modifying HTML code, and is the the only text editor that I’ve found that has any syntax coloring for Markdown (it colors the underlined text for a link). To repurpose for writing articles, proportional fonts and margin settings would be nice. To get wider margins, for easier editing, I’ve resorted to a hack: make the text very large (30 pt. for Inconsolata) and zoom in. That way, the margins and text are both a comfortable size, and I can keep the move-and-selection wheel in the margin.

Encouraging feature(s): Find/Replace; supports both HTML and Markdown, along with many other formats; cursor and navigational wheel is extremely useful if you give yourself margins (see margin hack, above); going to implement iCloud suport along with the Dropbox current support; can use the same app for code and essays.

Discouraging feature(s): no margin setting; key bar is too busy; no proportional fonts; ugly.

Textastic as house: hunters’ ugly old log cabin, with every appliance inside.

ByWord

The last, in order, of the writing tools that I don’t like, but if the ones below didn’t exist, I could live with it. ByWord is one of the better apps for those who use Markdown, and it keeps things simple. Its augmented key bar has movement keys to go with all the Markdown symbols you could want. But, in order to get those Markdown symbols to fit, the bar scrolls horizontally (something it shares with Nebulous Notes and Writing Kit), which to me yells bad design! I could live with that, but what’s harder to live with is that I hate all four font choices. It’s annoying to constantly change fonts because you hate them all.

Encouraging feature(s): good Markdown support and movement keys; both Dropbox and iCloud support.

Discouraging feature(s): I wish I could make the fonts smaller and the line spacing larger; no navigational help.

ByWord as house: an architecturally designed home; plans were purchased on a Web site for $100.

Writing Kit

Writing Kit is designed to combine research on the Web with writing, a task I do, regularly. It includes both a Duckduckgo search mode and a built-in browser that allows you to queue research topics, assign bookmarks and tags to results, use Readability for reading, send to numerous services, or insert links into your document. In theory, you can even convert your document links into footed references — in theory, because every attempt but one resulted in a crashed app instead of converted footnotes. It has the horizontally scrolling augmented bar for Markdown formatting, every font that’s available for iOS, a solarized color option for night viewing comfort, export to Markdown, HTML, and PDF, post to Twitter, Tumblr blogs, SMS (text messaging), as well as the typical e-mail option.

My complaint is that Writing Kit also moves by character or word by tapping in the margins, and (as stated above) you must do individual taps for each movement. Far more annoying: you have to be careful to tap in the precise place in the margin to not move to the end of the line, accidently.

Writing Kit is ideal for a college or high school student, or anyone working on a research paper, especially for those who plan to post to the Web. It’s especially useful for anyone who is a dedicated Markdown and physical keyboard user.

Here’s a thorough review.

Encouraging feature(s): research support; navigation support; numerous fonts; export support; assistance with Markdown graphic insert.

Discouraging feature(s): lame cursor movement help kills this app for me; I’d call it a keyboard-mostly app.

Writing Kit as house: My friend built this huge house with lots of rooms. I asked him how it was designed; he explained that, thinking that a space for such-and-such would be nice, he just kept adding rooms.

iA Writer

I covered this app, above. I’m still drawn to its minimal design, which includes its excellent augmented key bar. Still, after three years, you’d think they could at least add find-in-document, and brackets in the augmented key bar, to make Markdown links easier to create. One thing iA Writer has going for it: it’s the only writing tool that’s viable for the iPhone using horizontal mode. In horizontal mode, you get four lines of readable text, and you can move the cursor with the extra keys.

Encouraging feature(s): one font, but beautiful; elegant key bar; having no options means you can’t waste your time.

Discouraging feature(s): no search, or any other navigation help, makes editing long articles a pain; no support for Markdown, except for preview.

iA Writer as house: small, elegant, traditional Japanese, but forgot to include storage space in the walls.

UX Write — dance with the one that brung you

You know those movies where the protagonist has a mildly attractive but overly sensible fiancé, but is content until a non-sensible hottie shows up? Those plots are about the difference between what we think we want compared to what we really want. Stupid sub-conscious — always horning in where it’s not wanted. Despite an ugly blemish or so (see below), from the twelve word processors and text editors, plus the three blogging apps, all residing on my iPad, I chose to write 90 percent of this article in UX Write — the only app that does not use Markdown for mark-up.

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No visible mark-up in UX Write

UX Write uses HTML but not as mark-up, rather as its document format. If you copy UX Write text into an HTML editor, such as Textastic, you’ll see your text with all its (clean) HTML embedded code. While UX Write is not Markdown compatible, as it doesn’t export to Markdown format, or open in Markdown editors, it is Markdown-friendly. If you paste UX Write-originated text into a Markdown-supported editor, you’ll get copy with HTML coverted to Markdown code. You’ll have to clean the code a little as it leaves a few stay asterisks.

To explain why I prefer UX Write to Markdown editors, let’s look closer at the editing experience. Markdown was created to make writing and editing easier because typing *your text* is quicker than typing <em>your text</em> or <i>your text</i> to get your text. And [Wikipedia](wikipedia.org) is a lot easier to type, let alone remember, than <a href=”http://www.wikipedia.org”>Wikipedia</a> to get Wikipedia. And, more important, Markdown sprinkled through your prose is supposedly far less distracting than HTML sprinkled through your prose. However, when I use HTML in BBedit or Textmate on my Mac, or HTML in Textastic on my iPad, the HTML is syntax colored, which sets it apart from my prose. Markdown mark-up is mostly (Textastic colorizes some Markdown syntax) the same color as the prose so, rather than less distracting than HTML, it’s more so. Now with UX Write, we have no visible mark-up to distract from the prose, and the document format is still readable by any text editor. In short, UX Write, alone, gives you the benefits of both mark-up formatting and textual WYSIWYG editing.

To summarize what makes UX Write great is that developer Peter Kelly is all-in on the iPad. All-in means a couple of things: the iPad version doesn’t augment a Mac (see iA Writer) or Web (see Simplenote) version, and it regards the iPad, not as an obstacle, but as an advantage in designing a writing tool.

To borrow a term from the great Walt Kelly (I presume, no relation to the developer), there are insurmountable opportunities in creating a superior writing app for iPad — primarily, the touch interface, and secondarily, the relatively small screen — our big fat fingers just aren’t as precise as a mouse pointer or cursor keys. I believe UX Write overcomes these problems to the point that it makes the iPad an excellent writing tool.

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Swipe mode on UX Write

The major issue with a touch interface (assuming use of the virtual keyboard) is positioning the cursor, and cut\copy\paste actions. While not the only writing tool with swipe movement, UX Write does it much better than the others, because the mode keys give you a large swipe area, while preventing the accidental text input, and because the swipe movement has precise control (contrast WriteUp, for example). I have no problem using swipe to move by even a single character. The nearest I can come to explaining the feel of using the swipe area is that it’s as if you have really large touchpad, but better, because being on the same plane as the text gives movement and selection a more direct feel than with a touchpad. To my taste, writing with UX Write is more comfortable than writing on a laptop. While Nebulous Notes, Phraseology, Textastic, and Writing Kit also have custom selection and movement features, I find UX Write’s swipe design, far handier.

To the swipe movement and selection mode keys, UX Write adds a format key that pops up a horizontal menu for bold, emphasis, and underline, for unordered and ordered lists, and for indent and unindent keys that turn lists into outlines. Along with the format key, there’s room on the key bar for several additional punctuation marks. Contrast with the key bars of ByWord and Nebulous Notes, which must use horizontal scrolling to fit extra punctuation, format, and mark-up characters.

My one complaint regarding the UX Write key bar is the redundant single and double-quote keys (just swipe up on comma or period), which would be better used as either cursor keys or (my choice) a combo right/left cursor key and a delete-forward key. One of the most useful keys there is, delete-forward is found on only Daedalus and Nebulous Notes.

UX Write developer, Peter Kelly, an academic from Australia, is developing UX Write as a tool to create long-form structured documents, with the apparent audacious goal of being able to use an iPad in place of a personal computer and technical writng tools such as LaTeX, Word, and (does anyone still use?) FrameMaker. What’s great about Kelly’s approach is that he uses the open format to accomplish this — HTML. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? HTML was designed for exactly this — creating structured documents, with hyperlinks to other structured documents.

If you wish to create a writing tool for both the web and print (or PDFs), HTML is the most unproblematic solution — that is, up to a point. No Web standard HTML, CSS, and JavaScript can give you the print layout quality of TeX, InDesign, or Quark Xpress. But then, neither can any word processor.

Speaking of Word (which is far better than actually using it), DocX file format is now a choice for those who want to be compatible with Word files on Windows or OSX. I can’t say anything about how well it works, as I haven’t used it and don’t intend to.

Are we there yet?

A trendy statement in software design is to create for your own needs. As someone who spent many years as a computer science grad student, it makes sense that Dr. Kelly thinks in terms academic papers and doctoral dissertations — which, again, means long structured documents for print or PDF output. But, at the same time, the native format of UX Write is the native format of the Web, so I’d like a little more help from my writing tool to get it into my blogs. It would be nice to post directly into Tumblr, as you can with Writing Kit, or into Wordpress. (I no longer use Tumblr, but lots of people do.) Short of that, I want HTML export without mark-up that litters the first few inches of an exported HTML document.

While, in terms of structured formatting, UX Write is already the most advanced iOS tool, according to his web site, Kelly is just getting started. Planned are features found in only the most advanced word processing tools. According to the UX Write website, further enhancements include support for Open Document Format documents (.odt), and LaTeX documents (.tex). Enhanced table editing (incl. styles). Enhanced structured writing: headers, footers, footnotes, bibliography, and citations. Find and replace and word count. Equation editing. Document comparison and change tracking.

Scrollgate and Keyboardgate

Did I say bugs? The most annoying issue for me is not technically a bug because, as Kelly explains, “UX Write has a custom mechanism for handling all touch events which differs from that of most other apps…” So, while the custom design probably gives UX Write unique capabilities, it also creates the unintended consequence that editing a long document without a physical keyboard (which is my preference) can get difficult, because the virtual keyboard pops up often when you’re trying to scroll. To add insult, if you’re using a physical keyboard to avoid the scrolling annoyance, that’s when you hit UX Write’s major bugs: the disappearing cut command using CMD-X is the worst. (Hint: the keyboard cut command returns following the use of cut via the screen-touch method).

Encouraging feature(s): superb swipe makes editing far easier than with other apps, when not using a physical keyboard; no compromise design in that it has a lot of capability (and counting), and it’s still really easy to use.

Discouraging feature(s): too many virtual keyboard pop-ups when scrolling; physical keyboard bugs; developer is traditional hierarchal file system fanatic and will not even consider iCloud support; must negotiate the Dropbox file system to load a file.

UX Write as house: your dream home, but the dripping kitchen faucet and plugged toilet need fixing, and the amenities are still being installed.

Summary

What matters is both what an app does (attributes), and how it does it (design). The success of the app will be in how those two are balanced.

Textastic, Pages, and Nebulous Notes have unique attributes that will find users, but If you’re looking for a minimalist writing tool, Plaintext, WriteRoom, and ByWord lose to iA Writer because their choices aren’t sufficiently better than iA Writer’s lack of choices.

In competence, Daedalus stands between iA Writer and Writing Kit, but too many words slow it down.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive tool, and you insist on working in Markdown, and you usually use a physical keyboard, and you’re willing to trade design for attributes, Writing Kit is a great research and writing tool, with excellent exporting tools. My current favorite Markdown-based writing tool.

My favorite all-around writing tool is UX Write. I find that its superb swipe movement makes using the virtual keyboard more than just tolerable but, along with its textual WYSIWYG, turns the iPad into a writing tool that competes with any platform. While many iOS writing tools compete for the developers’ attention within their own company, UX Write is all-in on the iPad. I just hope Dr. Kelly doesn’t awaken one morning and remember that he’s a computer scientist, and doesn’t need to create a writing tool for users who think that any app over $2.99 is too expensive.