After my review of Ulysses on macOS and iOS, I take a close look at its understated but fabulous competitor, iA Writer.
After my review of Ulysses on macOS and iOS, I take a close look at its understated but fabulous competitor, iA Writer.
iA Writer is now being kickstarted for MS Windows. I'll be watching this development closely! The Windows version is now shipping. I tried it briefly and conclude that it's a nice editor but lags considerably behind its macOS counterpart. Still watching its development with interest!
When I reviewed Ulysses I asked myself if I could find a place for it in my workflow, be it fiction or blogging. I ended up answering 'no' to both. Despite that, I was left with the desire for a beautiful, markdown-aware text editor that worked the way I expect a text editor to work on a UNIX-based system.
iA Writer is certainly a very close contender.
Note that I'm writing this review in the macOS trial version. I was not able to test the iOS version without purchasing it, which I won't do unless I commit to buying the Mac version.
Apples and oranges
Unlike my Ulysses review, I’m not comparing iA Writer to Scrivener. At this point I'm looking for an aesthetic markdown editor that I can use to write my blog.
Where I make comparisons they'll be with Ulysses. On reflection, Ulysses and iA Writer are much more alike than either are to Scrivener.
A little context
Although I'm rusted on to Scrivener for writing fiction, I don't use it to write my blog. To blog, I write in markdown using a static-site generator.
My blogging system is based on plain text files. I use DropBox for synchronisation between devices. To save time, I use a lot of automation.
When plain text sits on a file system, it's so much easier to process using automation. It's also easier to access using a multitude of applications across any operating system.
The iA Writer developers understand this, penning a post that deeply resonated with me because it's how I prefer to work.
Currently, my blog writing is split across a few applications. On the Mac, I use MultiMarkdown Composer, which after years of beta testing has finally been updated to version 4. On iOS, I use Editorial.
Both are good text editors but neither are particularly satisfying for drafting in the way that Ulysses is.
Enter iA Writer
iA Writer, like Ulysses is developed for writing prose as opposed to simply editing text. It has a simple, elegant interface, not unlike that of Ulysses.
The minimal UI is light on buttons and heavy on keyboard shortcuts, which gets a big thumbs up from me.
In the screenshot, you can see iA Writer uses a three-panel layout giving you the Library (left), editor (centre) and preview (right).
Naturally, you can expand or collapse the Library and/or the preview panels to suit your needs. This can be done with a swipe gesture (on Macs with a trackpad), keyboard shortcuts or using the icons on the window's title bar.
I mostly found myself using the shortcut (Cmd+D) to toggle between focus and regular modes.
iA Writer takes minimalism even further than Ulysses. It lacks a lot features you get with Ulysses (much less the power of Scrivener).
You're not given much choice over the look of your editor. Light and Dark Mode, font size and a few other tweaks is all you get.
Personally, I like this but if you prefer fine-grained control over your writing environment (or you don't like the look iA Writer imposes) you may want to look elsewhere.
iA Writer also lacks the concept of document notes, attachments, keywords and the synopsis. What you see in the editor is all you get.
There's also no way to jump quickly between regions of a document like you can in Ulysses or MultiMarkdown Composer. As the review grew larger, and I started jumping between sections, this limitation really started to bother me.
Another limitation I found was the inability to view two documents at the same time. Having come to rely on this when using Scrivener I would almost conclude that iA Writer is seriously limited for non-linear writing of long-form documents.
I'll note briefly that I am very impressed by iA Writer's performance. As a long-time user of MultiMarkdown Composer, one thing I hated was its enormous lag both when using the its preview pane or when the editor was performing a lookup to another part of the document.
iA Writer by contrast is very responsive. The preview is updated in realtime and there's no visible slow-down even as the document gets larger.
I started this review in macOS Sierra and updated to High Sierra with no problems. The review itself was written on my 2011 Mac mini (which is on its last legs), again with no performance issues.
Documents and the Library
One of the things I dinged Ulysses for was its Library, a single bucket of storage, containing everything you write. My problem wasn't the idea of the Library but its execution; the Ulysses Library is completely hidden from the user, even on macOS. This obscurity makes it difficult to manipulate documents except by completely exporting them.
iA Writer takes a different approach. It gives you a Library, a local bucket of storage from which you can quickly open files but it allows you to add any folder on the system. By default the Library contains iCloud (actually an iA Writer subfolder), but using the settings you can add any folder you like, including a folder in your Dropbox, as I've done for my blog posts.
As the settings screenshot shows, there's enough flexibility in how your documents are displayed in the Library to satisfy most users.
Ulysses' variety of markdown, Markdown XL, ended up irritating me more than I admitted in my review. iA Writer uses MultiMarkdown, which is my preferred flavour.
MultiMarkdown is much closer to the Python-Markdown that my static site generator uses. It's also supported by Scrivener, Editorial and, of course MultiMarkdown Composer.
iA Writer supports MultiMarkdown table of contents, footnotes and even document transclusion. Unlike Ulysses, it supports simple tables and gives you a nice little tool for creating them.
Speaking of tables, you can even drop in a link to a CSV file and have it rendered as a table. Very nice if you prefer to use a spreadsheet like Numbers of Excel to create your tables instead faffing around with markdown's ugly table syntax.
Another thing I like is it's ability to recognise metadata and exclude it from the preview. Since my static-site generator uses MultiMarkdown-style metadata, I greatly appreciate this feature.
Formatting with markdown
It's easy to apply formatting through the use of keyboard shortcuts, which are plentiful and don't require digital gymnastics to invoke.
For those who prefer a mouse, there's the menu (shown above) or a nifty format bar at the bottom on the editor panel.
It really is for writers!
Although ostensibly simple, iA Writer has some very cool features that writers will appreciate.
The toolbar I mentioned above also doubles as a syntax bar, allowing you to highlight parts of speech according to their type. This is seriously cool.
Using this you can identify at once if you've used too many adverbs or find weak verbs.
Another thing I like is the meticulous attention to focus. When writing you can focus on the sentence or entire paragraphs. When focussed, the current sentence or paragraph is emphasised while the reminder of the text is takes on a muted colour.
Scroll however, and all text is displayed in the primary colour. There's also a typewriting mode, for those who prefer to keep their writing at a fixed point in the window.
I noted above the support of transclusion. This feature allows you to reference other documents by dragging them on to the editor. Reference documents are added to the exported document.
Basically, this means iA Writer can be used to create large and complex documents (i.e. books, academic papers etc) using same principle of sticking chucks of text together like Scrivener and Ulysses and compiling them into a single output.
iA Writer also supports document versioning, a feature it inherits from macOS which gives you a file-level Time Machine system where you can browse the document's history of changes without the messiness of using Git and Diff on the command line.
From drafting to editing
Another thing I dinged Ulysses for was that it used its own syntax for editorial markup, instead of using CriticMarkup.
iA Writer doesn't have editorial markup at all. There's no concept of comments, deletion, substitution or additions. If I want an editor that supports this, I either have to switch to MultiMarkdown Composer or export the document to a word processor, such as Microsoft Word.
If Ulysses export feature was minimal compared to Scrivener, iA Writer is positively anaemic. The usual suspects are available: markdown, HTML, Microsoft Word, PDF and zipped archive (more on that below).
HTML export is as basic as you can get. It outputs clean HTML5 syntax with no additional cruft. Images are captioned. There's no obvious means of adding styling but that's no biggie.
Microsoft Word support is disappointing; images are not exported. Not really much more I can say about that.
PDF export is a little better and is the only thing you can really customise through the use of templates. iA hosts a small collection of templates and a guide on how to create your own. If you are going down this path though, you'll want to be familiar with HTML and CSS.
To play with the feature, I installed the Helvetica template and used that to create a PDF.
Templates are applied to the preview pane (it took me a few minutes to work this out) rather than on compile as is the case with Scrivener and Ulysses. This means export is based on what you see in the preview panel, which makes sense but it will trip up a Scrivener or Ulysses user.
Feel free to download the PDF version of this review. As noted, it was generated using iA Writer's Helvetica template.
One thing not present is the ability to export to the Text Bundle format. Text Bundle allows you to transport a markdown file with its associated image assets in a conveniently zipped archive. I've been playing with this format as a delivery mechanism to transfer content from my devices to my blog's web server.
iA Writer does let you export to a zipped format (called Project Archive), but bizarrely it doesn't include referenced attachments such as images if you format them in markdown syntax. It will only include them if you leave the image in the simplest notation for image:
This works: /browse-history.png This does not: ![Browse Document history](/browse-history.png)
Unfortunately, it doesn't change the simplified syntax to the more accepted markdown format upon export. This means I can't use it as a delivery mechanism without resorting to server-side hackery. This export option is literally an archiving method for transporting documents between iA Writer users. Still, it's workable; there's nothing I can't achieve with a little Python script on my web server.
Blogging platform support
Like Ulysses, iA Writer supports posting directly to Wordpress and Medium. Since publishing my Ulysses review, I have posted two of my more popular posts to Medium1. Having used it, there is a certain appeal to this feature. That said, I'm not looking to replace my current blog engine with Medium, much less Wordpress, which I loathe.
My time with iA Writer gave me the overwhelming sense that this app is a strong contender. It has a lot of Ulysses' strengths: beautiful UI, responsiveness, focus on focus but without some of the things that bother me (subscription pricing model, the proprietary Library). With robust MultiMarkdown support and a library based on a file system, it would fit into my blogging workflow with less tinkering than Ulysses.
It's not all rosy. The minimalism is almost too much. I would really like to see support for editorial markup. I'd also like a means to jump between document sections and between documents in the same folder of the Library.
Nevertheless, iA Writer is a great choice for drafting text. It's given me considerable pause for thought. I like it a lot, but in some respects its limitations have made me look fondly back on Ulysses with its powerful blend of features and polish.
So, is iA Writer for me?
It very well could be, but I need to think about it a little more before I commit to either.
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