iA Writer 5 review

I return to iA Writer to review version 5, having previously set it aside in favour of Ulysses. I'm very impression, and I make a surprising admission along the way.

It's been about 18 months since I last looked at iA Writer. My review, which was generally favourable, continues to be one of my most popular posts. When I tweeted that I'd reached more than 1100 views1, the developers of iA Writer took notice and called me out stating my original review no longer reflected the current version.

So, not wanting to do them a disservice I decided it was time to review iA Writer 5. Civic virtue aside, I was also curious to see if the current version addressed my previous niggles. Let's find out!



What’s new

Firstly, let’s look at some of the new features in iA Writer 5. As a release it certainly doesn’t lack for shiny new stuff — and, a fresh lick of paint for many of the existing features.

User interface

By far the most significant changes — and improvements — are the user interface (UI). There are refinements both to layout and the general aesthetics of the app.

iA Writer 5 UI in Dark Mode
iA Writer 5 UI in Dark Mode

Tool- and formatting bars

Back in iA Writer 4, there was a common toolbar on the bottom of the editor where you could either access markdown shortcuts or configure syntax highlighting. In iA Writer 5, this has changed, and for the better.

Syntax and focus controls are now on the top bar. They are available from a convenient drop-down box, and then fade away when not used. The arrow icon to the right of the drop-down activates the preview — as does a two-finger swipe on the trackpad, which I what I mostly used.

Syntax and Focus Controls
Syntax and Focus Controls

Markdown shortcuts are now on the bottom, along with the document statistics.

Splitting these options into separate toolbars makes a lot of sense. iA Writer 4’s grammatical syntax toolbar was a waste of horizontal space — and syntax highlighting isn’t something I frequently change, mostly setting it to adverbs and then forgetting it. Meanwhile, it’s much more useful to keep markdown shortcuts persistent, particularly for those who prefer activating them through the trackpad to the keyboard.

Syntax highlighting hasn't changed much since iA 4. Meanwhile, Scrivener 3’s implementation has leap-frogged iA Writer with many more options, including the ability to highlight direct speech, something that’s equally useful to the novelist as hunting down adverbs. Still, it’s one up on Ulysses, which doesn’t support this feature at all.



Editor

iA Writer still remains incredibly opinionated in matters of design. You still can’t theme the editor to your own tastes as you can in Ulysses.

iA Writer Editor Settings
iA Writer Editor Settings

As you can see from the settings controls above, all you can do is change text size, typography and the number of characters displayed per line. As for the typography, all you can choose from is the provides Mono, Duo and Quattro. iA began life as a type design company, and they are quite proud of their fonts. They look lovely on screen — even on a non-retina display — but if your tastes don’t align with iA’s, or you have a particular theme you like…look elsewhere.

While I can accept this for writing non-fiction, the inability to indent lines is disappointing. Even though I’m happy to draft most things in plain text, I still prefer to observe some formatting conventions when I write fiction. I also prefer to write in Menlo and screw you iA for thinking your tastes matter more than mine.

iA Writer’s key differentiator is its obsession with focus. You can focus on your current paragraph, sentence or step back to the 1960s with typewriting mode.

Focus on paragraphs in iA Writer
Focus on paragraphs in iA Writer

While I don’t personally care for this feature, I certainly appreciate that others do, and it’s a big selling point for the app. It’s not the only app that does this, but as far as I can, it’s done well in iA Writer.

Hashtags

iA Writer 5 introduces the concept of tagging. Tags are created by #tagging keywords with the # character. In many respects, these behave similarly to keywords in Scrivener and Ulysses, but with one notable exception — tags in iA Writer are embedded within the document text itself.



In this respect, the feature is similar to Bear Notes, but there are a few differences. In Bear Notes, you can create nested tags, allowing you to create a hierarchy, which is pretty cool. That’s not possible in iA Writer, then again it’s not something you can do in Scrivener or Ulysses either. Tagging is Bear Note’s sole means of organisation, whereas, in iA Writer, you still have library folders to create any hierarchical structure you need.

Unlike Bear Notes however, iA Writer gives you the option to exclude your hashtags from exported documents. This is a really nice touch. Bear’s inability to remove tags from exported notes is one of the reasons I don’t use the app.

The only quirk I found with hashtags is that if you import documents where your markdown headings are joined to their hashes, they’ll be interpreted as tags, not as headings. I experienced this first hand when I imported a bunch of old world-building files I had laying around in DropBox.

Hashtags imported
Hashtags imported

Tabbed interface

Another nice feature is the introduction of document tabs. Bizarrely though, I couldn’t find the means to select a document in the Library and open it in a new tab. To do this, I had to open a new tab (Cmd+T) then choose the document from the Library. I personally would have liked a right-click open, as you can do in Ulysses and just about any text editor on the planet.

Tabs are all the rage in macOS these days, and while I appreciate the feature what would be even better for writing complex projects is split-view, like you have in Scrivener, or text editors like Sublime Text and Visual Studio Code. Instead of that, iA Writer does allow you open documents in new windows so you could fake the split view using macOS’ full-screen split screen.

Faked split screen
Faked split screen

Markdown

I salute iA Writer for its outstanding support of MultiMarkdown. Even when files in iA Writer have a text extension (*.txt), the editor still provides elegant markdown syntax highlighting, as well as a full complement of keyboard shortcuts, and even a table generator.

Tables are glaringly absent from Ulysses, so for writers who need native table support, iA Writer is clearly the better choice. In iA Writer there’s still no elastic tab stops, like in MultiMarkdown Composer, so tables in the editor continue to be a little messy. Nevertheless, iA Writer has a neat feature where you can link to an external CSV file. Editing a table in a spreadsheet app, and then exporting to CSV is much more conducive than messing around with pipes and tabs.

## Quick Facts

/table.csv
CSV file rendered in iA Writer
CSV file rendered in iA Writer


Performance

Performance continues to shine, as it did in iA Writer 4. The UI is fast and responsive. Previews are generated rapidly, and there are no issues with lag even with substantial documents.

The Library

iA Writer 5 has overhauled the library. This new version embraces iCloud, no longer limits you to the number of folders you can nest2.

A key differentiator with Ulysses is that iA Writer is much more transparent in how it stores and manages your files. Files continue to be plain text and easily accessible — even in iCloud. iA Writer also allows you to work locally, allowing you to add any folder on your file system — including those synced with DropBox or indeed any other file syncing service.

I’ve already noted the new hashtags feature. Hashtags also appear in the Library, providing convenient access to content you’ve tagged in this manner.

Smart folders

iA Writer 5 also introduces smart folders, which are analogous to Filters in Ulysses and Collections in Scrivener. They allow you to build groupings based on search and other criteria.

Creating smart folders is easy, and the feature is very powerful. You can add multiple conditions, chaining together searches, paths and modification dates to drill down into your content.

Creating Smart Folders in iA Writer
Creating Smart Folders in iA Writer

My one bone to pick here is there’s no support for regular expressions searching. This failing is also shared by Ulysses. Regex is a much more powerful pattern-matching search system that’s typically found in dedicated programmer’s editors. Given that iA Writer (and Ulysses to a less extent) make a claim as being more like text editors, I find its omission bothersome, and stupid. Scrivener has regex support, and regex searching is provided by the underlying macOS libraries. Regex is also critical to my editing workflow.

That said, I still think iA Writer’s Library in version 5 is a definite improvement over its predecessor. It’s done a lot to bridge the gap with Ulysses and may be the better choice for privacy advocates or those who deal also work with Windows, Android or Linux.

Export

Unfortunately, iA Writer’s export features continue to disappoint. When I switched the Ulysses, I retooled my blogging workflow to use TextBundle as my preferred delivery mechanism publishing content for my blog.

I dinged iA Writer 4 for not supporting TextBundle, and I’m disappointed to see there’s no support in version 5. Again they’ve chosen to push their own archival format which is fairly useless outside the iA Writer universe. TextBundle, by contrast, is widely supported among Mac and iOS apps.

iA Writer 5 makes significant improvements to MS Word export. It will export tables, images and even styles that Word and other compatible word processors will recognise — I tested it in Pages too, and the results are great. That’s terrific news for writers who rely on Word for collaboration or exchange — something I must do when working with my editor3.

iA Writer 5 continues to support direct export to WordPress and Medium, something users of those platforms may find very useful for blogging. As noted though, I rely on my own publishing platform, and so I have no use for these features. That’s not to disparage iA — Ulysses also supports both platforms.

I was also disappointed with iA Writer 5’s PDF export, which out of the box is still bland compared to Ulysses — and bland is being generous. However, iA Writer allows you to add other templates or make your own using HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

Having looked at the GitHub project briefly, Writer's templating system is much more fully-featured than that of Ulysses. However its massively underutilised; compared to the Ulysses Style Exchange, iA Writer’s selection of community templates is positively anaemic. One must assume that iA Writer’s users don’t care about PDF export, or those that go to the trouble of creating themes don’t share them as readily as the Ulysses Community4.

So, export is a mixed bag at best. Personally, I’d prefer to export or render documents using Marked App 2, or directly manipulate the raw markdown with the MultiMarkdown command-line app and PrinceXML. I will admit, there’s something incredibly appealing about this aspect of iA Writer’s openness that can’t be overlooked.



Conclusions

iA Writer 5 is an excellent release that’s significantly improved the user experience over its predecessors. iA continues to deliver an incredible blend of features and aesthetics while staying true to their disciplined vision of creating a beautiful, and minimal place in which to write.

As before, I still don’t see iA Writer as a Scrivener competitor. It cannot touch Scrivener’s organisational power, nor its flexibility, or its unmatched export features.

On the other hand, iA Writer is a direct competitor to Ulysses, and to be honest, were it not for a couple of weakness in key areas (mostly export), I’d be sorely tempted to switch, because…

…iA Writer is probably the best app for technical writing5 in markdown I’ve ever used. The library, table support, full MultiMarkdown compatibility, syntax highlighting for grammar, the ability to include external files, a Library that can work transparently work with the host file system (and therefore Git), make iA Writer my number one choice for long-form technical content.

So, is it for me? Not for fiction, and not for blogging…but, for my technical writing, it’s almost perfect and I’m sorely tempted to buy the macOS version, for a few projects I have in mind.


  1. It’s now closer to 5000 

  2. I’m not sure if the previous limitation was the fault of iA Writer or iCloud itself 

  3. Novels though are very simple and don’t need much formatting 

  4. Thinking about it, Ulysses is far more community oriented. iA Writer as a company is somewhat aloof. 

  5. My day job 

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