A few days ago, a reader living in Italy commented on my review of iA Writer 5.6. He wanted my thoughts on writing with a handheld device. He noted Italy's café culture provided a terrific setting for writing, where he spends his time translating screenplays from English to Italian. Coincidently, Italian migrants likewise made my home city of Melbourne equally blessed with an abundance of such establishments. Writing in cafés is something of a cliche, yet writing is fuelled by caffeine, and writing amongst others can alleviate the inherent loneliness of the craft.
Handheld devices have a been vital part of my writing toolkit ever since I bought my first Palm Pilot almost 20 years ago. Today, we live in a mobile-first computing world. Smartphones and tablets are optimised for long battery lives, always-on availability. Mobile apps are often far more efficient and task-oriented than their desktop counterparts, unburdened by the technical debt of their desktop counterparts.
Before the COVID19 pandemic, I wrote outside the house almost every day — my commute on the train, a quick lunchtime session. With my job as a technical writer, I took notes in meetings, working lunches (or breakfasts) with clients, and ran training programmes as far away as Sydney and Perth. Mobile devices let me capture my ideas as and where inspiration hit.
My mobile device of choice is Apple's iPad mini 5, accessorised with an Apple Pencil and the Brydge mini Bluetooth keyboard1. This 8-inch device is twice as powerful as my 2015 MacBook Air in single- and multithreaded performance.2 Staggering when you consider both iPad and keyboard can fit in my jacket pocket or my compact 'manbag'. Modern smartphones are graced with similar performance and are even smaller. I use my iPhone for quick edits and note-taking, but its the iPad's larger screen and flexible form factor I prefer for writing.
Writing apps for iOS
While lively debates on whether or not iPads are computers fit for professional work burn internet forums and YouTube comments — many writers look on with smug amusement. Writers were among the earliest adopters of iPads. The market for writing apps on iOS is very mature, with mobile versions of all the desktop heavyweights, as well as many exclusive titles.
Here's my curated list/mini-review of the best apps I've personally used. Since the commenter who inspired this post works with screenplays, I'll note if the app supports Fountain format.
For long-term readers of my blog, this pick comes as no surprise. Scrivener is where I write my novels, on both the Mac and iPad. The iOS app has far fewer features than its desktop brother. However, it's still a terrific companion app for drafting and marking light structural changes. With my MacBook docked in 'desktop' mode, I write my bedtime writing sessions on my iPad. For drafting, I find the iOS app to be very immersive, and for this reason, I don't mind the reduced feature-set.
Scrivener supports Fountain and has a strong and loyal following among screenwriters. The iOS version even allows compiling to screenplay format.
- Rich Text, Markdown and Script-writing support
- Store research as well as your draft
- Best option for long-form content like novels
- Scrivener links are great for creating local wiki or knowledge base
- Corkboard on the iOS version
- Syncing mechanism sucks
- Lacks many features on the macOS and Windows versions
Ulysses is my favourite short-form writing app, and it's the app in which I'm drafting this article. Unlike Scrivener, Ulysses has almost feature-parity across its Mac and iOS versions. It's also subscription-based — with a monthly or annual payment unlocking both desktop and mobile versions. Subscriptions ruffles feathers, I know, but the upshot is it allows the developer a steady and predictable income, and this has translated into regular and useful updates.
Ulysses doesn't support Fountain, but you can hack it! Screenwriter Jennifer Mack figured out how to fake it using a custom style, which she's shared on the Ulysses Style Exchange.
- Beautiful writing environment
- Syncing via iCloud is excellent
- One subscription unlocks Mac, iPad and iPhone version
- Best for short-form writing
- Almost feature parity with macOS version
- Fountain format is not natively supported (hacks are possible)
- Subscription pricing bothers some
iA Writer is the latest app in my toolbox. It's an excellent markdown editor and doesn't have Ulysses' subscription-based pricing.
Fountain isn't explicitly supported, but since the format is plain text, and shares some features with markdown, it wouldn't be a stretch to write a screenplay with iA Writer.
- Excellent markdown support, including tables
- Good feature parity with macOS and Windows versions
- Built-in style checker is great for editing
- Opinionated design and theme choices
- Ugly markup mixed in prose
- No Fountain support
While Editorial is still available on the App Store, it's not been updated in years and doesn't take advantage of new iOS features. For this reason, I'm hesitant to recommend it, but it makes this list because it supports Fountain out of the box. Great for tinkers and automation addicts, Editorial comes with built-in support for Python, allowing anyone with programming skills to, well, do almost anything you can imagine.
- Supports Markdown, Fountain, and Taskpaper
- Python automation
- Dead, hasn't been updated for years
Textastic isn't a writing app per se — it's a plain-text editor that's pitched at developers. However, writers of a more technical bent have adopted the app thanks to its support for multiple markup languages and integration with popular Git client, Working Copy.
Textastic supports Fountain syntax, and this theme adds colour support for synopses, actions and dialogue. I haven't installed the theme, but in the screenshot below I show what fountain documents look like in Textastic by default.
- Supports Markdown, Fountain and many more formats
- Can be customised with TextMate syntax bundles
- Works well with Working Copy for Git-based workflows
- More a developer tool, than a writing tool
- Complex for some users
Untitled (honourable mention)
Last but not least is the dedicated screenwriting app, Untitled. I've left this to last because I've never tried it (I'm not a screenwriter). Still, it's cheap, very well reviewed and works exclusively with fountain-formatted documents.
iOS and iPad are excellent choices for writers who prefer the mobile experience, either full time or an accessory to their desktop. The hardware is terrific — portable, powerful and adaptable to different work setups in ways a Mac is not. The app ecosystem is very healthy — in fact, I'd say we are spoilt for choice with apps to suit every need and budget.
For the novelist, long-format non-fiction author or academic writer, Scrivener is the best choice, particularly for those also using its desktop counterpart on macOS or Microsoft Windows.
For the blogger, journalist, business/technical writer using markdown for short-form content, my recommendation is to use either Ulysses or iA Writer. Many authors use them for long-form content, but I find them ill-suited for this task. In choosing between them, my rule of thumb is down to preference and features. If your content is more technical, requiring tables, TOCs, task lists, etc., iA Writer is the better choice. If you hate markup up in your prose, want more freedom to customise your writing experience, and work on multiple Apple devices, Ulysses is the better option.
If screenwriting is your primary focus and you use Final Draft on the desktop, then Untitled is probably the best choice for your mobile writing.
I hope that helps. If you have other recommendations, I'd love for you to drop a comment below.
Comments by two readers prompt me to revisit iA Writer. In this review of iA Writer 5.6, I explore the amazing new style checker and conclude it's finally my time to buy the app.
After breaking Scrivener for iOS with two massive project files, I vent my spleen about Scrivener’s biggest weakness.
My two years using Ulysses coincides with the release of Ulysses 20, so I review the update and reflect on my time with the app.