Trying iA Writer

ia-writer
text-editor

#1

In the past few years, I’d been doing most of my writing in a combination of Bear and Ulysses. Bear for note taking and shorter form stuff; Ulysses for long-form writing. Both these apps worked well for me individually, but even though I had drawn a pretty clear line between them having two different writing environments did introduce a bit of friction. There are also a few things about Ulysses in particular that rubbed me the wrong way. I dislike the non-standard way it handles Markdown links, for example.

In late 2018 I decided to give iA Writer a try. I picked iA Writer in part because of some of the things Federico Viticci has written about it. I liked the idea of an editor that stores files in iCloud Drive and plays nicely with iOS features like Open in Place. It has both Mac and iOS apps, which is a hard and fast requirement for me these days.

Moving to iA Writer

The first step in this process was to move my existing files from Ulysses and Bear over to iA Writer. Ulysses was simple, I just exported my files to iA Writer’s iCloud Drive folder and they showed up in the app.

Bear was a bit harder because it has a very different metaphor. Rather than files and folders, Bear has a flat list of documents organized using tags. While iA Writer supports tags, they’re clearly secondary to the file/folder structure. iA Writer also doesn’t allow for nested tags, which I use pretty heavily in Bear (a “work” tag with separate tags within it for individual projects, for instance).

I decided to try to turn my Bear tagging system into nested folders in iA Writer. To do this, I first made sure that everything had a tag of some sort, then exported all of it to a folder on my hard drive. I wrote a Python script that identified the tags by looking for lines starting with a hashtag that was not followed by a space or another hashtag (which would be Markdown headings rather than tags). The script created a folder in the iA Writer iCloud Drive directory for each tag (and within each of those folders for each subtag) and copied the text files into the appropriate folders. I did have to do some manual tweaking afterwards, but I managed to translate my nested tag structure into nested folders a lot more easily than if I’d tried to do it manually.

Likes and Dislikes

Perhaps this is not very consequential, but I don’t think iA Writer looks a nice as Bear. It’s rather monochromatic compared to Bear’s nice use of accent colors.

On the functional side, I like the fact that iA Writer uses vanilla Markdown with some very lightweight highlighting rather than trying to do something fancy and different the way Ulysses does (and Bear, to a lesser extent). One area where I wish they’d go a little further with the Markdown highlighting is to do a better job visually differentiating between different levels of Markdown heading. All headings look the same and are basically just shown in bold.

I have run into a few bugs. Most annoyingly, the iOS app sometimes freezes when I try to drag and drop text, either within the app or dragging to another app in split view. Copy and paste work fine though, and I really like the ability to move lines (or highlighted blocks of text) up and down with the keyboard. This is especially great on the iPad which lacks some more traditional text manipulation capabilities that you can do with a mouse.

It’s very common for something I write at work to start as a Markdown text document, then get exported to Microsoft Word to share with my colleagues. I like the results of iA Writer’s Word export quite a bit better than Bear or Ulysses.

I may need to rethink my organizational scheme to work better with folders. I’ve got stuff broken up into a lot of different, very specific folders, with lots of folders at the top level and, in some cases, nested quite deep. This worked well with Bear’s tagging system, but I’m not sure this is the best way to do things in a files and folder system like iA Writer’s. Thankfully, iA Writer’s file search capabilities are quite good and very easily accessible from anywhere within the app.

If I do decide to reorganize my file system that will definitely be a task to do on the Mac. Moving files within the app on the iPad is not very intuitive.

On iOS, iA Writer includes a Command Keyboard that can be used to insert common markdown tags, special characters that are hard to get to on the iOS keyboard, etc. There’s a ton of customizability behind this so you can set it up to have exactly what’s most useful to you. I particularly like the fact that it’s available on the iPad even when you have an external keyboard attached.

A change I’m going to stick with

Overall, I’m pretty happy with iA Writer. Having one app for all my writing simplifies my workflow, and I like the vanilla approach to Markdown. I’ve gone ahead and canceled my Bear and Ulysses subscriptions, and at least for now, I’ll be using iA Writer as my primary writing app.


Markdown - the advantage and afterall why?
#2

For those interested in iA Writer vs Ulysses, you may find this article comparing the two helpful. As for me, I’m sticking with my resolution to not change any applications for at least 12 months.


#3

Very nice write up Chris!
Thanks for sharing your experience.


#4

IA’s devs are unapologetically opinionated about how people should write, and for years they have purposefully restricted the number of ways the screen can be customized. That has its advantages - I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent pfaffing about inside Ulysses, customizing fonts, sizes and text and background colors (and importing and trying out themes created by others) to get most comfortable. I like IA Writer and I own it for iOS/Mac, but it’s not my main writing app.

But until the last version (and the app has been around since maybe 2012) you couldn’t make text smaller or larger beyond what they thought was an appropriate size, there were no tags, and for many years there was just a single (albeit nice) embedded font that could be used: Nitti Light. Even today, they now only let you choose between some tweaked open-source fonts of their choosing, which makes me a little batty. And the lack of colors you note echoes Apple’s removal a couple of OS versions ago of colored icons from the Finder’s Favorites/Drives sidebar column, which I abhor.

Still, it’s a really good app for getting out of the way and writing. On iOS I generally prefer to write in IA Writer more than in Ulysses. But on the Mac the imposed restrictions came to chafe over time, although I think they have a winner in their new Quattro font.

When I’m writing I have a couple of fonts I prefer to write with, so I tend to use apps that let me choose the font. And I also don’t like spending long periods of time in the standard too-bright and too-contrasty light mode, or the one single dark mode. That’s why, for me at least, on the Mac I have tended to standardize on Ulysses and BBEdit, where I’ve customized the fonts and colors.



#5

In regards to organizing your iA Writer documents on iPad, just do that right in the iOS Files app! Much easier than doing it within iA Writer. Fairly easy in Files to create new folders and move documents around.

I’ve been using iA Writer for the past couple years and remain very happy with the decision to switch from Ulysses. I appreciate how quickly they get the app updated to support the new versions of iOS and new hardware.


#6

I freaking love iA Writer! It’s the best app for getting out of the way so I can write.

I also love Bear Notes and Apple Notes. Each have their own purpose and usefulness. I see nothing wrong with using multiple apps that do similar things. Bear Notes is the perfect app for writing journals and logs I keep. Apple Notes is the best for jotting things down especially when out and about on my iPhone. iA Writer is the best for writing articles or any long form content.


#7

I went back to IA. I really like in on the Mac, but the new iOS version doesn’t support native Dropbox support. (You can open a file from dropbox, but it doesn’t seem to save right back, as it used to.) Or it does, and I’m not doing something right. Either way, it used to be easier!

Does anyone have any experience with the new IA Writer for iOS and Dropbox?


#8

Thanks for the link to my comparison article, @Bmosbacker!

I figured I would chime in (first post) since the iA Writer vs. Ulysses debate continues in my workflow, especially as both apps develop and improve.

My main hang-up with adopting iA Writer fully is a practical one: I write articles that often include many photos, so with Writer I’m faced with a few choices…

  1. Keep documents and images in the same directory, resulting in a folder full of loose, mostly unrelated files
  2. Make a subfolder for each document’s attachments, resulting in both a file and a folder for each thing I write (and thus two entries for each piece in the library)
  3. Make the subfolder for each document, but also move the document itself into the subfolder, in which case the directory only has one item of each name…but then the process of navigating between documents in the library view is a mess of hopping in and out of folders, and the main view will be showing all folder names instead of files, which means you can’t see content previews
  4. Make a single attachments subfolder and either have every document’s attachments loosely contained therein, or create another subfolder level for each document’s attachments within the master attachments folder, resulting in longer and longer reference links in the document

The fact that images (and other attachments) are simply embedded into the sheet in Ulysses makes the whole thing feel a lot more elegant and easy to navigate.

I wonder if I’m missing some obvious approach that makes iA Writer similarly elegant when using images though? Would love to hear from others who are happy with it for articles that aren’t text-only.


#9

Love this thread. I too wrestled with similar thoughts that @ChrisUpchurch had. I read over @marius article and several others.

I went from writing in Word, to Evernote. Abandoned Evernote and switched to DEVONThink for my archive but found I wasn’t able to “write” in DEVONthink. I didn’t realize until that moment how much the app environment affected me.

I subscribed to Drafts just to have access for the Mac version to test out. It’s nice in beginning my writings in but I don’t finish them in Drafts because of the mentality that it’s a short temporary place until it gets to its final destination.

Tried Byword and Ulysses, but then iA writer just felt more comfortable with writing. I like the 3 pane approach, I didn’t see an option for the in Ulysses or Byword.

I also liked the ability for me from my iPad I could use iA Writer for my speaking engagement, enlarge the text with pinch and zoom when needed.

My usage for iA writer is still super simple, I prepare my speaking engagements in there. I am still dabbling in blog writing, but until the blog becomes more constant for me I just use the Wordpress interface for now, as I continue to learn more easier workflows.


#10

Just wanted to point out that Ulysses does have a three-pane interface. You can use the ⌘1, 2, 3, 4 shortcuts to unfold the various panes, or use the View menu to choose which to display. I myself flip between 3-pane and editor-only view depending on whether I’m writing or organizing.


#11

That’s exclusively how I use it. image


#12

@marius @bowline my apologies, it looks like I didn’t finish my sentence with my thoughts.

Yes, both do have the 3 pane approach.

The extra thing that iA Writer had which I didn’t see in Ulysses was the side by side preview mode as you are writing. (This is where I mistook the 3 pane…I guess 4 pane optional?)

In Ulysses, I believe it’s a few extra steps to preview what you wrote. Whereas in iA Writer, as you are writing, you can see how the formatting will look like in the end.


#13

Oh, I see what you mean now—yes, you’re right. No such thing in Ulysses. You could pop out the preview window and have it hovering side by side, I suppose, but that’s not as tidy.


#14

That’s right; but still, Shift-Command-P is pretty easy…


#15

I’ve use the preview window on one side and the Markdown window on the other side (exactly like the screenshot above). The preview window does live updates while I’m editing in Markdown.


#16

I too have been trying all the above (Ulysses, Bear, IA writer, etc…and now another one pops up, Strike, from Bloop. We have a wealth of riches, it appears.


#17

I know someone who tried in out in test last fall(?), said at the time that it was a work in progress. Apparently the devs are, or are related to, the devs of Airmail.


#18

A couple of iA Writer questions:

  • Is there any advantage to using their default iCloud folder vs. an external folder elsewhere in iCloud? I keep all my current documents in a 2019 folder under Documents, and I’d just as soon keep it that way.

  • How the heck do you use Content Blocks? I understand that you put the included document on its own line starting with a forward slash /. But then what? How do you navigate to/open the included document? I’ve tried double-clicking and right-clicking the content block inside the text editor, but that does nothing.

Thanks!


#19

When you go to the preview you’ll see the content inserted at the appropriate point.


#20

Ah. Preview.

I don’t even look at preview when I write, in any markdown application. I’m badass that way.