Often technology is a distraction from the task at hand. The idea that being a writer demands you to have the perfect app, or the perfect computer, or a retro piece of kit, like a typewriter, is nonsense. This doesn’t mean technology won’t assist someone who is already a motivated writer, but expecting an app in and of itself to make you a writer is to set off down a road to disappointment.
Write with what you have first, then look at apps that might facilitate better use of time or work around your activities, making the writing process easier and more convenient for you. In this way you will learn the obstacles you face as a writer and be able to select the appropriate technology to overcome them.
One of the most talked about apps in Facebook writing groups is Scrivener. It’s an app that has every writing whistle and bell you could imagine for storyboarding, character development, book outlining, target setting, and so on, alongside exporting to Word, PDF, EPUB, Kindle, LaTex, Final Draft, and more.
For some writers it is a way of life, but for others it is overkill. I fall into the second category, for two reasons. The first is that there’s a lot to learn about the organisation and logic of the app for you to get started. Second, the app guides you down a path that encourages you to think about writing fiction in a certain way. This can lead into the distraction, as it did for me, of filling out character details and plot overviews. For some this might be useful, but I prefer to follow a logic that if I don’t remember details without making notes, then how can a reader stand a chance?
This isn’t a call for everyone to turn away from Scrivener—each writer needs to find the tool which fits—but the app isn’t ideal for everyone. The cost varies, depending on your device, and it’s also important to note that the macOS and iOS version development is ahead of the Windows version, so you won’t always find all the latest features on Windows just yet.
iA Writer is a markdown editor. Markdown is a schema for plain text files, arranging them with hashtags, for example, to represent headings.
# This is a top-level heading, H1
## This is a sub-level heading, H2
### And so we keep going, H3
You use *asterisks* or _underscores_ either side of a piece of text to define italics, and use **two of them** to indicate __bold__.
Markdown was created in the early days of the smartphone and tablet revolution to provide a solution to limited functionality, and text editors turned this into a selling point, positioning themselves as minimal and distraction free. At the time Markdown Editors were first released I was sceptical, and felt that quite high prices were being charged for something very simple. But over time I’ve warmed to certain markdown editors. The main reason is for the portability of plain text files, which are not tied to a single app, are lightweight for using on mobile, and don’t experience incompatibilities between mobile and desktop files.
Another benefit is that text/markdown files aren’t susceptible to viruses in the same way that Word files are. This is because a text file is a simple string of bytes representing characters without all the extras involved in Word, like macros and file encoding, where viruses can be hidden.
Further points of convenience are that markdown editors can be used with cloud services like Dropbox and iCloud to sync between your devices, to keep everything up to date, and all will export Word, EPUB and PDF, among other file types.
iA Writer is a cross-platform app for iOS, Android, macOS, and Windows. Depending on the platform, it is sometimes free, yet even where it is a paid-for product there are always with free trials available. It focuses on providing a plain text view and a rendered preview of the text where the markdown is converted into rich text. It’s neat, simple, and has enough to make it a decent choice if you’re happy with the price tag.
While a convenient workflow is to use macOS and iOS linked by iCloud, the app doesn’t stand in the way of you using services like Dropbox, especially if you choose the Android version, which has great integration with the latter service.
Zettlr is an open source markdown editor app for macOS, Windows and Linux. It doesn’t display quite the same clean lines as iA Writer, and there’s no mobile version, but it is free to use (donation recommended) and writing targets can be enabled on a file-by-file basis, it also keeps a record of your writing stats and has a pomodoro timer to keep you motivated.
The app has more features than iA Writer but is less fussy about design. It lacks a preview mode, preferring a mix of plain text and preview in one, which I find works well. A little more technical ability is required to open up the (optional) full range of export options, but once the Pandoc software, which enables this, is installed then you can forget about it.
Typora is currently in beta and free to use but will be a paid app once it is fully released. It is similar to other markdown editors like iA Writer, in that it follows the path of minimalism and strips things back to the essentials, but like Zettlr there is no mobile version, and instead it supports macOS, Windows and Linux.
Ulysses is macOS and iOS only. The app is often heralded as the gold standard in markdown writing apps, but controversially it moved from a paid app to a subscription model, which has been unpopular with some users.
There are writing goals and a good range of filters for your workflow, but you will pay annually more than for iA Writer, and you are tied to the Apple ecosystem by the app, although, because these are text files you are creating, they are endlessly portable to any platform and other apps.
For balance, it is important to note that markdown files can be created with absolutely any text editor, such as Notepad and others that are bundled with operating systems or are often free to download. If you install Pandoc, which is free, then you can convert those files into a whole array of file types including Word and EPUB if you’re willing to learn markdown (without prompts and assistance) and to work with command line interfaces. However, the purpose of the above apps is simply to take those challenges away and allow you to focus on the writing.
Microsoft Word, or open-source alternatives like Open Office, are a popular choice for writers: it’s what many already know. The problem historically is that Word files can become corrupted, which is a big selling point for plain text, a format which is (almost) impossible to corrupt.
Although Word files can become infected with macro viruses, I don’t find corruption a common problem these days with Word files, but it just takes the one occasion for a whole lot of writing to be wiped out. Even if you are backing up, unless you have historic versions of the file—using a cloud service or a rolling backup system—then you might’ve backed up the corrupted or infected version.
Other factors to consider: Word is a larger app to install than a text editor, requires a subscription for the latest version, and there’s an argument about distractions. I don’t find myself distracted by the choice of formatting available in Word, and simply ignore it, but others think differently. On the other hand, the use of styles and format options can be very beneficial for monitoring chapters and tracking changes, but like Scrivener you have to use it properly and not just as a basic word processor. It doesn’t have writing targets, or pomodoro timers, or do some of the stuff that markdown editors do, but it still lets you write.
For some, Word is the perfect writing tool; for others Scrivener is a dream come true. For me, iA Writer (Android) + Dropbox + Zettlr (macOS) fits the bill, and I move to Word in the more advanced stages. But choice is everything for the writer because we’re not all the same, and don’t all require the same things.
There are writers who continue to be inspired by pen and paper, others for whom the clunk of a mechanical typewriter is a cerebral experience. No choice is the wrong choice, we simply live in a time where there are many choices.
© 2019 Anthony Levings
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.