I spend a lot of time writing, so I’m always on the hunt for better writing apps for Mac and iOS. As luck would have it, you can find apps for every type of writing imaginable. If you write research papers, you might want a word processing app that allows for notes, links, references, and outlines (like Scrivener). If you write novels, you might want an app that helps you track plot points and character development (like Storyist). For general writing, my requirements are less demanding. Here’s what I look for in a word processor:
- Minimalism: Focus is important. The app must focus entirely on writing, and offer a full-screen mode to prevent me from being distracted by e-mail, Twitter, or any of the other alerts and feeds vying for my attention.
- Dropbox compatibility: I’m not always near my computer when I want to work, so it’s important to have access to my documents from my iPhone and iPad. The two most popular online file systems are Dropbox and iCloud. Dropbox is more flexible and reliable, so that’s what I use.
- Style: I spend a lot of time looking at words on a screen, so it’s important that they look good. If the font is ugly or the text is too scrunched together (I’m looking at you, TextEdit) writing can be a headache. A beautiful writing app eases the pain.
To find the apps that meet those criteria, I spent hours researching Mac and iOS word processing apps. I read as many professional reviews as I could find and dug through user reviews on the various app stores. Then I downloaded the top three Mac and iOS apps and tried them out.
But first, a note on file types
If you’ve been writing for years, your documents probably end in an alphabet soup of file extensions, several of which may be unreadable by modern programs. My advice (along with others) is to save everything in .txt format. The .txt extension is the bread and butter of minimalist word processing apps, and all of the ones I discuss below support it. On iOS, the .txt format is doubly important, because most iOS writing apps can read nothing but .txt files. On Mac, you have a little more wiggle room with .rtf files, but that’s useless if you intend to write on all of your devices.
The main drawback of .txt files is that they don’t allow for rich text features like bold and italics. To sidestep that issue, I suggest using Markdown syntax, which all of the word processors below support.
Mac word processors
All of the following Mac apps look great, offer full-screen modes, and have Dropbox support. If a minimalist word processor is what you’re after, any of the apps below will work. They’re also likely to be updated regularly, so the specifics might change at any time.
WriteRoom sparked the whole “less is more” word processing philosophy, and for that I’m thankful. This was the first one I tried, and the moment I started using it, I knew I would no longer write in apps like Word or Pages if I could help it. While certainly useful in some instances, those programs are overstuffed with loads of features I usually don’t need.
What sets WriteRoom apart from the other minimalist apps is its huge list of options. You can choose from several (often ugly) visual themes, change the font, adjust the margins, pick your level of zoom, adjust the color of everything, and on and on. The default settings are fine, but once you start tinkering, if you’re anything like me, you may never stop. Also, there are no special Markdown features here, so that may cause problems depending on your needs.
On the plus side, WriteRoom handles both .txt and .rtf files and can automatically log your writing sessions to a spreadsheet, which data-mining types may appreciate. But for my taste, WriteRoom offers too many options, many of which make the app look worse.
Byword, on the other hand, looks downright elegant. It has a simpler options menu that only lets you choose light or dark themes and adjust the margins and fonts. It can also handle both .txt and .rtf documents.
Byword is great for Markdown users as well. As you write, it tastefully dims the Markdown characters, making them easier to skip over as you read back what you’ve written. It also has a Markdown preview mode. If .rtf is important to you, this is the app you should use.
iA Writer treats minimalism like a religious calling, and that’s what makes it great. If all you need is a word processor that supports .txt files, then iA Writer is your holy grail.
Unlike the other apps, iA Writer offers zero options or preferences. You open the app, and there’s nothing to do but write. It’s perfect for anyone who wants a crystal-clear focus on their words.
Beyond that, it handles .txt files like a boss. It looks drop-dead gorgeous, with an ideal font size and comfortable margins no matter how big or small you make the window. And while the other apps on this list offer “focus” modes, iA Writer’s is the best of the bunch: it dims all text in the document except the sentence you’re working on. It also offers excellent Markdown support.
The only potential shortcomings I found in iA Writer for Mac are that it doesn’t support .rtf files and it does’t have a dark theme. But if you can do without those, look no further. iA Writer is amazing.
iOS Word Processors
All of the following iOS apps are universal, offer Dropbox support, and put an extra row of useful keys above the standard iOS keyboard. One downside to all of the iOS apps is that they don’t support .rtf files. In these apps, it’s .txt. or nothing.
WriteRoom is a good-looking iOS app that works about as you’d expect, but a couple of features set it apart from the others. Like its Mac counterpart, you get a lot of options here. Unlike the other iOS apps, WriteRoom supports all fonts built into iOS, and lets you fine-tune your background and text colors. So like on Mac, if you want customizability, WriteRoom is the app for you.
Just like on Mac, the iOS version of Byword falls somewhere between iA Writer and WriteRoom when it comes to customization. It has light and dark themes, as well as four fonts–but only one of them looks very attractive for writing. The Dropbox support is solid, but not robust.
Byword’s extended keyboard row, however, is ideal for Markdown users who write for the web. It offers shortcuts that let you easily add links, pictures, and lists to your text.
Byword for iOS is also the only app to offer a Markdown preview mode. So if you’re a heavy Markdown user, despite any shortcomings, Byword might be the app for you.
Feature for feature, iA Writer for iOS is almost identical to the Mac version: It looks fantastic, with a beautiful font, a clean interface, a great focus mode, and–again–zero customization options.
What most sets it apart is that it offers the fullest Dropbox functionality on iOS, including the ability to create folders and even move files between folders using an intuitive touch-and-hold mechanic.
iA Writer is my iOS word processor of choice. It looks the best, requires no tinkering, and offers superior Dropbox support.
Any combination of these apps will help you get the job done, but my choices are as follows: On Mac I use iA Writer for .txt documents and Byword for .rtf documents. Both apps are gorgeous, and easily handle everything I need them to do. I save all of my files to Dropbox, where they’re available to be edited by other apps on other devices. On iOS, I use iA Writer because it looks great and offers superior Dropbox compatibility.
This is a great set-up that works well for me. As soon as another minimalist writing app comes out, I’ll look at it with an open mind. You never know what works for you until you try it.