How to choose between notepads, text editors, and word processors for your Mac or iPad

in Mac Software edited July 2018
You have a preposterous and daunting range of choices for apps to write in on Macs or iOS. It's great to have the choice and today's tools are superb but AppleInsider shows you how to figure out what's best for you -- and what will just waste your time.

When our species first looked up from the primordial soup, we probably wrote a blog about it in a word processor called WordStar. Then came fire and WordPerfect. Next came civilization and the dawn of unrecoverable documents with Microsoft Word (From $70/year). At each stage, there was one word processor everybody used and which we all used for everything. Those days are gone and we wave them goodbye very happily.

For in at least the last ten years and most certainly since the App Store, our options for writing tools have ballooned. It is brilliant. Whatever you write, there is a tool that is not only right for you but which you will relish. If you spend a lot of time writing, having great tools is superb but also have a bit of relish helps.

Today we have several word processors that aim to do everything but then we also have specialized ones for screenwriters. We've got text editors that suit your shopping list or your writing in the Swift programming language.

We've got apps that will let you make a sleepy note on your iPhone in the dead of night and have it there waiting for you on your Mac in the morning.

If you're just now looking to write on Macs or iOS, start here. If you're a decades-long old hand, start again here anyway. For until you see what's possible now, you won't imagine just how much has been done to making writing better, faster and more delightful.

It gets no more basic than this

To make that shopping list or to jot down a phone message, you need a note-taking app and you've already got one. On your Mac, there's TextEdit (free) which is so simple and basic that you'd think you've stepped back to computers of the 1980s.

However, it's so simple and basic, it so very much does not add complexity or Microsoft Word-like formatting that TextEdit is also beloved of a certain type of programmer. They're specifically the programmers who have not yet heard of BBEdit ($49.99).

Only, look at that. We're barely a pixel into this and we've just gone from the most basic, free note taking app to one that is paid-for and incredibly powerful for specialized users. You're going to see this throughout the range of writing apps available as every one of them tries to add more features in order to get your custom.

You're also going to see Apple coming bounding up behind them with new or improved features in its own apps.

So much so that it's possible you didn't even know TextEdit was on your Mac: Apple is never going to make a presentation about it. Whereas they have made presentations about Apple Notes (free).

This was a mildly handy iPhone app for writing stray thoughts down before you forgot them but now it's moved up to the next level.

Note-taking apps

Apple Notes, Evernote (from free), OneNote (in Office 365 subscription from $70, Google Keep (free), Bear (from free), Keep It ($49.99) and steadily more make up this next class of app. They're still not Word replacements, they're still not for writing your novel or your medical textbook.

Yet you could use them for that. You could. Don't do it, and especially don't listen to the developers who insist people have written their novels in these apps. While it's possible to do so on literally any tool, it's also a slog and we're supposed to be about making writing better and easier, not something that's possible with slogging.

Take it, though, as a measure of how powerful this class of app is. You can type anything into any of them, you can do a certain amount of formatting to make the text look nice. You can't do indexing, you can't do cross-referencing, you can't write twenty chapters and easily move five of them around.

What these note apps bring you that is crucial, though, is the ability to write on whichever device you happen to have nearest. Turn to your Mac to type thousands of words and every one of them is also on your iPhone and iPad.

With the exception of Google Keep, which is more a visual tool and suited to a few short notes, each of these offers the same core features. They're on both platforms, they're fast, they mean you can have all of your work with you wherever you go.

If this is the class of writing app for you, you could pick any of them and you'd be happy. However, if you use Microsoft's apps a lot for writing or anything else, go with Microsoft OneNote because it fits in particularly well.

Today it's a little harder than it was to pin down the people Evernote is best for because it's broad and the competition is great. We use Evernote primarily because we have used it for years but we are moving away. That's not a criticism of Evernote, though: it's more that Apple Notes has proved handier.

Even so, Apple Notes doesn't have Evernote's feature of letting you record audio into your notes. If you want to do that or if you ever need to work across Macs, iOS, Windows and Android, look at Evernote.

Word processors

You've come across these before. We might get frustrated at Word crashing -- and repeatedly wonder why it does when stablemate Microsoft Excel is so good -- but it is an astonishingly powerful tool.

The odds are that most books you've read in the last thirty years were written on Word. Even now when there are alternatives, the publishing industry expects Word documents so every alternative app will save to that Microsoft format.

If you're making documents with cross-references, Word not only lets you have text like "see chapter 3 for details" but if you add in another chapter, it will automatically change that 3 for a 4. It's great for footnotes and endnotes and academic features that you'd have to be in a university to appreciate.

Wherever you write, you're likely to need to collaborate with people. Maybe it's just your editor, perhaps it's every single person in the entire senior management team and their comments make you want to weep. Whatever the level of pain you have to go through, Word has a comments and a track changing feature that is to die for.

Apple's Pages (free with new Macs) has much of the same but not all. The problem with Pages is that it has a huge range of features and tools but Apple hides them all to give you the simplest appearance. Microsoft is like boy racer who wants his cars to have the loudest engine, the noisiest exhaust and a lot of go-faster stripes. They both, in their way, make it hard to find out what you can do with them but a rule of thumb is that Word does more.

If Pages and Word are the big ones on Mac and iOS, there are others such as Mellel 4 ($49) and Nisus Writer Pro ($79). That last, in particular, has decades of development behind it and a fan club around it today. This makes it a general word processor with some specialized uses.

Specialized uses

Everybody knows that writing is writing but everybody is wrong. Everybody should try writing a screenplay some day. You can do it in Word but -- just trust us on this, we've been there a lot -- you end up creating at least half a dozen different Word Styles. Then you have to remember how to switch between them without breaking your flow and good luck with that.

If screenplays, stage plays and radio drama are significant parts of your writing work, look at Final Draft 10 or Highland 2.

Final Draft 10 has been effectively a standard tool for scriptwriters and, as with publishers and Word, producers expect Final Draft. Actually, these days they expect PDF so you can write in anything but Final Draft makes the scriptwriting easier.

Highland 2 just makes it slightly easier still. So long as you are solely writing on a Mac, Highland 2 is a modern, fast, enjoyable writing tool. It's recently added more general word processing features but it's not going to be Word or Pages.

Book tools

It's not the writer's job to design and produce books, or at least it never was and still doesn't have to be. What writers have always had to do, though, is cope with book-length manuscripts. That means knowing that this change in chapter 1 will cause a problem in chapter 24.

Then it also means just physically handling large volumes of text and it's when you're in the 80-, 90- and 100,000 words that even the best note taking apps like Evernote will be unwieldy.

Word, too, is built for this yet proves to be a pain: it can be slow to navigate a large document and even if you haven't changed anything, the Word Count is a guess for a few moments while Word catches up.

Then there's the fact that Word practically boasts at you when it decides that it can recover a corrupted document. We would just like it to please stop corrupting them.

It's not that every manuscript goes wrong, it's that you don't know which one will or when, so you end up saving a lot, fiddling a lot, occasionally worrying a lot. Ultimately, that's why we moved to Scrivener ($45) for long form work.

Scrivener does not have Word's extensive academic tools. However, it feels lighter when you're writing in it and it flies when you're editing. There's a Corkboard view that helps you organize even large chapters. It's got the ability to let you focus on just, say, chapters 7 and 11 together and exclude the rest.

More, where you feel Word was written by engineers -- talented engineers but not writers -- Scrivener was made by one of us. You can see that in a dozen small touches that make your writing flow but you can also see it in the app's research feature.

Scrivener's developers know what it's like to write large projects. Whether it's fiction where you might want to make character notes or it's non-fiction where you have to compile a lot of research, every Scrivener document comes with a research folder.

So you open your book and there's the text that will be ultimately be read by your audience but right there in the same document is anything else you need. Rough drafts, discarded chapters, PDFs of research documents, web links, inspiring images. Anything. Everything.

When it comes to the producing the book, you can get Scrivener to compile all of your chapters into a nice, neat Word document that you send to your publisher. Equally, though, you can take that Word document into Adobe InDesign and produce the hardback book yourself. Somewhat easier than mastering InDesign, the tool of international publishers, is Vellum (From $199).

That's a tool for making e-books and paper- or hardback ones too. Both it and Scrivener have recently been updated to work better with each other and effectively turn your Mac into a publishing house.

You could write your book in Vellum: its text-editing features are good. Yet even the makers say you shouldn't. Use a tool like Scrivener or Word which provide features to help the person actually doing the physical writing.

No one tool is enough

You're not going to write your shopping list in Vellum, not unless you're really serious about publishing every detail of your life for the world to enjoy.

For that matter, you're not going to use Scrivener for your shopping list or phone messages either.

Instead, if you're writing a lot, look at getting more than one app from across the spectrum of tools. A note-taking one is a boon for anyone.

Then there are also two apps that refuse to fit neatly in this array of writing tools but which we would be negligent if we didn't mention.

The first is Drafts 5 on iOS. It appears to be the most basic of note-taking apps but that apparent simplicity belies how much power there is under the hood. You can jot down that phone message in Drafts 5 and then tell it to send an email or a message or an SMS to someone with that information. We just wish it also ran on Macs.

The second and last of these tools does work on Mac and iOS: OmniOutliner. We use this even more for planning events than we do for writing but it is so good at helping us sort out any ideas that we've used it hundreds of times this year alone.

If you have a minute, try using Word's outlining feature and then get the trial of OmniOutliner. You'll be sold in minutes

This is one of those apps where the developers say people have written novels in it and we don't doubt them, we just don't understand why.

For while there is a part of us that misses how simple it was when you wrote everything in the same app, the features and facilities of this range now is just too gorgeously great. Today we have the easy ability to jot a thought down on an iPhone notes app, develop it in Drafts, then turn it into a novel in Scrivener and a screenplay in Final Draft.

This is a very good time to be a writer. At least it is once you can sort through the sea of different apps available -- and this isn't even all of them.


  • Reply 1 of 28
    tmaytmay Posts: 6,371member
    On a side note, Serif has a beta of Affinity Publisher for Mac OS X arriving this fall, and as their other two products, Photo, and Designer, have iPad counterparts, there is hope that we will have a serious page layout app on the iPad in the future.
  • Reply 2 of 28
    tomahawktomahawk Posts: 179member
    Maybe worth mentioning that BBEdit also has a free version...
  • Reply 3 of 28
    tomahawk said:
    Maybe worth mentioning that BBEdit also has a free version...
    I was just going to say that myself.
  • Reply 4 of 28
    Does anyone use "Atom" anymore?
  • Reply 5 of 28
    I was hoping for some info on Bear and how it fit into the whole picture.
  • Reply 6 of 28
    ehlerehler Posts: 1member
    Was surprised to see no mention of Ulysses in the body of the article, especially when it's in your screenshot there…

    Worth noting a few corrections in the pricing of your notes apps (OneNote is available for free even without Office 365, and noting the necessary subscription to get any realistic use out of Bear or Evernote might be worthwhile, but your editorial policy might be to just broadly cite the lowest possible price point). 

    Also Drafts is coming to Mac this year. This fact has been referenced on podcasts Do By Friday (around 46 min in is when the dev comes on) and Robby Burns and Friends, and probably other places as well.
  • Reply 7 of 28
    fastasleepfastasleep Posts: 6,426member
    However, it's so simple and basic, it so very much does not add complexity or Microsoft Word-like formatting that TextEdit is also beloved of a certain type of programmer. They're specifically the programmers who have not yet heard of BBEdit ($49.99).
    I had to read this like five times before I was sure I understood it. :)
  • Reply 8 of 28
    One app that is missing, is SimpleNote. It is free, and syncs between your devices – Mac, iOS, Android, Windows and Linux. It supports tags and markdown.
  • Reply 9 of 28
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 6,957member
    Scrivener can now compile a word doc that can be imported straight into Vellum with all elements intact. 
  • Reply 10 of 28
    dewmedewme Posts: 5,421member
    melotron said:
    One app that is missing, is SimpleNote. It is free, and syncs between your devices – Mac, iOS, Android, Windows and Linux. It supports tags and markdown.
    Agreed. The only concern with SimpleNote is its proprietary cloud storage. 

    On every computer platform I’ve always found that I need both a good Plain Jane (ascii) text editor in addition to a word processor and code editor. The key attributes of the text editor are ease of access and raw speed - launching, saving, editing operations, etc. I’m somewhat disappointed that Apple’s built-in Notes program is rather slow to launch, even on the latest iPad Pro.

    What I’d really like from Apple is to allow me to attach my text editor of choice to the Control Center.
    edited July 2018
  • Reply 11 of 28
    You should look at Growly Notes ( also for note taking. I've using it for years. I keep separate notebooks for each of my clients as well as using it for general note taking. At $4.99 it's a real bargain. Downside is that it is Mac only. No iOS version so no syncing. Personally that's not something I need.
  • Reply 12 of 28
    dr. xdr. x Posts: 282member
    What about LibreOffice, free and open source.
  • Reply 13 of 28
    chasmchasm Posts: 3,341member
    I'm rather fond of ByWord, SimpleNote, Drafts, and the quirky but enjoyable OmmWriter. Couldn't pick just one (oh and Notability, which can also record audio and tag sections to where you wrote your notes) -- each are "the right tool for the job" for different things for me. I use Pages mostly for "mocking up" how the book might look, and then Vellum when I'm ready to go. OneNote always seems clumsy to me (like the rest of the Office Suite), and your description of "engineers" styling it rather than writers hits the nail on the head, I think.
  • Reply 14 of 28
    melotron said:
    One app that is missing, is SimpleNote. It is free, and syncs between your devices – Mac, iOS, Android, Windows and Linux. It supports tags and markdown.
    Good info, thanks. It's all about tags, that's one thing that made Evernote indispensable and one thing I see most text apps still lack, including Apple's own Notes (which I patiently await as I would prefer to use an Apple core app always).
  • Reply 15 of 28
    svanstromsvanstrom Posts: 702member
    During my "I'm working a book"-phase (it was about a kind of unified theory of meta-ethics; target market: about 3.5 people, including the 5-6 friends interested in the subject) I would have sworn by Scrivener as the ultimate tool for writing.

    But, having switched to Sublime Text ( for my coding I have to say that it's probably the best tool overall for most types of writing.

    Just get all the typing done; and then move the text to the best tool for formatting.

    (Or, if you're feeling fancy, Sublime Text also offers great color coding of text; no matter if you want to use something like LaTeX or your own system.)
  • Reply 16 of 28
    arthargartharg Posts: 27member
    Another big shout out for BBEdit. I've been using it since version 3.0 (1994, got an anniversary coming up next year :-) ) I can honestly say that BBEdit is the only application I open at least once every single day I use my Mac.
  • Reply 17 of 28
    dewmedewme Posts: 5,421member
    dr. x said:
    What about LibreOffice, free and open source.
    I've had good luck with LibreOffice Writer and Calc. I haven't used the other apps in the bundle enough to assess their usability or compatibility. LibreOffice is not as slick as Microsoft Office but still very usable and pleasant to use. File format compatibility with Microsoft Office is less of a concern since Microsoft changed to standard open package convention formats (docx, xlsx, etc.) but it could still suffer temporarily if Microsoft introduces new elements/structures within their (still standards-based) packages that expect corresponding code in the Microsoft application to process the new elements/structures. So far, no big issues on my end and certainly nothing worse than what I've seen with Apple's iWork applications and Microsoft Office interoperability. YMMV.

    One advantage of LibreOffice is its availability on macOS, Windows, and Linux. I use LibreOffice Calc (or at least test with it) when I need to distribute spreadsheets that may be used by people who don't have Microsoft Office. LibreOffice even works reasonably well on a Raspberry Pi Model 3 (and 3+) which allows you to turn your big screen TV into a couch computer if you have a spare HDMI port to plug it into and a wireless keyboard/mouse like the Logitech K400 Plus.  There is no version of LibreOffice for iOS, it's rumored, but you can still save/load files in Microsoft Office formats and access them using Apple's iWork apps on iOS devices, which is quite easy if your LibreOffice is setup to work with your iCloud Drive on your Mac.

    Definitely worth the price and it may surprise you.
  • Reply 18 of 28
    dewmedewme Posts: 5,421member
    If you don’t care about the app itself being on iOS the free Visual Studio Code editor works well on Windows, MacOS, and Linux. It’s highly modular like Atom and can be bound to compilers and version control systems, again, just like Atom. If you only install the basic text editing capabilities it is reasonably lightweight and fast. But you can quickly bloat it up if you install a bunch of add-ins. The dark themes are nice, again, just like Atom. It’s easy to imagine that Microsoft used Atom as a reference model for Code. 
  • Reply 19 of 28
    And a quick ode to Framemaker, which bests all of these. But alas, it ceased to be a Mac program years ago, yet its name shall be whispered with reverence by those who used it regularly and well.

    (Sidenote to would-be authors: publishers will demand your manuscript be submitted in Courier, 10 or 12 point, double-spaced, so don't fuss with fonts or style sheets in Word or what not, because you have to jettison them.)
    edited July 2018 toysandme
  • Reply 20 of 28
    kruegdudekruegdude Posts: 340member
    So, I wonder what the author used to write this bit of prose?
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