Hands on: iA Writer for Mac and iOS claims to be a calming, relaxing text editor

in Mac Software edited August 2018
The latest iA Writer won't distract you, won't interrupt, and won't do anything to get in the way of the words you type -- and that can be good and bad simultaneously, depending on your style and what you need. AppleInsider grabs a stress ball and tries it out.

We can't begin a sentence with a lowercase letter. We just can't. Sometimes it feels as if Apple is mocking us about that, as if the company enjoys us having to find words to put in front of 'iPad' and 'iPhone' and the rest. Now the newly updated iA Writer 5.0.3 is stressing us out with it too. That's a little odd, though, because this a tool explicitly designed to calm writers down.

Still, where Microsoft Word once its the button for creating a new document -- we wish we were kidding -- the only other tension in iA Writer is over what the initials stand for. The answer is that iA stands for the makers of the software, Information Architects.

Other than that, you can open iA Writer knowing that all you've got to think about is the words you want to write. It's just you and your text: the developers claim that "iA Writer removes distractions, giving you a calm, focused writing space."

So not only do you not have to think about fonts, there actually isn't a lot you can think about them. This iA Writer - nearly got us there with starting on a lowercase letter - is a Markdown editor which means you can choose from a few set heading or body styles. If you want to, that is. You feel that the app would rather you just got on with your writing.

That's because this isn't for fiddling with options, it's for bashing in your text without having to think about anything else at all.

It's excellent for that. By default it just has you and your text, not one single other thing in view. If you want more, you can call up more by hovering your mouse over the top of the document, the foot of the window or by scrolling left and right with your mouse or trackpad.

As you choose to add more detail, you go from simple text to some menus and then on to one of version 5's new features. It's the Library, where all of your documents are held.

From left to right, that's the unfettered basic typing view that you get by default. In the middle you can call up a title bar with some options. You could equally call up a footer with tools like Bold, Blockquote, Headings and so on.

It would be good to have both of these appear when you move the mouse rather than having to choose which direction to go.

Then in the last of these three, there's the document plus two more panes. In the middle there's the Library of all documents. Next to it, the narrow column gives you options for where your documents are stored.

This Library view looks very much like the one in Ulysses but there is a significant difference. In Ulysses, every document -- or sheet as that app calls it -- is present in the app itself. Anywhere you open your copy of Ulysses, you see the same list of sheets and they are with you.

In iA Writer, it looks the same but each separate piece of writing is a different document saved, by default, in iCloud.

That should make iA Writer more cumbersome to manage your writing in as you have to remember to bring documents around. However, they are all there in iCloud and besides, this idea of saving documents instead of just closing sheets is how we've all written for decades.

Back in the day, we wrote on typewriters too and while it's hard to really miss those, they did have advantages over word processors. For one thing, if you learned on a manual typewriter then your little pinky finger can still lift girders.

You also tended to concentrate more on your writing when your eyes were focused on the line you were typing now.

One of the long-standing features of iA Writer is how it mimics that by offering you various options for focusing.

The screen on the left is using iA Writer's Focus Mode. Specifically, it's using the app's option to just let you concentrate on the current paragraph. You can instead tell it to focus on solely the current sentence but that's going too far for us.

Speaking of going too far, you can run away from the notion that you're writing on a typewriter and instead deploy much more fancy technology. In the screen on the left, iA Writer has automatically color-coded adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs and conjunctions.

We have never looked at a sentence we've written and thought it needs a better conjunction. We have unfortunately often looked at a sentence we've just written and concluded that it is the worst piece of writing we've ever done.

There's nothing iA Writer 5.0.3 can do to help us there.

What it can and does do is make writing enjoyable. That's such a subjective thing and impossible to define in a spreadsheet of features and options. Yet it's also crucial.

To our mind, for instance, Microsoft Word feels heavy when we type in. Not exactly like writing in treacle, but it feels like we're having to push the letters onto the page.

Equally, there's an iOS app called Drafts 5 that for some inexplicable reason we look forward to writing in. This iA Writer leans much more toward the Drafts 5 kind of feel. If you know Drafts then you're aware that it aims to give you a new document to write in instantly, then it aims to hide away its powerful features -- but equally to have them ready for you.

On both Mac and iOS, iA Writer doesn't have the same wheelbarrow full of options of things to do with your text -- but it does have that speed and enjoyability.

We find we write faster in it, though that can't be down to anything the app has done with our Mac or our keyboard. It can be down to how while we're writing in it, we aren't distracted by ribbons or Styles or formatting.

Mind you, we're also not distracted by an index as iA Writer can't do those. It won't do automatically updating cross references where you call something Figure 7 and later insert one before it. Word will automatically rename Figure 7 to Figure 8 for you.

If that's your business, maybe you need a fuller word processor than iA Writer.

If you're writing to print something out, you'll get more formatting features with Word or Pages. Yet iA Writer feels like it belongs in the present day where fewer of us print anything out and more of us write for online.

The text from iA Writer can go straight into any website's systems, it can be read by any word processor. We're just not sure we'd write a novel in it. Or perhaps we'd write one but editing would be more of a chore.

There's nothing at all to stop you writing text in iA Writer then passing it on to Word or Scrivener or Ulysses, though.

Information Architect's iA Writer 5 is available for Mac, iOS, Android and Windows. The Mac version is available on the App Store where it costs $29.99 and requires macOS 10.11 or later.

The iOS version for both iPhone and iPad is on the iOS App Store for $4.99 and requires iOS 10 or higher.


  • Reply 1 of 11
    dewmedewme Posts: 3,612member
    You can start a sentence with lower case using IA Writer if you uncheck the "Correct Spelling" setting in Editor preferences. IA Writer will still mark misspellings and you can right-click on the flagged misspellings to select a correction. I actually prefer tagging over autocorrection.

    I may be old fashioned, but I like to start documents in a simple text tool like IA Writer or Textastic and later move the text to a full fledged word processor only after I've captured the essence of what I'm trying to communicate in the document. Simple editors like IA Writer don't get in the way of your thinking or impede the stream of consciousness with fickleness. Best of all they are low investment in terms of your time and effort. If you veer off into the weeds on your train of thought or coherency it's cheap to start over and/or hack up what you've already done. The longer you can stay away from being bothered by fonts, formatting, visual presentation, and typical document overhead clap trap the better quality of thought you'll get around what really matters - communicating your ideas or concepts.

    Using IA Writer as a prelude and set-up process for what will eventually become a document ready for publication is similar to using a white board (or mind map) to coelesce concepts for what will later turned into a PowerPoint/Keynote presentation. Whiteboards and text editors are where you really solve the problem. Word processors and slick presentation packages are how you present your problem solution to a wider audience.
  • Reply 2 of 11
    asciiascii Posts: 5,941member
    I can understand the desire to be focussed while writing, but calm? Ideas are exciting, one should be energised! :)

    Is there an editor that, as you type, automatically looks up the word you just typed in the Thesaurus and displays alternatives (as opposed to autocompletes) on the Touch Bar?
  • Reply 3 of 11
    chasmchasm Posts: 2,365member
    ascii said:
    Is there an editor that, as you type, automatically looks up the word you just typed in the Thesaurus and displays alternatives (as opposed to autocompletes) on the Touch Bar?
    There might be a thesaurus app that does that; it’s a great idea if there isn’t. Likewise for a rhyming dictionary.

    I really enjoy using iA Writer on iOS thanks to its cloud sync with the iPhone and Mac version. I used to use SimpleNote more because ... free! ... but it's just TOO plain-text for some things. Writer hits the right balance (for me) of a simple interface but there's just the right amount of tools. The focus mode and other features really help with getting into the flow, and the lack of Word's labyrinthian options means you focus on writing first, editing later. It's fantastic for composing blog posts using Markdown, or just writing the next chapter of your book in regular text.

    For $5 on iOS you really can't go wrong; the $30 Mac app doesn't offer anything more (other than the larger screen space) that the iOS versions do, but I look at the Mac version as supporting further development, and of course it's great having all the same documents right to hand on both platforms.
    edited July 2018 dewmeascii
  • Reply 4 of 11
    You can turn off the auto-capitalization of the first character but tapping the shift key twice.
    Works on both macOS and iOS (when using an external keyboard).
    see? no caps. on the first character.
  • Reply 5 of 11
    MacProMacPro Posts: 19,308member
    Just curious ...  $5 versus $30 between iOS and Mac.  Is this just down to sales potential?  Also when Macs can run iOS apps what will happen?  
  • Reply 6 of 11
    Did you write this article in iA Writer, William? Because it sure isn’t good advertisement then.
  • Reply 7 of 11
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,150administrator
    Did you write this article in iA Writer, William? Because it sure isn’t good advertisement then.
    Well, good, because it isn't an ad.
  • Reply 8 of 11
    I have often found the (pop) psychology behind "distraction free text editors" to be very fascinating. Writers write. There is no difference between opening a word processor and a text editor if what you are doing is simply writing, whether you're on deadline or you just came up with the greatest opening line for a novel in the history of literature. (Sorry writers, I have copyrighted "It was a dark and stormy night.")

    This is not a criticism of the piece, just an observation about the things that people feel they need to have to do something very basic. And no different, one supposes, from someone who insists on writing longhand on Italian paper in a leather bound journal as the only real way to connect with words. 
  • Reply 9 of 11
    chasmchasm Posts: 2,365member
    MacPro said:
    Just curious ...  $5 versus $30 between iOS and Mac.  Is this just down to sales potential?  Also when Macs can run iOS apps what will happen?  
    You'd have to ask the iA people, but yes it is probably down to the cost of Mac development (compared to iOS development) and the far smaller potential audience/chance of sales.

    "When Macs can run iOS apps" is a big oversimplification; "when iOS apps can be more easily rewritten for macOS" is much closer to what will actually be happening, and as for "what will happen," my guess would be "nothing" -- since a) many iOS developers will continue to not care about the Mac platform and b) the Mac platform will continue to be quite limited in audience compared to iOS for a long time to come (though this move to make building iOS-based Mac apps may very well spur a new wave of popularity for the Mac).
    edited August 2018
  • Reply 10 of 11
    Seriously considering buying this. Right now I'm paying off my new MacBook so I'll probably hold off. (Also need to make sure I don't get laid off at the end of next month.) But I feel like this could be a lot of fun to work in. I've mostly been using Pages and I'm pretty accustom to it. But the mode that highlights the type of words you're using could be really good to use when editing for content.
  • Reply 11 of 11
    I discovered iA Write a couple of years ago. I use it everyday. I truly enjoy its simplicity. It took me awhile to find the right word processor. For years I used MS Word, or better known as 'bloat-wear'. I became more and more disgruntled with its wait-time. I still use MS Word, but only if iA Word does not have the tool I need. I am very pleased that I found iA Word. Thank you for writing it.
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