A Roundup of My Writing Apps
by Kyle Callahan
There’s never been a better time to be an OS X or iOS user than right now. Thanks to Apple’s App Stores, individual developers and smaller shops now have access to a large volume of customers, giving them just as much influence over the future of the platform as Adobe and Microsoft once wielded.
And with that greater democracy comes greater innovation. We’re now seeing ideas on the app front that wouldn’t have made it through the more cost-conscious or committee-driven development processes of larger companies. Shops such as Information Architects and individuals such as Marco Arment have expanded our notion of what we want from our apps.
So, wanting to help some of my favorite developers and wanting to shed light on apps that will be helpful to writers such as yourself, I thought I’d share the OS X, iOS, and Web apps that have made my writing not only easier to manage, but also more enjoyable to produce.
The Indispensable Writing Apps
The Big Poppa when it comes my writing life, Scrivener is a novelist’s best friend. Not only does Scrivener offer a fully-customizable, full-screen writing experience, but more importantly, it serves as an all-in-one project-management tool. Scrivener helps you keep track of all the various documents and files that go into developing a long piece of creative writing.
Scrivener is a huge application, with outlining tools, a system-wide scratchpad, file-tracking options, document versioning, character and setting templates, footnotes and comments, export options that run the gamut (including Final Draft, ePub, and Kindle file formats), syncing features that hook up with some of the more popular iPad apps, and more. But don’t let its giant feature-set fool you. If you want, you can just start a new project and start typing. Scrivener is an application that allows itself to be discovered. It has everything you want, but only when you want it.
If you do any writing at all, I can’t recommend Scrivener enough. It will, without a doubt, become the Big Poppa of your writing life.
If Scrivener is my Big Poppa, IA Writer has quickly become the ambitious little brother.
IA Writer belongs to a growing category of “minimalist writing applications,” and like other apps in the category, it promises to get out of your way and just let you write.
But IA Writer takes its idea of minimalism a bit further than its competitors. Simply put: IA Writer won’t let you do much else but write. There are no preferences to tweak, no formatting options to play with, nothing at all to distract you.
Because they take away all your options, IA put a ton of time into making sure that Writer looks and feels perfect right out of the gate. They chose a fantastic font (a customized version of Nitti) in a perfect color (HEX #424242) laid on top of a relaxing background (it’s actually a subtle pattern). IA even spent a considerable amount time developing a non-standard blinking cursor that, frankly, is more amazing than any blinking cursor has the right to be.
On top of that, the folks at IA added what I’m pretty sure is a unique feature among all writing apps. They call it “focus mode,” and what it does is gray out all of the sentences you’re not working on (click the picture to embiggen). Focus mode helps you to focus all of your attention not on what you’ve already written, but on what you’re writing right now. I love the mode so much that I’ve taken to doing the majority of my writing in IA Writer.
Of course, as a minimalist writing application, IA Writer can’t approach Scrivener for project management, so when I’m done with a particular writing session, I just copy and past into Scrivener to keep track of it all.
I should mention that IA Writer works on both iOS and OS X. I bought the iPad 2 on the day it came out, and I bought IA Writer on the day the iPad got delivered to my door. I’d read so many rave reviews of it by that point that I knew I just had to have it.
As you can see, it lived up to my expectations.
I know iTunes isn’t a “writing app” per se, but it’s just as indispensable to my writing life as IA Writer or Scrivener. When I sit down for any writing session, those three icons are the ones I click on.
To clarify though, it’s not iTunes that belongs on this list. It’s a particular playlist within iTunes that does, a playlist I’ve named, simply, “Writing.”
Comprised entirely of bands who produce mostly instrumentals or extended jams, my “Writing” playlist creates an ambience that my muse has learned to trust. When my muse hears the guitar of Jerry Garcia, or the driving rhythms of Do Make Say Think, or the rising crescendos of Explosions in the Sky, or the urgent horn of John Coltrane, she knows that serious writing is about to get done, and thankfully enough, she comes running.
The Specialty Writing Apps
I use IA Writer to compose most any text, Scrivener to manage all the sections and chapters and files that go into my fiction writing, and iTunes to motivate my muse to find me wherever I am.
But these next apps I use for very specific purposes. If you don’t have to achieve certain goals, these apps might not be for you. But then again, they might be.
MarsEdit is, hands-down, the best dedicated blog-writing application I’ve ever tried. I’ve been a fan of it for years, using it to post stories to both Fluid Imagination and the online literary-journal I edit, One Forty Fiction.
With customizable preview templates to show you exactly how your story will look when you publish it to your blog and customizable shortcut keys that allow you to format your HTML at the push of a button, the app is designed to work the way you want it.
Originally developed as the writing component of Brent Simmons’ legendary feed-reader, NetNewsWire, MarsEdit was spun off on its own and sold to a new developer, Gus Mueller of Flying Meat. Gus later sold it to its current developer, Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software, and Daniel used to work as a Senior Software Engineer at Apple. ‘Nuf said.
As for how MarsEdit fits into my own process, I write the first draft of my blog posts in IA Writer. When I’m done, I export the text into HTML format, and then copy and paste it into MarsEdit, where I play around with images, proofread using the customizable preview, and revise as necessary. After the post is exactly as I want it, I click the publish button and voila!, it’s sent to them there Internets.
I’m not going to lie to you. I’m new to the “note taking app” category. Prior to getting my iPad, I spent the majority of my time sitting at my desk, working on my Mac. I didn’t need a note-taking app because right there on my desk, right where I needed it, was my trusty pad of paper (no bugs! no crashes! works with legacy technologies!).
But the iPad changed all that. Now I find myself in all manners of the house when I am struck by some idea or come across some inspirational article, and sure enough, my trusty pad of paper is nowhere to be found.
Enter Evernote. With an iOS app, a OS X app, and a Web app, all synced together so I never lose anything, I can save a snippet of text from some article or type in a few sentences to capture a thought, and then, when I sit down at my Mac for the evening’s writing session, boom, there it is.
Now, with all that being said, I’m not entirely sold on Evernote. It was popular enough so that I’d heard of it before even thinking about getting a note-taking app, and now that I have entered that particular market, it works well enough to have become a regular part of my writing process. But I still find myself wishing for something…different. Something that makes me say, “Yes!” as quickly and as passionately as I still do for Scrivener and IA Writer.
Until then, I don’t have any problem recommending Evernote to those who might need it.
Microsoft Word 2008
Let me state for the record that I do not like Microsoft Word. The only reason it still exists on my computer is because, in my day job, I work as a marketing specialist for a company that runs on PCs, and most every file they create comes from Microsoft Office. I’ve tried several workarounds (Pages->Word, Scrivener->Word, TextEdit->Word, etc.), but all of them take several steps and involve some worry about compatibility.
Microsoft Word may not be fun to use, it may take forever to launch, and it may crash more often than any other application I have, but it’s still the most used word-processor in the world, and it’s too much of a pain in the ass for me not to have it.
Some day though. Some day I’ll say goodbye.
The Online Writing Apps
What makes an app an app? Is it the chrome around the window that you’re working in? Is it that you have to install it on your computer? Wikipedia, the genius of the collective, currently says that an app is “computer software designed to help the user to perform singular or multiple related tasks.”
If that’s true, as we all (via Wikipedia) say it is, then here are the web apps that I use to perform certain writing tasks.
Etymonline is an online etymology dictionary. Etymology dictionaries tell you what a word really means. It gives you not only a definition, but also the history of the word, the life of it. It tells you, as best as it can, how and where the word originated and how it transformed over time.
A self-reflexive example? How about the etymology of “etymology?”
late 14c., ethimolegia “facts of the origin and development of a word,” from O.Fr. et(h)imologie (14c., Mod.Fr. étymologie), from L. etymologia, from Gk. etymologia, properly “study of the true sense (of a word),” from etymon “true sense” (neut. of etymos “true, real, actual,” related to eteos “true”) + -logia “study of, a speaking of” (see -logy). In classical times, of meanings; later, of histories. Latinized by Cicero as veriloquium. As a branch of linguistic science, from 1640s.
How cool is that? Using the etymology of “etymology,” I can know I’m speaking the truth when I say that “An etymology dictionary is where you want to go when want to know what a word really means.” After all, the very word “etymology” stems from the word for “true, real, actual.”
I’m telling ya: Skip the regular dictionary and go to Etymonline.com instead.
OneLook Reverse Dictionary
Know what’s frustrating? When you have a sense of what you want to say but not the word itself; when the word you want is on the tip of your mind’s tongue.
Enter the OneLook Reverse Dictionary. You type in the basic concept you’re looking for, and OneLook will check through its huge library of dictionaries to match your concept to the definition of a word. It then shows you all the words you might be thinking of.
You can even play around with wildcard searches. If you know the concept you’re looking for has to do with the process of thought, plus you know that whatever word it is, it begins with a “th,” you can run a search for “th*:process of thought.” And sure enough, the first word they’ll return is exactly what you were “thinking.”
The third option on that list of words that relate to “th*:process of thought?” Thermal depolymerization. Why? Because according to its definition, thermal depolymerization “mimics the geological processes thought to be involved in the production of fossil fuels.”
See how that works? A search for “process of thought” returns a word whose definition contains “processes thought.” Pretty cool, huh? Are you telling me you can can’t use that kind of tool to help you write? I didn’t think so.
Behind the Name
There are more “baby name” pages on the web than there are babies born in a given day (estimated number of babies born each day: ~360,000; estimated number of pages related to “baby names”: ~52.6 million). And in the pursuit of the perfect character name, I’ve used a good number of those pages.
But the one I went back to time and time again, the one I finally ended up bookmarking in my browser, was Behind The Name. It’s a basic web app that allows you to search not only for a given name, but also for the given meaning of a name.
That last bit is crucial when it comes to character naming. You don’t just want something that sounds good; it also has to mean the right thing. With Behind the Name, you can run a search for a name that means, for example, “warrior.” You can then filter that list for male or female names. Then you can just scan down the list to find the name that sounds best for your character.
It’s quick and easy. And you don’t have to deal with a cutesy, family-friendly design, or have the names compete with ads for diapers or skin cream. There’s just a purple background and text-driven design.
Oh, and did I mention that its tagline is “the etymology and history of first names.” After what I wrote above, is there any way I wouldn’t prefer this site over the crap at BabyNames.com? Didn’t think so.
Writing Apps (I Think) I (Would) Like But Don’t Use
I’m only going to mention two, and they’re both by the same developers, The Soulmen.
The first is Ulysses. Ulysses is similar Scrivener (or going chronologically, Scrivener similar to Ulysses): they’re both full-featured, writing and project-management applications. The major difference is in Ulysses’ design philosophy. As the folks at Scrivener say about their competitor:
The designers [of Ulysses] have a very strong design philosophy—if that philosophy matches the way you work, you will love this software; if not, you might find yourself frustrated at the lack of rich text and hierarchical organisation capabilities. Either way, you owe it to yourself to check out Ulysses.
I used Ulysses before I used Scrivener. And while I thoroughly enjoyed it, what ultimately turned me away was its price, which at the time (if I remember correctly) was about $30-$40 higher than Scrivener’s. Funnily enough (and several years later), Ulysses 2 is now about $15 cheaper than Scrivener 2. Who’da thunk it?
(Updated on July 25, 2011: Since writing the above, I’ve not only used Ulysses 2.0, but I’ve also written a review of it for Mac.AppStorm. You can check it out here: “Managing Your Writing Projects with Ulysses 2.0.“)
The second app on the list is an iOS app I haven’t used yet, but the concept of it deeply intrigues me. Its developer, the Soulmen, describe Daedelus as “the first truly next-generation text editor for iPad,” and they make a bunch of fuss about the app being based on the metaphor of the paper stack (don’t ask; just watch the video).
Of course, I kid about the “fuss” thing. As you can see from the video, it actually looks pretty great.
The only reason I haven’t bought Daedelus yet is because I love, love, love my IA Writer and I don’t want another app on my iPad that competes for the same attention. Maybe if the iOS App Store could offer demos of different apps…but alas, Apple says no.
The galaxy of writing apps on OS X and iOS is huge. It didn’t used to be. Now that it is, you owe it to yourself and to your chosen platform to explore its furthest reaches.
There are hundreds of developers out there working hard to make magical code. Most of them do it because they’re writers themselves, and they’re trying to make an app that they most want to use. Who knows? Maybe their dream app, the one they’ve put all their effort into developing, shares the same the design and features as the one writing app you’ve been waiting for. You owe it to yourself to find them.
Besides, it beats writing.