A major update to iA Writer, the popular Markdown text editor for iOS and macOS, has been released earlier today. I didn't have enough time to test the beta of version 4.0, but I'm intrigued by the idea of file transclusion – effectively, a way to structure documents with content blocks based on local file references.
From the blog post:
We’ve made a swath of improvements in iA Writer 4. The meat on the bone is this new file referencing syntax. Every file reference you insert adds a block of content to your document, be it an image, table, or plain text file. These content blocks can then be ordered, stacked and chained with ease.
We think this syntax is a natural extension to Markdown, and it would please us to see other apps use it too. We’re a bit nervous since it’s a deviation, but we’d still like to try it out and hope it finds friends. We’ve published an introductory spec on GitHub to get the ball rolling. Hopefully, content blocks based on file transclusion will become a thing beyond iA Writer. One day all Markdown editors may work like that, but, as IBM famously said, why wait?
You can reference text files, images, and even .csv files to include in the compiled text output as MultiMarkdown tables. I think this is a genius way to handle file embeds in longer documents, and it's something I would consider for future longform projects. I'm not aware of any other Markdown text editor for iOS that implements a similar option. I'd also like to see iA go beyond local file callbacks (which only work with iCloud) and allow documents to be comprised of files stored in iOS document providers. iA Writer is one of the few text editors that fully support opening and editing files from external document providers, so extending that integration to content blocks would be the next logical step.
There's a lot to like in iA Writer; I don't think it's appreciated enough by iOS power users. The aforementioned integration with iOS document providers is solid, there are several editing tools such as writing statistics and parts-of-speech highlights, plenty of output options, support for iCloud versions, and more. I hope that iA will consider adding more features to the app's basic URL scheme in the future – one area where iA Writer is considerably behind alternatives such as Ulysses and 1Writer.
I'm going to play around with iA Writer for a while – I feel like the app deserves more attention, and I want to experiment with document providers and content blocks for MacStories reviews and our newsletters.
As I wrote in an issue of MacStories Weekly (exclusive to Club MacStories members), I recently moved my Club-related notes from the Apple Notes app to Trello. Because Club MacStories is a collaborative effort, it made sense to use Trello's project management features to let the entire MacStories team see my notes. However, moving those notes to Trello considerably decreased my usage of Apple Notes, which left me wondering if it was time to consider an alternative app for my personal note-taking needs.
I praised Apple Notes numerous times since its relaunch on iOS 9. I believe Notes and Safari are Apple's two best iOS apps, and I recommend Notes to anyone planning a switch from Evernote or OneNote. Notes is surprisingly advanced and fast; its iCloud sync is reliable; it even received support for collaboration in iOS 10. I've used Notes as my only note-taking app for over a year now.
After moving my most frequently accessed notes to Trello1, I looked at what was left in Notes, and I realized that I wanted to see if a different app could fill the gaps Apple didn't address. For everything Notes gets right, there are several limitations that have required me to change how I work: Notes has no native Markdown support, no automation features, and its organization system based on folders could use a revamp. I accepted Notes' shortcomings because I had no other choice; could a new app lure me away from it through the promise of features Apple would never ship?
My transition from Notes to Trello couldn't have come at a better time. I've been keeping an eye on Bear, a new note-taking app developed by Italian studio Shiny Frog, for the entire summer. Bear piqued my interest right away: like Notes, it was based on CloudKit sync, but Bear also strived to augment the experience for "online writers" thanks to Markdown, automation features, themes, tags, cross-reference links, and more.
As Bear betas went out to testers, I told myself I wouldn't need it because I was perfectly fine in Notes. But when I noticed that I was using Notes less frequently anyway, I took the plunge, moved my remaining personal notes to Bear, and put the app on my Home screen. This happened two weeks ago.
TaskPaper 3 by Hog Bay Software is a deceptively simple task manager. The cornerstone and greatest strength of TaskPaper is plain text, which is portable, adaptable, and as future proof as you can get. Using a simple syntax reminiscent of Markdown and an abundance of keyboard shortcuts, Taskpaper's straightforward interface conceals considerable power under the hood.
Ulysses 2.5 for iPad
Maybe I'm biased because I'm a writer, but when it was announced in 2010, the iPad struck me as a device which could become a great tool for, amongst many things, my craft. A number of good writing apps (and accessories) have appeared in that time, but when I found Ulysses about a year ago, something clicked.
Made by an 11-person team in Germany called The Soulmen, Ulysses is pitched to authors, bloggers, students, and every writer in between. Much more than a typical 'distraction-free' Markdown editor that hooks up to Dropbox, I think of Ulysses as a writing environment. It has a full suite of tools including a post-Finder document system, the most thorough Markdown shortcut keyboard I've ever seen, the ability to split and merge documents, a unique approach to attachments, and so much more.
I'm writing this review because The Soulmen just released Ulysses 2.5 for iPad, Mac, and, for the first time, iPhone, though I'll focus on the iOS version for this review. The company told me this is the largest iOS update it's ever released, and having helped test the beta for the last couple of months and perusing the release notes, I believe it. Surprisingly, not only is this major upgrade that makes the iPad edition universal, it's free to existing owners.
Ulysses arrives on the iPhone
With the modern maturity of the App Store and no shortage of writing apps with myriad specialties, though, how does a premium app stand out from the crowd?
Let's find out.
In preparing my reviews of iOS 9 and the iPad Pro, I noticed that my writing process was being slowed down by the lack of multitasking support in my text editor of choice, Editorial. For the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to move some of my Editorial scripts and workflows to 1Writer, with interesting results and potential for the future.
I have written about Editorial at length on MacStories, and I still find Ole Zorn's text editor to provide the most powerful combination of Markdown and plain text automation that's ever been created on iOS. Over the years, I've put together hundreds of workflows thanks to Editorial's visual actions and Python scripting; while some of them were made for fun and intellectual curiosity, the majority of them helped me save time when doing actual work for this website, Relay FM, and Club MacStories. There is no other app with the same feature set and rich Markdown support of Editorial.
Since iOS 9, however, I've been wondering whether part of Editorial's automation could be taken somewhere else, possibly in another app that offered full integration with iOS 9 multitasking. I may have several workflows in Editorial, but I only use a tiny fraction of them on a daily basis for regular work on this website. I'd rather use a text editor that excels at a subset of Markdown workflows and integrates with iOS 9 than a single text editor with every imaginable workflow without proper iOS 9 integration.
It was this realization that pushed me to give 1Writer another look. I first bought the app years ago, but because I had no excuse to explore the world outside of Editorial, I didn't try to recreate any workflows in it. This time around, I was motivated to rebuild the core of my setup in 1Writer, so I took a deep dive into the app's automation engine.
Things will likely change again once Editorial supports iOS 9, but in the meantime I've developed an appreciation for 1Writer's design and features that helped me understand the app better.
Hilton Lipschitz, writing about switching to Markdown and whether it paid off:
The key to Markdown writing is that you focus on the content. Structure, format, look and feel are all secondary. It’s pure distraction-free writing. Which means that you have no choice but to write and think about writing and focus on the content. Which encourages you to become a better writer.
For me, Markdown has singlehandedly revolutionized the way I can put together articles for MacStories without wasting hours over HTML and RTF issues.
I used to write in the WYSIWYG editor of WordPress, which meant that I often ended up with strange formatting in my posts and I didn't have any local copies of my files because there were no files. If the browser tab crashed and I hadn't saved a draft, the post was gone and I had to start over from scratch. I didn't want to use Word for Mac and pasting from Pages created even more issues with formatting in WordPress (we are talking about 2009-2010 WordPress), so I stuck with writing in the browser. And it was terrible.
Since I switched to Markdown in late 2012, I have generated an archive of over 600 plain text files that are fully searchable, indexed by Spotlight and Dropbox, and readable by any operating system. Thanks to plain text, my articles and notes are portable and I can switch text editors whenever I want. When I convert to HTML and I see that everything looks good, I get a geeky serotonin kick that reminds why I will never write in the WordPress editor again.
Markdown and related services1 make it easy to add links, formatting, tables, footnotes and to generate HTML with a wide array of settings and options; because of that simplicity I have written more, fixed more typos, and generally dealt with more readable files. Markdown didn't merely pay off – I don't know how I'd go back to any other format at this point. It's just natural.
Tools may not make me a better writer, but Markdown allowed me to ignore the bureaucracy of web publishing, enabling me to write complete articles from anywhere. I'm thankful that it exists.
In my original review of UpWord Notes for iPhone, I noted that the app didn't support TaskPaper's syntax in any way, which was surprising considering that UpWord is a todo app that relies on plain text, just like TaskPaper.
In today's relatively minor 1.0.5 update, UpWord Notes added support for marking notes as complete with “@done” and for quickly adding tabs with a two-finger gestures – both enhancements are aimed at TaskPaper users. While UpWord is still far from being a fully functional TaskPaper client, these additions introduce a first layer of compatibility that makes using UpWord with TaskPaper files a bit more feasible. UpWord has handy reminder and favorite features, which are typically absent from plain text apps and systems, and if I were to switch from my Fantastical/Reminders todo system (not happening any time soon), I'd consider TaskPaper with UpWord.
UpWord Notes is $0.99 on the App Store.
Released last week on the App Store, UpWord is a list-making app that works with Dropbox and that lets you quickly add notes and manage them in lists with gestures. The app isn't perfect, but it's got some interesting ideas.
When Launch Center Pro 2.2 was released last month, I mentioned the addition of Dropbox actions for creating and modyfing text files, but I didn't share any action example because I couldn't find a possible use of the feature in my workflow. This morning, I realized that my old workflow to generate and share text files with Dropbox could be simplified with Launch Center Pro, so I rewrote it using the app's new Dropbox functionalities.
I often need to create text files and share them quickly with Dropbox. These are usually notes that don't fit in a Twitter DM or long crash reports for developers of apps I'm testing. In my old workflow, I used to type file name and file contents in Launch Center Pro, then, with two steps of inter-app communication, upload the file with Drafts, get the shareable link back with Launch Center Pro, and start a new tweet with the link in Tweetbot.
The workflow still gets the job done but the new version is simpler, faster, and more flexible. It's just three steps:
- Type file name;
- Type file contents;
- Get public link to text file in Dropbox.
With a single action that doesn't involve switching between apps, I can type a file name in a Launch Center Pro prompt, insert contents manually or by pasting, and hit Done to create a text file in Dropbox. Launch Center Pro gets the link of the just-created file and presents an iOS share sheet with a series of options for the file's public link so that I'm not limited to Tweetbot anymore; I discovered that I often needed to DM or email a link, and with the old workflow I was forced to start a new tweet then select and copy the link manually from it. With the new action, everything happens inside Launch Center Pro in seconds and I can pick the best option for me (it's usually “Copy”).
I was skeptical as to whether I would need Dropbox actions in Launch Center Pro, but this workflow shows some clear benefits of Contrast's app – keyboard prompts and a native share sheet combined with Dropbox text features make for a quick and elegant note-taking and sharing experience.
You can download the action here.