Writing is all about focus.
Distractions are the bane of writers all over the world. The writer needs to keep his head locked to the piece of prose that is the result of his thought process. Some writers spend hours on end to edit and perfect the piece that he is writing and the tool needs to help the writer focus during those hours and not distract. iA Writer is built on these principles and it has stubbornly stuck with this.
As I’ve previously revealed, I mainly write ideas on Day One App for a quick jot down and journaling my thoughts, embedding pictures when necessary. I will then finish it in iA Writer to develop the complete writing. Both app use Markdown, which I use extensively in my writing for formatting text.
iA Writer, the application
iA Writer is one of the first apps for writing on the App Store and one of the best, getting recognition as one of Apple’s Mac Apps of the Year for 2011. The iOS app was available first on the iTunes App Store in September 2010 and then the Mac version was released in May 2011.
iA Writer is made by Information Architects, a full service agency with offices in Tokyo, Zurich and Berlin - hence the iA in then name. iA plans, designs, and builds digital products and they focus on the usability more than anything. This fact can be seen in how iA Writer is designed.
iA Writer begins its life with iOS and its implementation is really simple. One of the thing that it is known for is its absence of any kind of application settings - the only things that you can tweak with while using the application is to link to Dropbox and use iCloud or not.
When you open the application, you will be shown the “About Writer” file which you can read, edit, or share. You can also go to the file Library, which lists all the files that you have on iCloud (referred to as the Document main folder). These files are synced periodically but you can always refresh manually.
There is an option to drag and drop documents to move a file or create a folder. Moving a file on top of another will automatically create a new Folder, while moving it to a folder works exactly as you expect it. You can also seamlessly move documents between iCloud and Dropbox as you choose using the edit function.
iA Writer has its own Trash repository so you can always get back a file if you accidentally deleted it. You can also duplicate or copy a file, which is useful for creating a writing template for later use.
Included in the iOS version is a formatted preview mode, where the app correctly formats the Markdown tags and shows all the links as actual ones that you can open in Safari. User can then share the file via email, print the formatted article using AirPrint, or copy its HTML code to use in other application.
Upon editing the application, iA Writer shows a keyboard extension which adds shortcut keys for symbols like dash, comma, colon, question mark, period, and apostrophe. This makes it easier for users to type quickly as they don’t have to use the Shift keys to find the appropriate symbols.
The keyboard extension also has a left and right arrow to navigate the document so we don’t have to resort to Apple’s touch editing for precise cursor placement. These arrows work really well on the small screen of the iPhone as it is conveniently located near the thumbs. Dismissing the keyboard is as simple as swiping it down using the middle draggable bar.
On the Mac
iA Writer for Mac is where the application truly shines as the choice writing app. As per the iOS version, there are no settings or preferences to set within the app. The font is predefined by the developer and there is no way to change it. The UI, however, is completely different with the iOS version - iA Writer for Mac can be fully operated with just a keyboard.
The app has a host of keyboard shortcuts which enables user to search the document, format text in Markdown and copy text as HTML. The app also helps by providing automatic typing substitutions as well as document spelling and grammar check.
The Mac version takes full advantage of Mountain Lion-specific features, such as fullscreen support, autosave, file versions, and iCloud integration. It includes auto indentation and of course the famous Focus Mode (patent pending), where the app will gray out other pieces of the writing and lets you focus on the sentence at hand.
A quick glance of the UI on the main window shows the Focus Mode switch, word count, character count, and the reading time average for the current article. These bits of information fade as you write and only become available after you stop typing for several seconds.
In the recent version of the app, and due to the release of retina displays Macs, the developer included responsive typography as one of its newest feature. What this means is that the app will resize the font according to the form factor you use. For a detailed information, check out iA's blog post on responsive typography.
To set or not to set...
When I first used iA Writer, I was taken aback by the lack of settings or preferences. I have been a power user for as long as I can remember and the first thing I do when using a new application, or just about any gadget, is to take a look at the settings. I fiddle with them to try to personalize and understand the app's inner workings. I can't do that with iA Writer.
However, after extensive use of the application, I came to appreciate the blinking blue cursor and iA Writer's no-fuss approach. The UI of the application is virtually non-existent and the font is comfortable to read and type with. The choice of a dull background color is easy on the eyes and a good contrast ratio is achieved with the font.
The developers have taken steps to research, develop, and use their extensive expertise to pick the look and feel of the application. These choices might not work for everyone, but ultimately work well together and are actually unnecessary for us to make anyway.
As it is said, less is more and it’s true for iA Writer in this regard.
Some hiccups on iA Writer
This review was written and edited exclusively in iA Writer and the simplicity really helped out. I could work without distractions and focus simply on the writing. However, there are some things that can be improved.
There is also no preview feature on the Mac version which removes and formats all the markdown snippets to actual formatting. This preview mode is useful so I don’t get distracted with all the stars, hashes, or URL links when writing. There is an option to copy the HTML or export as HTML but that adds an extra step for me in my workflow.
The iCloud implementation for iA's Writer is made using Apple's API, which is quite buggy and somewhat unstable, although now it's getting better. There are instances where I can’t access my iCloud files on iOS that I just made on the Mac and the app showed an error dialog. For those of you who has some problems using iCloud with iA Writer you can check out the support website from Information Architects. For me what works is moving the file / document off iCloud and then re-adding it again to the iCloud folder. iA is quick to reply and supports well on this matter, which shows that they are listening to users. It is not a bug on the iA Writer, rather a syncing issue from Apple's iCloud. Dropbox integration is smooth and error-free, although you have to get connected to the net always.
The developers of iA Writer argue that the availability of choices actually distracts user from the main thing - which is writing - and I agree. iA Writer is a good application not because it is lacking in options or settings, but because it helps people to do one thing and do it well. Taking away the distractions make it easier and faster to write on the get go. To appreciate this you need to spend time for hours on end using the application. There’s no way around it.
Update: As of version 1.4, iA Writer for Mac has added several enhancements, such as Preview Mode and selection-sensitive word count, a responsive design (which resizes the type so it works better with the current window size), and support for MacBook Pro with Retina display.