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