The best writing apps for iOS - updated
Focusing on the best writing apps, this is the first in a series exploring the best tools to get stuff done using iOS.
17 June 2018
With a full-time job and young child I don’t have a lot of time to work on personal projects. The only time I really have is when commuting on the Tube. So my challenge is to design, develop and write content for a website – this one – almost entirely on an iPad and iPhone.
Looking for something I could use to write articles as well as manage daily notes, I found a number of contenders based on the following criteria:
Markdown based – Given half the chance I bikeshed terribly when starting to write, fiddling with the text styles rather than putting words on the page. Markdown is purely a markup syntax, relying on the writing app for its styling, so there’s less excuse to procrastinate. And as Markdown is a de-facto standard with a plain text file format, there’s no software lock-in.
Well designed – The default styles need to be well designed and the user interface should put as little between me and the words as possible. Fighting a clunky UI or poorly typeset text is a recipe for frustration.
Cross-platform – Documents stranded on a device are useless, so there needs to be a painless way to sync them. I use iCloud extensively, so that’s what I’m looking for. If it has a companion desktop app, preferably with handoff support, so much the better.
Bear has the simplicity of IA Writer while adding note-taking features like checkboxes and tags. However, unlike IA writer it renders Markdown inline, so there’s no split between editing and viewing.
My favourite of the apps on this list, Bear strikes a good balance between simplicity and features. I’m using it to write this article, as well as to manage my work notes and tasks.
For me, there’s only two things missing: the ability to create folders in the sidebar, and to insert any date into a document via the toolbar, not just today’s.
Price – Bear bare is free. Bear Pro, which adds iCloud sync, exports and additional themes is an in-app subscription of £1.29 per month or £13.99 per year.
IA Writer’s developers have clearly paid a great deal of attention to every part of the user experience: it’s fast, slick and well designed.
The core concept behind how it works is the switch between writing and preview modes. Writing mode uses a monospaced font and shows the Markdown syntax. Preview mode shows the rendered document, and it’s possible to change the way it looks by picking a different theme. It’s a neat idea, but sometimes catches me out when trying to make an edit while in preview mode.
The features are limited compared to others on this list, but what it does it does well. The decision by the developers to focus on writing was obviously deliberate. And the right one: it’s a good app.
Price – iOS app £4.99, macOS app £28.99.
Made by the same people behind the excellent Pythonista, Editorial’s automation tools, templates and integration with other apps makes it very powerful. It’s possible to script new workflows with Python, and there’s a website for downloading ready-made ones.
I’ve not fully explored the workflow functionality, but it’s amazing just how powerful it is. For example I was able to create a template which automatically generated Jekyll post frontmatter when starting a new document.
However, the fact that Editorial only syncs via Dropbox makes it a non-starter for me as it cuts off a large part of my workflow. iCloud support has been requested many times on Editorial’s product forums over the last few years, so it seems like the developers are just not interested. There’s also no desktop companion app.
Price – iOS app £4.99.
Functionally similar to IA Writer, Ulysses looks like it has a clean writing interface and can export to a range of formats including ePub. I’ve not tried it as it requires a steep subscription to use, especially when compared to other options.
Price – £5.99/month or £48.99/year in-app subscription to use both iOS and macOS apps.
Scrivener is too much for my needs and therefore out of scope of this article, but I had to mention it for the sake of completeness. It’s designed for authors and has a lot of tools to manage long-form writing projects, including index cards, a built in browser, research notes and more.
Price – iOS £19.99, macOS £47.99.
One of the few open source and fully cross-platform writing apps, Joplin is a good choice if you regularly use multiple operating systems. However it’s pretty ugly and as it uses Google’s Material design language it feels much more like an Android app than a proper iOS one.
Price – Free.
A free and open source Markdown editor from the makers of Wordpress. It’s bare-bones but it’s fast, gets out of the way, and can synchronise your notes across all platforms.
Price – Free.