iA Writer sheds flesh for strong bones

Update July 9, 2011: iA Writer now adds Text Expander support, which is the main concern I had in the original review. If you need to write with the virtual keyboard, I have to move iA Writer to the top of the list of text editors for the iPad. In fact, if you haven’t already invested in a text editor, this is is the one to buy, external keyboard or not. That being said, if you already use PlainText and an external keyboard, you will be just as happy with either. I’m upgrading iA Writer to a Best Buy.

Spoiler alert!iA Writer is a bare bones app, designed to do very little better than anyone else can do them. If you live and die by the skeleton features and can do without the muscle and flesh, you will love it. If you want your app to do everything, stick with what you’re using now.

Since I started using word processors in the eighties, typing away on an old Wang knock-off that fell apart as soon as I finally got my files on disk and forcing me to buy a PC and spending several hundred dollars to convert the files to DOS format (only to discover how cool the Mac was), I’ve sat through the features verses delivery debate more times than I care to remember.

The bare bones app pitch for word processors is this: You can only type and save. You have nothing else to distract you from writing. Let the print people format the files.

I never bought that argument. Sooner or later you always need at least half of those features, even if you don’t want them.

Then the money people discovered they didn’t need a print shop if they could get the writers to do the formatting work themselves. After all, they were doing the typesetting, why not do the rest of it? So writers began to be asked to edit and format their documents as well as write them.

On top of this, writers who write for different media need different features when the editors send documents back for changes. We have to find stuff fast, make global changes, move entire paragraphs, remove comments and add others. You’d be surprised how many different features we use.

The bare bones theory, I think, is for young writers who can’t get a word on the page. The advice for them is, start writing and don’t stop until you have all your thoughts on the page. For writers who find themselves easily sidetracked, the fewer distractions a word processor offers the better. If the word processor let’s them type, save and back up their files, that’s all they need.

I don’t buy this, but I see the benefit. In my experience young writers may benefit more from extensive outlining and reorganizing as much as they might benefit from the free writing approach. It depends on the young writer.

Entering this debate is an app called iA Writer, an app you know you can trust because Steven Fry uses it. In case you don’t know who Steven Fry is, he’s the big guy who used to play second chair to Hugh Laurie. If you don’t know who Hugh Laurie is, think House. If you don’t know who House is, you should keep your mouth shut at dinner parties because you are really out of touch with modern culture.

If you still don’t know who Steven Fry is, think Jeeves on BBC. If you’re American, think the shrink turned chef with an English accent on Bones. If you still don’t know, I can’t help you.

My answer to Steven Fry is that Douglas Addams used FullWrite on the Mac and you don’t hear him praising bare bones apps.

Oh, wait.

Forget that. Doug is no longer around to change his mind.

Type and save only

iA Writer claims to be a word processor with no distractions, and they’re pretty much right. You have a screen and that’s it. A couple of counters to tell you how many words you’ve typed and how long it should take to read them. Even better, you can lock the screen so that you can only access the three lines you are currently typing. You can’t scroll down or up to change things.

This is the entire interface (mostly).

You’re forced to focus on what you’re writing now, and not how you would change it later.

Unless you unlock the screen, of course.

You can lock iA Writer’s screen so you’re forced to focus on what you’re writing.

You can manage your documents without closing the document window because there isn’t much to manage. If you need to backup your documents (and you should), you can create a free Dropbox account and synch your files.

The synch won’t work until you set the up the Dropbox app on your desktop computer. They will be text files only, but you can access them on your PC or Mac without the iTunes/USB hookup. Information Architects, the developer, claims they will be adding other cloud backup services with future releases, as well as an auto synch feature.

You can synch your files with your desktop using Dropbox to recover in case of damage or open directly on your Mac.

Enhanced virtual keyboard

The one feature that really sells this app for me is the virtual keyboard. The keyboard has an extra row with the keys Apple should have added to start with. The keyboard includes arrow advance keys (although not up and down), word advance keys and common typing keys such as quotation marks and apostrophes. It’s still a little clumsy, but much better than the Apple version.

The virtual keyboard includes keys and layouts Apple could have, but didn’t, think to include.

This app came a little too late for me. I already invested in both dock and bluetooth keyboards, and they perform much better than iA Writer’s. Still if I find myself having to type an email while my keyboard is locked in the car, I will probably draft it in iA Writer.

Or, as actually did happen after I wrote the previous paragraph, I find myself in Starbuck’s trying to get caught up with my blogs and the batteries to my Bluetooth keyboard die, I will definitely draft in iA Writer because until that moment I’d forgotten how much I hate the key positions on Apple’s virtual keyboard. It took me longer to type a single paragraph with apostrophes and dashes using the Apple keyboard than it did to draft four paragraphs with iA Writer’s in-app keyboard using the same punctuation.

No undo/redo

Unfortunately, as cool as the virtual keyboard is, it doesn’t include an undo/redo key. Nor is there an undo/redo button in the app. You can use Command + Z if a keyboard is attached but which text is deleted is unpredictable. It could be three words or (more often) several paragraphs.

You can recover the text with Command + Shift + Z but that key is undocumented and it took me a while to figure it out. If you do buy the app, and you plan on using it with a keyboard (which I don’t), remember: Command + Shift + Z. Otherwise you could lose half or more of your document.

How bare bones should bare bones be?

This app delivers every thing it says very well, but it’s poorly documented. The app support page is a twitter feed plugging the app. I finally found a handful of paragraphs deep into the developer’s web site that explained the things it took me several weeks to figure out.

In the end, I find iA Writer to be too bare bones. I’ve worked with bare bones editors before, but I prefer editors like Ulysses on the Macintosh which can be narrowed to a single focused screen, but which also allow you to create notes to yourself and access other documents in the same window so you can copy and paste without actually leaving your document.

And I actually prefer to jump around in my documents. I feel less distracted if I can jump back and make a change or jump ahead and make a note than I feel if I’m worrying whether or not I will forget to make the change. But I’ve been writing for thirty years and I don’t fear a blank screen. I would never tell anyone to write like me, even if I were teaching a writing class (which I used to teach, and, I didn’t teach them to write like me because I quickly realized they learned to write better using entirely different methods).

To be fair, Ulysses’ features may be too much to ask of an iPad developer. Ulysses’ developers finally abandoned their iPad version and are focusing on developing something very similar to iA Writer called Daedalus. Their complaint? Apple’s open architecture still keeps developers from really accessing the text classes they need.

I personally prefer apps like My Writing Nook and Plain Text, but only because they support TextExpander (reviewed in an earlier entry, and that allows me to access long standard paragraphs with a few key stokes. In fact, I will compare both head to head in my next blog.

If iA Writer were to support TextExpander as well, however, I would make the switch in a minute.

That being said, if you don’t have an external keyboard, the aggravation you save yourself typing may make the app worth the purchase even if you do prefer another text editor. After my Bluetooth batteries died, I decided to keep iA Writer on my iPad for just such occasions.

Jenny Manytoes rates iA Writer

Jenny Manytoes would make biscuits all over iA Writer. If you need a speed drafting bare bones app, this could be your choice. I’m seriously tempted to rate it a best buy, but I just can’t. Should the developers choose to include Text Expander support in future releases, it will definitely become a best buy then.

The Jenny Manytoes Rating System

Jenny Manytoes, our polydactyl cat
  • When Jenny makes biscuits on a product she thinks she’s in heaven.
  • When Jenny purrs over a product she’s very happy.
  • When Jenny naps next to a product it’s okay with her.
  • When Jenny bunches her tail she can live with a product, but she has higher expectations.
  • When Jenny leaves it in the litter box….I don’t think I need to explain this one.


About Phillip T Stephens

Phillip T. Stephens disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle twenty years before he was born, creating a time travel paradox so confusing it remains unspoken between physicists and sci-fi writers to this day. Follow @stephens_pt
This entry was posted in 5 Stars - Biscuits, Text Editors, Utilities and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to iA Writer sheds flesh for strong bones

  1. Peter says:

    FYI – The next release of My Writing Nook will be out early next week (probably Monday night – Dec 6th), and it includes many enhancements (especially the iPad version) and a name change.

    Any chance you could hold off on your head-to-head comparison until next week? Feel free to email me for details.

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