How I Write on my iPhone and iPad

Federico Viticci of MacStories tweeted about the distinction between using note apps for “notes” and for “long [form] writing” and got me thinking about how I work on iOS. I agree that this distinction exists — that the app that rocks for viewing notes isn’t always the same as the one for writing — and I’ve tried to work around this limitation on my iPhone and iPad. I’ve tested a number of iOS text editors and note apps over the past few years, but there are always a few names I end up coming back to: WriteRoom, iA Writer, and Notesy. I’ll get into the why a little bit later in this post, but I’d first like to discuss two aspects that constitute a great iOS text editor.

Speed

I keep hundreds of notes stored in Dropbox. I don’t read them all the time, but I like having them around as local copies for referencing. I have over 700 text files across four folders at any given moment. Some of these files have word counts of over 2000, but many of them are much, much shorter than that.What’s interesting here is that, as fast as the iPad and iPhone 4S are, there are still apps out there that tend to “choke” on the volume. Elements and WriteUp are two apps that fit into this category. Elements features a gorgeous UI and a beautiful and genuinely useful Markdown preview, and WriteUp has awesome Tweetie-like gestures and the ability to copy notes across folders, but my library of text files consistently brings these apps to their knees. Dropbox syncing takes a while and files can take a good five or ten seconds to load. In comparison, WriteRoom and Notesy are blazingly fast and have scaled beautifully to accomodate my growing collection of text.

Easy Dropbox Sync

Another very important factor in choosing a text editor is whether or not it can easily stay in sync with my library of files. iCloud isn’t a real candidate for syncing yet because it currently specializes in syncing data across apps with the same name. iA Writer for iPad syncs with the version on the Mac, but it won’t talk directly to Notesy or WriteRoom. I also think that, if my recent experience with Day One can be taken as any indication, iCloud just isn’t as reliable as an always-on syncing service yet.

Apps like Evernote and Simplenote offer pretty solid syncing options, as well as web apps that let me access my notes from any computer, but I’ve had a few hiccups with the way they handle text. Simplenote is usually pretty solid, but it also has a bad habit of occasionally duplicating paragraphs or sentences as I write or sync, which makes for some nasty surprises during the editing process. Evernote is solid for storing content that you won’t touch again, but I’ve found it to be very unreliable in between major updates. Text I write on iOS devices can end up jumbled together without proper spacing, margins, or line breaks after syncing. So, really, at the end of the day, there’s nothing else for me to use but Dropbox.I don’t know about the intricate details behind Dropbox sync and how difficult it is to implement, but I do know that, for my money, there are relatively few apps that get it right.

Writings and Daedalus Touch sync with Dropbox, but require manual input to start the process. In an age where the auto-save is becoming the standard across mobile and desktop platforms, this just doesn’t work for me. One of the beautiful things about Dropbox sync is that the most frequent version of a file is made available across all devices, and having to remember to “sync” interrupts the smoothness of the operation. So instead of naming all the different ways I believe other apps get Dropbox sync wrong, here’s my spec for getting it right, based on apps that are available right now:

  • I should have local copies of all of my files on my iOS device (iA Writer still isn’t quite there, but I’m willing to compromise – more on this later)
  • syncing should happen after I make a change, enter a note, leave a note, or enter or leave the app; this ensures that the most frequent version of a given note is available in Dropbox at all times
  • the app should still be usable while files are being uploaded or downloaded

Starting a Draft

I try to use as few apps as possible for my workflow to keep things streamlined. All of my text is kept in Dropbox as I’ve mentioned, but pieces usually start out in WriteRoom or iA Writer. Active drafts are kept in a /Writer folder, and completed drafts are kept in a sub-folder called /iSource. This setup allows me to easily review my most recent pieces without getting them confused with all the stuff I’m already finished with. The distinction matters less in apps with powerful search, like WriteRoom, but counts for a lot in apps that rely solely on browsing to find files, like iA Writer.

WriteRoom

WriteRoom rocks for a number of reasons: it’s fast, it’s universal, search is reliable, and the many font options allow you to optimize the app for reading notes or writing pieces. It’s quick and easy to find old notes, but it’s also simple to hide the entire UI and focus on filling up a blank page. I also love the custom gestures: tapping in the margins while writing will move your cursor one space forward or back, and sliding along the right-hand side will trigger a real scrollbar (because swiping vertically through 2500 words is for suckers).

iA Writer

iA Writer is one of those rare apps that you’ll bend over backwards for because of the killer features on offer. The ultra-legible font, line spacing, Focus mode, and brilliant distinction between landscape mode as a “writing” mode and portrait mode as a “reading” mode all feel so right that there are few other apps in which I’d like to write. The most recent addition of direct Dropbox access (detailed here) isn’t quite ideal because it doesn’t host all my Dropbox files locally, but the way that it writes directly to the files in the cloud makes it feel pretty seamless anyway. So as long I have a connection of some sort, Writer works beautifully for my purposes.

Markdown and Notesy

I write almost all of my drafts in Markdown so that I can quickly export them as HTML and paste them into Blogsy for iPad or the WordPress app. This is where Notesy comes back into play. Notesy is still a top-tier notes app with blazing fast syncing and searching, though it isn’t quite as clean as WriteRoom or iA Writer, so I usually don’t end up writing in it. However, it still packs a very mean Markdown preview that automatically copies all of the HTML straight to my clipboard, so I almost always end up using Notesy as a dedicated Markdown -> HTML exporter.

The whole process then is: – write draft in WriteRoom or iA Writer- edit said draft – open draft in Notesy to preview Markdown and check if all of my hyperlinks display correctly- paste the HTML generated by Notesy into WordPress/Blogsy for iPad

That is, in a large, mutated nutshell, my current text editor setup for iSource writing across my iOS devices. I wanted a system with a focus on speed, effortless syncing, flexible reading and writing views, and Markdown preview and export capability, and I’m very happy with what I was able to find on the App Store.