iA Writer – Plain Text, Pure and Simple

Icon screenshot courtesy of the author

I’ve mentioned iA Writer in several previous posts, which indicated the app deserves coverage of its own. Here’s my experience with Writer from Information Architects, and how I use it now.

I’ve owned a copy of Writer since its first lunch in 2010. I was immediately attracted by its typewriter-like interface and lack of distractions. Reader, I’m easily distracted and love typewriters.

A pure writing app, it lacked customisation options, and had a beautiful monospace font. I also liked the paper-like texture used as a background in the early days. The developers did away with this several years ago, which I think is a shame, as this added a subtle layer of interest. With its simple aesthetics and no-nonsense setup, I immediately felt at home.

iA Writer has two main attributes that set it apart: simplicity, and plain text purity

When I first started writing as an adult back in the early 1990s, I first used a typewriter, then moved to Word Perfect when I bought a PC. This was better, apparently. Every professional writer worth her salt was going electronic. It was just the thing to do for anyone serious about their writing. And trust me, I was very serious.

But perhaps like the shift of music media from vinyl to CDs, then to digital formats, what many of us were gaining in convenience was offset by lost opportunities to explore paths on the creative journey. Speed is not the friend of creativity. Neither are bells and whistles. And the artist’s output can be fed by limitations.

Creativity sometimes starts with a deadline. And with a lack of money, and with only a few possibilities with not too many options.

Karl Bartos, Kraftwerk

Despite my love of analogue processes and a certain Luddite resistance to digital tools and “frictionless workflows” — we all know a little bit of friction is a good thing — the move to electronic writing was inevitable and irresistible.

These days text editors are as numerous and varied as the purposes for which they are used. Different tools for different people. For fiction writing we might use Scrivener; for blogging iA Writer or Ulysses. There are many choices, and the various apps have their own specialisms, features, pros and cons. For me, iA Writer has two attributes that set it apart: simplicity and plain text purity. Other apps claim to offer similar features, but none does so quite as well as Writer.

Having used this app on and off over the years, I’ve discovered Writer works for me for quite specific purposes. One is for producing relatively short documents that I just want to keep in a plain text file. These can be found quickly and easily using Alfred or Spotlight, and viewed in TextEdit for reference. While Ulysses handles text files, and these can also be indexed by Spotlight or Alfred, they are nonetheless within a proprietary format. Like my Zettelkasten app The Archive, Writer just creates a simple plain text file, and there are many circumstances when that’s all I want.

using Writer means I can read and edit my Zettelkasten notes anywhere

The Archive doesn’t have an iOS companion app, which means I need a workaround if I want to access my Zettelkasten notes when I’m away from my desk. I wrote about this in another post, so I won’t go into great detail here, but using Writer means I can read and edit my Zettelkasten notes anywhere. The only thing that doesn’t seem possible is to link notes — or at least if that is possible, I can’t see a way that wouldn’t be tedious. My other main use for Writer is as a Taskpaper client.

I’ve found it difficult to find a task manager/todo app that really suits me, but although it’s early days Taskpaper seems to be working well. Like The Archive, Taskpaper deals with plain text but doesn’t have a companion iOS app.

Screenshot example from Taskpaper

The Taskpaper file in Writer

Like my Zettelkasten notes, I create my Taskpaper files on my iMac, but sometimes need to access them when I’m on the go, for example if I want to remind myself what’s coming up, or to make changes. I used Apple Notes for this for a while, and I think that is a great, free option, but having my weekly outline in Notes somehow didn’t feel right. Notes was becoming a bit of an everything bucket, and I wanted something light and fast that was specifically for the purpose of tasks, todos and project management.

If I want to edit my week/todos/whatever when I’m not at my desk, I can do this in Writer. I use Writer’s Preview function in iOS to view my Taskpaper files, so I can’t accidentally make changes. (You know what touchscreens are like: you touch them and something happens!) If I want to change something on my Taskpaper file in Writer, I just exit the preview and Bob’s your uncle.

Writer doesn’t parse files in Taskpaper format, but all I’ve got to do is use markdown; when I return to Taskpaper on my Mac the text appears as expected. If I’m on my Mac and want to make sure Writer starts a new line exactly when I want, I just have to add two spaces to the end of a line. It would be nice if Writer supported Taskpaper’s formatting, but that might be asking a bit too much.

For both of these uses I’ve added external source folders to Writer, so the files are easily accessible.

Someone once said [to a classical musician] wow, you’re so lucky, I’d give anything to be able to play like you, and they replied would you give five hours a day? Because that’s what they practise every day. It’s insane.

Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead

Writer also has focus mode, style and syntax features, but I don’t use these. While such tools can help the inexperienced writer, there is the risk that at best they strip away individual style, and at worst we become reliant on them. I think they’re best used as indicators, but we then make our own decisions regarding what stays or goes. Writing is communication, and good communication comes with practice. It’s only through practise that we’re more easily able to find the words we need to express our thoughts simply and clearly. Then in time we’ll have the confidence to make such decisions.

Writer is cross-platform, available on macOS, iOS, iPadOS, Android and Windows – perfect for those who work on more than one operating system. Looking at the website, it’s interesting to note that while the former enjoy more localisation coverage, the Windows version offers more features. Yet for blogging, macOS, iOS and iPadOS are fully covered, while Windows users are left in the cold.

Screenshots courtesy of the author, via https://ia.net/writer/features

Although now in its fifth incarnation and offering many more features than the original release, at its heart iA Writer is a simple application that saves our writing to iCloud in plain text files. While lots of other apps claim to offer more through bells and whistles, Writer sings with its simplicity. Despite many enthusiastic proclamations made on the internet, no app is going to make us better writers: that’s just down to reading and practising the craft as much as possible, and iA Writer is a perfect environment in which to do that.

Ulysses & iA Writer in Plain Text Duel! 🤺
The Archive, iA Writer and Zettelkasten
Ulysses knocks Scrivener off pedestal 🖥
Things App Dumped… Again! 🖥
Jonny Greenwood interview

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I’m a writer, Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow and Advisory Fellow, workshop lead and creative coach. Subscribe to updates, unique content, and a look behind the scenes.

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