Writer Pro review: Text editor works well (if you work its way)
A few years ago, Information Architects set the standard for “distraction-free” text editors with its iA Writer. After I reviewed iA Writer, it became one of my essential text tools, and I was excited to hear that the company was releasing a new writing app.
Writer Pro, $20 each for OS X (Mac App Store link) and iOS (App Store link), is not an enhancement of iA Writer, but rather a totally new concept of a tool for writing. It’s not for everyone—whether or not it’s for you depends on whether your workflow, and the way you think about writing, match that of the developers.
For the most part, Writer Pro maintains iA Writer’s simple approach to text editing, adding features for working with text, rather than for formatting. As with iA Writer, Writer Pro uses Markdown syntax for formatting—for example, underscores or asterisks around text for italics, double asterisks around text for bold, and one or more # symbols before (or surrounding) text for headers. Add these control characters and the formats are immediately applied to the designated text. The app’s optional sidebar lets you easily apply Markdown formatting (though it gives you no shortcuts to add hyperlinks); it also allows you to change workflow modes, view syntax, and see statistics about your document.
As with iA Writer, you can highlight just the sentence you’re currently working on by enabling “focus mode.”
One of Writer Pro’s big new features is called workflows, where you choose from four modes: Note, Write, Edit and Read. When you create a new text document, it’s in Note mode by default. The logic is that you’ll, well, take notes before writing. When you switch to Write mode, you see those same notes, but in a different font. The Note, Edit and Read fonts are proportional, and the Write font is monospace. (All the fonts are attractive typefaces designed for the app.)
While the text-editor part of the app is essentially the same as iA Writer, the new workflow feature is jarring. The only differences between the four modes are the fonts and the cursor colors, and they’re hard-coded into the app. You may find that the fonts the app offers don’t work for you; or you may find that you wish you could use the Read font while in Write mode. Personally, I prefer a monospace font for much of my writing, since that writing often includes HTML or Markdown code. While a monospace font is available in Write mode, it’s not available in Edit mode, where I actually would need it most (to check to make sure that all my code is correct). Many writers have a specific font they like, and I’m sure many, like me, don’t want their document font to change during the writing and editing process.
Writer Pro stores its files in iCloud (though you can also save them locally, on your Mac), in one of four pre-set folders: Note, Write, Edit and Read. When you change modes, and then save your current document, the actual document gets moved to folder corresponding to the current mode. (If you want to store files in your organizational hierarchy of folders, you can’t. If you store a file in a different location in the iCloud folder—say, an additional folder you create inside Writer Pro’s iCloud folder—and later open it and save it from within Writer Pro, the app moves the document to one of its four folders.) This means that if you want to store a group of files together for a specific project, you’re out of luck. Also, when viewing an iCloud dialog box, these folders are displayed in alphabetical order, rather than in Writer Pro’s “workflow order,” so it’s easy to get confused about where a file is. It would make more sense if the folders were named to match the workflow order: 1-Note, 2-Write, 3-Edit, and 4-Read.
After using Writer Pro for a while, I think the logic of these workflow modes is questionable (and I find the developers’ explanations unconvincing). If Note mode were a true outlining tool, it would be useful to people who use outlines to organize their writing ideas. Even if Note mode were just a scratchpad for, well, notes, it would be useful—when I take notes for an article, that content is mostly links, ideas, and sentences that I jot down before I write. I don’t want my notes to be part of my main text; I want them on the side. (And I may have multiple notes files.)
I don’t see the point of Read mode either. It’s the same font as Edit, with the only difference being that you can’t change anything. This would make sense if it rendered Markdown syntax, so you could see text formatting, links, images, and the like as they would look when published or exported. But Read mode simply shows you the same, raw formatting syntax as Edit mode. (I instead turn to Marked 2, which offers live previews and powerful exporting features.)
Exporting is also limited, as you can export only to RTF, HTML or .docx. You can’t even export a file in Markdown format; you have to move it to your Mac (using the File > Move To command) if you want a local copy.
The other marquee feature of Writer Pro is what the developers call “Syntax Control,” which highlights the nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so on, in your text.
How useful is Syntax Control (which Information Architects briefly claimed it was patenting, and would defend strongly, only to change their tune after it was pointed out they were only using Apple technology)? I’ve never felt the need to see all the nouns or adjectives in anything I’ve written, and I don’t see how it will help me write or edit. Good writing isn’t about the number of nouns or proportion of adjectives you use; it’s about sentences and how they flow. Syntax Control does nothing useful to that end. The feature also doesn’t work that well. In my testing, it missed words, ignored pronouns, and fumbled on words that can be more than one part of speech.
OS X and iOS
Both the OS X and iOS versions of Writer Pro have the same set of features, but I find the iOS version to be a bit confusing. For example, it doesn’t show document titles; it shows only the first words of each document. Writer Pro for iOS, like iA Writer, does offer an enhanced keyboard with shortcuts for common punctuation and for document navigation.
I suspect that Writer Pro is one of those love/hate apps. I personally find its features to be unintuitive—and even, at times, confusing—which results in the opposite of iA Writer’s elegant simplicity. But I write for a living, so perhaps I have higher standards. For those who write only occasionally, or for school, it might work. What bothers me the most about the app, though, is that in an attempt to impose an artificial workflow on users, the developers have ended up introducing glaring inconsistencies (different fonts in the different modes; forced saving of files in specific folders), and added a questionable feature (syntax control).
If you don’t need Writer Pro’s workflow modes and syntax control, you could stick to Write mode and use only the app’s (still solid) text-editing features, but that would be almost the same as using the less expensive ($5) iA Writer, which is still available. At $20 for each version of Writer Pro, OS X and iOS, it’s a pricey risk to try out something you may not like. If there ever was an argument for the need to have demo versions in the Mac App Store and iOS App Store, Writer Pro is it.