iOS devices have completely changed the way we write. Not only has iOS given us the flexibility to quickly jot down our thoughts wherever and whenever they strike, it’s fundamentally flipped our expectations of the humble text editor. In an effort to maximize every pixel of screen real estate, developers rethought what was necessary for productivity and efficiency on our mobile devices, from the size of the canvas to the way we interact with buttons, bars and ribbons.
The result left us with minimal, distraction-free environments where the only things that matter are our words. And as formatting bars and font menus became obsolete on our iPhones and iPads, a funny thing happened: They became less important on our Macs, too. From iAWriter to Pages and even Microsoft Word, the streamlining of the word processor has created a world of smart, lightweight interfaces built to adapt to whatever device we happen to be using.
As someone constantly switching between my Mac, iPad, and iPhone, the seamless experience has become an indispensable part of my workflow. My writing sessions are no longer tethered to a desk, but it’s not just the freedom I enjoy—the cross-platform congruity has become just as important to my productivity, letting me literally pick up where I left off without losing any momentum my train of thought may have.
But even more than that, the tailored interfaces help maintain my focus no matter the size of the screen I’m working on. Having a digital notepad within constant arm’s reach is one thing, but staying in a writing groove is quite another—the feature and font familiarity across my Mac and iOS devices keeps my eyes and concentration from wandering. When I come across a new writing app in either the iOS or Mac App Store, the first thing I do is check the other to see if a companion is available.
It’s hard to say definitively what makes a good cross-platform writing app, but I instantly know when I’ve found one. A good use of fonts is important, but a wide selection isn’t necessary—for example, Vesper doesn’t let you stray very far from Ideal Sans, but it absolutely would be on this list if a Mac component were available. Also, a pure writing space is nice, but menus and sidebars aren’t an immediate turnoff. Simply put, the essence of a great text editor is more than the sum of its fonts or keyboard bars.
The bottom line is focus. The best cross-platform apps know what to leave behind when switching from a 21-inch-screen to a 9.7-inch one, and they do it without trampling over any of our individual writing styles and preferences. And while mine may certainly differ from yours, here are my picks for the best ones:
Best: Ulysses III
Long before the minimalist trend, Ulysses put a heavy focus on writing rather than formatting, giving authors the tools they needed to brainstorm, organize, and create their projects with ease. Today, Ulysses III (Mac, $45; iPad, $20; iPhone, $1) has evolved and matured into the premier writing experience on the Mac. The recent release of a major version 2.0 upgrade has raised the bar so high it’s hard to imagine a better experience on any platform. With full support for Yosemite and an overall refining of the paneled interface, its eloquence is only trumped by its flexibility.
Ulysses may be a simple Markdown text editor at heart, but an array of carefully crafted features makes it a true multipurpose utility for writers. All of your documents are stored right within the app’s attractive sidebar, allowing you to search and organize your projects with ease. A slide-out panel stores notes and images related to the document you’re working on, while typewriter scrolling keeps your eyes from losing their focus.
And unlike many of the other text editors I’ve used, The Soulmen didn’t water down its vision for iOS. On the iPad, you’ll find a full version of Ulysses formatted to fit the smaller screen and reimagined for multitouch. Everything from its minimal interface to its professional features has been brought to the iPad, but nothing about it feels cramped or crowded.
As you switch between Ulysses for Mac and Ulysses for iPad, iCloud keeps your documents safe and synced, but it’s the uniform experience that will keep your words flowing. Fonts and themes match across both devices, and many of the things that make Ulysses great in OS X, such as attachments, exporting, and picture-perfect previews, all make an appearance.
And of course there are some features that only make sense on the iPad. Slide your finger over the keyboard to control the cursor. Tap the extra row above the keyboard to bring up things like word and character count (including within selections), Markup styles (and an excellent set of punctuation shortcuts if Markdown isn’t your thing). Swipe a document name to move, copy, or export. It’s all extremely simple and intuitive, and The Soulmen has gone to considerable lengths to create a smooth transition between the two apps.
On the iPhone, there’s Daedalus Touch, a unique, extraordinary text editor in its own right, but it doesn’t follow the Ulysses aesthetic, at least not yet. Instead of panels there’s a system of stacks and sheets that mirror the ones in your OS X sidebar. However, since it syncs only with the Mac and not the iPad, working across all three devices isn’t exactly seamless. Thankfully, an iPhone version of Ulysses is already in the works, so these continuity issues shouldn’t last too long. Besides, the Mac-iPad Ulysses tandem is so tight, it’s not a deal-breaker in the slightest.
A canvas free of icons, menus, and other distractions has become a staple of the modern text editor, but Byword (Mac, $12; iOS, $6) takes it to a whole new level. Starting a new document is a lot like opening Apple’s classic TextEdit app: The only identifying marking you’ll find is a word counter at the bottom of the window. (And even that can be turned off.) Whether all that extra space makes you a better writer is debatable, but Byword’s mission is to keep you focused, and in that it succeeds admirably.
Just because there aren’t any font menus or icons in your line of sight doesn’t mean there aren’t any options. Whether you’re using the full-screen mode or a floating window, an excellent implementation of customizable text widths (which can be set to narrow, medium, or wide) will help you set up your perfect workspace. Byword also includes several typing modes designed to help you write and edit with ease; a pair of “focus” modes dim any excess words around the paragraph or line you’re working on, and small touches like paragraph indents and insert-able lists make outlines and quick notes simple and elegant.
Byword excels as a Markdown editor, but if you’re not proficient in the language, you can also write using rich text, just like you would in Microsoft Word. Having another option is a nice touch; unfortunately it’s not one that extends beyond the Mac. Only plain text documents will sync with iOS, so if you want to use bolding and italicizing across your devices, you’ll need to get comfortable with asterisks and underscores.
But it’ll be worth it. Byword’s iOS offerings are gorgeous exercises in style and restraint, delivering an experience that isn’t just minimal for minimal’s sake. While the iPhone and iPad versions offer identical interfaces and features, each of the two apps take advantage of the screen they’re presented with; for example, the iPad app presents your documents in a sidebar that isn’t feasible on the iPhone, but both utilize the same simple gestures to navigate between files. And you’re not stuck with iCloud—Byword also lets you store files in your Dropbox folder for easier sharing between other apps.
Byword on iOS includes many of the same excellent exporting options that the Mac version does, including PDF, HTML, and rich-text email. Also like the desktop version, a separate $5 in-app purchase lets you publish to WordPress, Tumblr, and Blogger, or upload to Scriptogr.am and Evernote, but it’s even more useful on iOS, where cutting and pasting text between apps is much more tedious. But even if you just use it as a plain text editor, Byword will give your words a fantastic home, whether they’re traveling on your Mac, iPad, or iPhone.
Best for Word stalwarts who don’t have an Office 365 subscription: TinyWord/Microsoft Word
Back in the day, Microsoft Word was the go-to app for writers. Powerful and feature-rich, it offered something for everyone, whether you were writing the great American novel or adding footnotes to a lengthy research paper. But over the years, Microsoft surrendered its foothold, and now that it’s tied to a monthly subscription, many people are understandably reluctant to make the commitment.
But you can still get a cross-platform Word experience without the rolling fees. On the Mac side, there are numerous apps that claim Word kinship, but they don’t all deliver what they promise. TinyWord (Mac, $2) does. As its name suggests, it’s not exactly overloaded with features, but Word users will certainly notice a distinct similarity in the interface. It can handle all of your .doc and .docx files with ease, and there are more than enough text and exporting options to keep your files looking their best.
And when you need to transfer a document to iOS, just save it to your OneDrive and open it up in the free Microsoft Word app. TinyWord will maintain any formatted tables and fonts to keep things from getting messy, and you’ll be able to edit and save in the mobile Word app without needing a subscription. Microsoft has done an admirable job with the Word interface on iOS, adhering to the clean iOS aesthetic while still offering the features Word users crave. Office 365 users will get a few extra formatting and layout options, but even without a subscription, Word on iOS still feels very much like a premium universal app.
Best for writers who spent all of their money on new Apple stuff: Pages
If you’re looking for a completely free way to write and edit on whatever Apple device happens to be at your disposal (and it’s been purchased within the past year and a half), you won’t find an app anywhere that beats Pages (Mac and iOS, free). Apple took its iWork suite in a new direction with its iOS 7 redesign, removing many of its professional features along with the price of admission. But even without things like mail merging, linked text boxes, and mailing labels, Pages is a fine tool for writers looking to quickly get to work.
No matter which platform you’re using, there’s a clear focus on simplicity, with a sparse interface and a well-stocked library of templates. There’s no Markdown support, but headers, footers, and margins are all adjustable, and rich-text support maintains desktop-class uniformity across all of your devices.
But writers working in a standard template will be pleased with Pages’ responsive layout and exporting options, which includes .doc as well as ePub and PDF. Documents are neatly formatted for each screen, and there’s even a web component that lets you work on Windows PCs and collaborate with up to 100 other writers. And if you work alone, you can still utilize Pages’ excellent annotations by inserting comments, monitoring changes, and highlighting parts you need to work on later.
Pages has taken its lumps over the years—and it’s probably not worth the $30 price Apple charges for older devices—but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a free writing app with more features in either the Mac or iOS App Stores, let alone both.
Best for keeping a writing journal: Day One
Any of the apps here can double as a writing journal, but none of them let you personalize and simplify it like Day One (Mac, $10; iOS, $5) does. With an impressive system of tags, reminders, and hashtags, Day One is versatile enough to be more than a digital diary—with a little creativity, it can become one of your indispensable writing tools, especially if you’re already accustomed to using Evernote or OneNote to record your thoughts throughout the day.
Not only does it have a gorgeous interface that lets you effortlessly organize your entries by date, time, and location, its support for Markdown support lets you easily share your entries with virtually any other app you may use for writing. Even though everything you write is lumped into a single journal, Day One doesn’t skimp on the organization. A live search field and a strong implementation of personalized tags make finding weeks-old notes a breeze. Everything you write is seamlessly synced across all of your devices, and each app has been built for quick input, right down to the menu bar that lets you quickly jot down notes on your Mac without needing to launch the app. It might not work so well for longer pieces, but as a supplement to Ulysses or Byword, writers shouldn’t dismiss Day One.
Best for using a browser: StackEdit
Web apps as a whole may pale in comparison to the full-featured ones we download from the App Store, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great online utilities out there. We’ve been trained to expect rudimentary experiences from web apps, but StackEdit (Mac and iOS, free; $5/year subscription unlocks all features) bucks that trend with a responsive, feature-rich interface that stacks up against most anything you’ll find in the App Store.
Nothing about it feels like a web app: Not only will you get full Markdown support, it even includes a live preview pane that will show you exactly how your formatted syntax will look. A toolbar of Markdown shortcuts lets you style your text, add images and links, and create lists, while a simple file hierarchy shows you everything you’ve previously worked on. Saving and opening documents is as easy as signing into your Dropbox, Google Drive, or CouchDB account, and you can publish to an array of services with just a few taps. Alternatively, you can import and export files right on your Mac and share links for collaboration.
There is even a set of themes for extra customization, and if you’re stuck without a connection somewhere, an offline mode will still let you write within your browser of choice. I encountered a few more bugs than the other apps mentioned here, but if you want a complete browser-based solution for your writing across all platforms and devices, StackEdit is the absolute cream of the crop.
Others of note
There are countless text editors that work across iOS and OS X, and while they didn’t rise to the level of the ones on this list, it’s hard to find a bad one. For compulsive note-takers, there’s Notefile (Mac: $5, iOS: $5), an ultra-minimal utility that’s always ready to receive your words. It’s extremely light on the features, but it will dutifully sync your sentences no matter how fast they arrive. You don’t even need to launch the app on your Mac to start writing—a handy menu bar icon and Dashboard widget make it extra easy to access a blank sheet.
Information Architect’s Writer (Mac: $10, iOS: $5) was the original distraction-free word processor and it’s still a strong entry, as is its workflow-oriented follow-up, Writer Pro (Mac: $20, iOS: $10). There’s a simple, understated elegance to the interface that works on any screen you’re working on (though the status bar is getting a bit too crowded for my taste), and you won’t find a better choice of fonts on any other text editor.
Another excellent choice is Write (Mac: $10, iPhone: $2, iPad: $2). While it loses points for lagging behind in its iPhone 6 optimization, its iOS apps offer an array of features, including custom URL actions, in-app Dropbox browsing and a clever “scratch pad” for quick thoughts. On the Mac side you’ll get a killer image panel and a bevy of sharing options, along with the same gorgeous interface you’ll find on the iPhone and iPad versions.
And you can’t go wrong with Simplenote‘s (Free, Mac and iOS) classic, fresh experience either. Its lightweight, thoughtful interface puts a premium on organization and tracks every change you’ve made to a particular file, letting you scrub through saved versions with ease. There aren’t a whole lot of exporting or formatting options (nor is there a specialized keyboard), but its design (especially the sublime dark theme) is so good you’ll want to use it for much more than simple notes.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.