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No distractions: the best writing apps for Mac, Windows and Android

I spend a lot of time writing. My 9 to 5 job is for Mobile Fun, but I’m also writing mobile phone news and tutorials for giffgaff, StarCraft II / eSports news for Team Acer, PC hardware reviews for XSReviews and various bits and bobs for dozens of other tech-focused blogs.

All of this requires that I be fairly well organised, but more interestingly it also means that when I get down to actually writing I need to be very very efficient. A lot of that comes down to my writing environment, which in computer terms means the app that I’m using to write.

As I work on (and about) loads of different platforms, I’ve spent a lot of time searching for the perfect writing app on each one – I’ll find a new app on Mac, for instance, and try in vain to find alternatives on Windows and Android. Now, I’m pretty sure I’ve got it all figured out – and before that transient feeling vanishes, I thought I’d sit down and write about these apps. So here we go.

Writing on Mac: WriteRoom, iA Writer, Cathode

The Mac, while fairly foreign to me, is probably my favourite platform for writing. While that stereotype of the Starbucks-inhabiting hipster who tells the girls about the novel he’s writing isn’t entirely accurate, it is true that the Mac environment seems to be full of beautifully designed apps geared towards creative expression. Writing is no exception, and in true style there are three apps here that I think I should mention.

The first is WriteRoom. It’s a rather clever app that, like many on this list, is geared towards simplicity. There is just a blank screen (in a number of styles, of course) and the words that you put onto it. There are no menus to distract you, no widgets flying around all over the place, no friendly paperclip trying to guess your intentions. The app is, as far as I know, the grand-daddy of writing apps on the Mac, the first purpose-built no-frills writing app that wasn’t just TextEdit.

As well as showing restraint in features added from the simplest of text editors, there are a few hidden bonuses that will keep things ticking along more smoothly behind the scenes. There is limited rich text, hidden far enough back that you’re not tempted to bring it out very often. There is DropBox integration so that your writing is synced between mobile and Mac apps. There are even themes, so if you prefer to have typewriter sounds or a different texture background or what-have-you then that’s all available. It’s very very good, but it does cost a fair amount – £6.99 in the UK and $9.99 in the US.

An alternative is called iA Writer. It focuses even more heavily on the writing experience, with no font or color options. Formatting is done entirely with the keyboard and is minimal at best – you can add bold or emphasis to differentiate things, but it’s just asterics and underlines and the slightest bit of font weighting. There are no themes – just dark grey text on a minimally textured off-white background.

Where iA Writer is truly interesting is its focus mode. Engage it, and all lines except the line you’re currently writing on while become very light grey, allowing to properly focus on what you’re writing and not what you’ve written. You can engage and disengage the mode at the press of a button, allowing you to focus on writing for a bit and only later switch back into edit mode, instead of being constantly tempted to correct your wording or the odd spelling mistake. iA Writer is a bit cheaper, at £4.99 or $4.99 in the US (damn exchange rate).

Finally, the app I probably use the least (but enjoy the most) is called Cathode. It isn’t a writing app, particularly – just a terminal emulator with a bunch of old-school themes. I reviewed it for my website some years ago, and it’s been largely unchanged since then. With vim or another simple command line text editor open, it really looks the business and will score you some interested looks in that stereotypical coffee shop.

In terms of actual functionality, it depends – if you already know vim, then it’s a good writing environment geared towards coding rather than rich formatting, meaning it’s actually quite suitable for no-frills writing. It also allows you to do more than just edit text files – you can also chat, surf the web or read your email if you’ve got suitable programs installed, and each will have that same simplistic look. Of course, that maybe isn’t ideal if you want to get on with writing.

So on the Mac, I’d probably recommend WriteRoom or iA Writer. I tend to flit between the two fairly regularly – I’m using WriteRoom at the moment, but during the writing of this section of the article I now want to get over to iA Writer again. So it goes.

Writing on Windows: Q10

Windows has always been rather bereft of well designed creative apps. From Photoshop to coding, there are functional equivalents to Linux and Mac programs but they always seem oddly designed and just not as beautiful as *NIX based apps, for whatever reason. I personally think it’s done to the font reproduction – characters in Windows are rendered strictly to pixels, whereas on Mac they’ll be blurred between pixels. In my eyes, this produces a smoother and more readable set of characters, even though technically it’s less well defined.

Whatever it is, I’ve always found it hard to get a no-frills, high-concentration writing experience on Windows, but it’s something I quite need because I’m simply much faster at working on Windows than I am on other platforms – I’m running the OS natively, I’ve got all the hotkeys and file locations memorised, and of course I can snap into a videogame at a second’s notice if I need a break.

So far, the best program I’ve found (and indeed, the program in which I’m writing this article) is called Q10. Behind the Scrabble reference, Q10 is a competent and well designed free writing program that has the same focus on simplicity, on getting words on a page.

The beauty of Q10 (besides the whole free thing) is that it is very customisable. The font and colours can be changed in a hidden settings menu, allowing you to skip beyond the god-awful Windows defaults onto something a little more likeable, like Helvetica Neue or Georgia. There is a status bar that can be replace at the top or bottom of the screen, showing the words, pages and characters typed so far – as well as the time. Perhaps the best feature is that you can set the margins directly, allowing you to keep the words in the middle of the page so you don’t have to be looking at the very bottom of your monitor after the first page – brilliant if you’re working on a 27″. It’s all simple and understated, with nothing really getting in your way or tempting away your time.

It’s always full screen, taking precedence even over the Windows task bar – it can’t even be made to run in a Window, something you can do with all of the Mac apps that I’ve mentioned. But full screen is perhaps the best way to write, so forcing that in the same way that you force no formatting is hardly a bad thing.

If you’re looking to write on Windows (or indeed, on Mac or Linux) and you don’t want to shell out for a more expensive program, then Q10 seems to be a great choice. I’m very glad I found it.

Android

So as I don’t have an iPad, I can’t speak to how good iA Writer and/or WriteRoom are for that platform – I imagine quite good, given their Mac counterparts, but I just don’t know. What I do have is a Samung Galaxy Nexus and a Google Nexus 7, so I will speak as to what is available in terms of no-frills writing on those platforms.

For the tablet, my favourite writing program is called Write. It makes good use of the space available, making it easy to find previously written posts when you start the app by displaying categories on the left hand side and most recent posts on the right. When viewing or editing these posts, the screen is blanked out – there’s just the time and the text visible.

This works best when you’re using a Bluetooth keyboard, as it ensures you get the full effect instead of having half the screen taken up by the on-screen keyboard. The app features Dropbox exporting, although automatic synching would be a desirable future feature.

On the phone, the tablet-centric layout of Write isn’t ideal so I use the equally genericly named and much harder to find Writer. It’s got a white-on-black interface, but still offers full screen typing and no formatting to get in the way.

There isn’t quite so much in the way of removing other UI elements – notifications and the software keys are still visible – but it’s a good attempt at what isn’t a very suitable application for a phone (at least, without a Bluetooth keyboard).

Conclusion

So there we have it. I encourage you to try out one of the apps I’ve mentioned above on the platform of your choice, as I believe it really is a very back-to-basics style of writing that can bring excellent results.

I hope you find the article useful; I’ve written it as a kind of break for myself, so hopefully more good will come out of it. If there’s interest, I’d be happy to share some other techniques I use to write well – things like background music or sounds, keyboard choice, that kind of thing.

Please let me know what you think in the comments below or talk to me on Twitter @wsjudd. Farewell!

Posted in Mac OS X, Software, Windows and tagged , .
  • Zach gomez

    great article…for PC i would recommend wrtiemonkey. it’s go more features, is also free and has worked great for me.

    cheers

    • Awesome stuff, thanks for letting me know :) I’ll check it out!

    • Walter Mackenzie

      +1 for writemonkey – it is an excellent PC writing application.  I haven’t used Q10, but it sounds similar in many of its features.

  • Susan Solomon

    Thanks for the ideas.  Before I buy either WriteRoom or Iwriter can you tell me what are the advantages to these apps vs using TextEdit.

    • They have a nicer interface and aesthetic, chiefly. They also have some features  like Dropbox integration, inline word counts and character-based formatting (e.g. **some word** will produce bold without requiring you to press Ctrl+I). I believe both have free trials on their developer websites, so why not try them out?

      • Susan Solomon

        Will do-Thanks.  I do use dropbox and that will be great.

  • Timur

    Great article. I was somehow depressed to see the price of Write. I prefer dType, which is available for free and has an optional paid version.