An opinionated list of writing apps
Beware, if you have not talked to me in person before about writing apps. I wrote a more organised post called “Tools for Writing and Sharing Online” to help friends who were thinking about doing a blog, and had some sense to be hesitant about Wordpress.
This is the unfiltered brain dump of all the writing apps I like and dislike. My choices always boil down to details, but the two common patterns that emerge are:
- does not require my hands to leave my keyboard under any circumstances (navigation, links, and even file creation); and
- what is a beautiful typeface and interace for me
- (extremely nice to have) cross-platform syncing
Ulysess vs Bear
For writers on Macs, the two giants are Ulysses and Bear. As its name suggests, Ulysses is well suited for sorting out novel-length content with hits notebooks, categories, and tags. Ultimately, after a year of paying for Ulysses, I switched over to the lower-priced Bear (that I had agonised another year over prior). In the end, it was the tagging system on Bear that I liked. The way that notes are tagged on bear is:
The big detractor for both is that they do not copy and paste well. Sometimes the bold and italic formatting is lost. Other times, the links will break because both these apps want to be fancy and add a 🔗 to the end of their links. Call me pedantic, but I find it incredibly jarring.
The plus side for both is definitely their mobile note taking experience.
The only detractor for HackMD is that it is web-based. But it is so nice for me to write on I did a whole guide for my client on it until I ran out of characters (I think 99,000 was the limit). It can create tables, link to externals like Vimeo, and comes with Book and Slide formats. Read the Features docs.
Dropbox Paper vs Quip
One of my clients will die on the Quip hill. Several years ago, when Dropbox was just introducing Paper and did not have a desktop version, I could stand by them on that decision. Now that Dropbox Paper does have a desktop version, there’s no reason not to use it. At any rate, I have dropped Quip since. Call me superficial, but Paper’s typeface was so beautiful, I persevered with their web app that persistently crashed for over a year. I can’t explain it – apps that get typeface right are just to die for. In addition to this, Paper had another super power: if you used the “+” command, it would automatically search your files for the right name or create a new file for you.
My favourite at this point is Quiver, recommended to me by a developer. My favourite thing about it is that it can switch between text, Markdown, LaTex, and code and one file can be separated into different blocks.
I can’t quite explain why Quiver works so well because the princple is about the same as Bear, Ulysses, or probably even Evernote. However, the UI makes me feel that I can take notes properly – mixing up links, code snippets, and blog pieces.
However, one day after paying for the darn app, I stumbled upon its biggest problem: the whole library is stored in one file that does not always sync properly. Quiver’s way of syncing is to have the user deposit the file in the cloud, such as Dropbox or iCloud. The problem is that when the app glitches and does not save, the whole file is lost. iCloud does not have versioning, unless you have TimeMachine, which means all my notes were lost. If you have Dropbox, you can revert.
Why not these?
Evernote Evernote is an unfortuante first mover. I respect its incredible accomplishments, much like Basecamp, for what it built before Web 2.0 really hit. But at the same time, I still don’t need an interface that shows me notebooks. I’m sure Evernote is great now and has been updated to take Markdown and all sorts of other integrations. I just haven’t had a need to migrate back.
Google Docs and word processors Everyone uses Google docs. When collaborating with almost anyone except a developer, I end up on Google Docs. The issue for me with Google docs is the same as most word processors: they don’t copy and paste consistently. As someone who likes to wholesale copy from many sources to one document, spending time reformatting the titles and text makes the note taking process feel even more like a mess than it already is. Still, at the end of the day, Google has done a pretty decent job of creating a collaborative workspace. Credit still goes to them for basically bringing word processing to the cloud and it has come a long way since the early clunky days. For one thing, I do enjoy being able to link the different files, be they presentations or spreadsheets.
But why these?
In my quest for markdown editors, I have downloaded almost every recommended app in listicles. In the end, the one that I enjoyed most was Typora, which is a minimal markdown editor that has neat little features like automatically pasting the copied link on highlighted text. I am also partial to solutions that will render the markdown that I have typed (for example, that headers actually look bigger).