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The best focused-writing apps for OS X

Kirk McElhearn | April 25, 2014
If you use a Mac, you work with text. Your documents may be short (tweets and iMessages) or long (reports, stories, or even novels), but you need an app to handle that text. Depending on the type of writing you do, you may want something as simple as a basic text editor or as complex as a full-featured word processor; if you write code, you want an editor designed for that type of content.

If you use a Mac, you work with text. Your documents may be short (tweets and iMessages) or long (reports, stories, or even novels), but you need an app to handle that text. Depending on the type of writing you do, you may want something as simple as a basic text editor or as complex as a full-featured word processor; if you write code, you want an editor designed for that type of content.

I tend to use what have come to be known as focused-writing apps. These apps, increasingly popular of late, allow you to write in a focused environment, export your writings to various formats, possibly apply basic styling, and let you print your work.

Unlike a word processor, which has lots of complex features for formatting and styling text, or a text editor, which is better for complex text modifications or working with specific code languages, a focused-writing app takes a minimalist approach, providing just the necessary text tools for writing and then getting out of your way so you can focus on your words.

I looked at the top focused-writing apps for OS X to find the best one. (We'll look at word processors and code editors in future articles.)

What makes a good focused-writing app?

Today's best focused-writing apps are made with writers in mind and offer some or all of the following features:

  • A distraction-free environment — or at least a special view or mode — that allows you to focus on your writing without worrying about toolbars, palettes and other formatting tools.
  • A full-screen mode, so you can shut out everything else on your Mac's screen.
  • Support for the Markdown writing language, a simple syntax for formatting plain-text documents that can be easily converted to HTML for use on blogs or web pages.
  • Multiple export formats, such as HTML and RTF, for publishing or sharing your styled text. (Since OS X lets you create a PDF from any file, as long as a writing app has a mode or view that shows your text with proper formatting, the app doesn't need a specific PDF-export feature of its own.)
  • Document statistics. Data such as word count and character count are essential to many writers; some people may also want more-advanced statistics such as reading level and estimated reading time.
  • An iOS companion app is a nice bonus — if you tend to write on both platforms, an OS X app with an iOS cousin lets you easily switch between platforms. (Note for this feature to be useful, the apps must use a common sync platform such as iCloud or Dropbox.)

Top choice: iA Writer

Information Architects's $5 iA Writer wins hands down for simplicity and for its attractive (and only) font. While it doesn't let you choose your own typeface, the company's Nitti is a beautiful mono-space font, and working in iA Writer lets you ignore everything around its document view — I often use iA Writer's full-screen mode to block out the other windows on my Mac. The app also includes a Focus Mode that restricts the view even further, letting you concentrate on a single sentence at a time. (I'd prefer it if Focus Mode highlighted the current paragraph rather than sentence, since many writers think in terms of paragraphs, but the app's sentence-level focus seems to be popular.)

 

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