Getting Words on the Touchscreen: Writing on iOS
Every writer knows the feeling: you’ve just sat down at the keyboard, ready to write your next masterpiece. Suddenly, your mind goes blank. What seemed like the perfect idea late last night now seems impossible to put into words. Or perhaps you have no ideas at all and you wonder how you’ve ever managed to write anything. Unfortunately, your iOS device can’t write your articles, essays, stories or blog posts for you, but combined with a bluetooth keyboard it can make your writing life a little easier.
The app store offers a range of writing apps, from basic note takers to more complex word processors, each with its own unique feature set. Some, such as Apple Pages and Microsoft Word, allow you to format your text as you write. I prefer to use Markdown, a set of characters for formatting plain text. If you are unfamiliar with Markdown, you can learn more about it by reading the documentation here. The advantage of this method is that you don’t need to worry about selecting the text, finding the formatting controls in your app of choice, and then wondering whether the style has been applied correctly. Instead, once you’ve learned the code, which is easier to learn and use than HTML, you can type in a few characters whenever you need to format some text. You can, of course, use HTML tags if you prefer.
Most iOS text editors support Markdown, and can convert it to formats such as HTML, but I want to highlight two apps in particular. Drafts is one of my most frequently used apps, and I keep it in my dock so I can access it quickly. When launched, it presents you with a blank document or “draft”, so you can start typing as soon as you open it. It works very well as a basic note taker, for those times when you want to write down that idea or bit of information before you forget it, and it’s easy to use for that purpose. But it also has powerful automation features. If you’ve used Workflow, “Actions” in drafts are similar. It doesn’t allow folders or sync with dropbox, but you can set it up to put your text exactly where you want it. If you have a text file in Dropbox that you use as a journal, for example, you can set up an action to append your current text to that file, with the date at the top. It can send your text to multiple places at once, for example, posting to your blog or a social network and making an archive of your post in Dropbox or iCloud.
Drafts is good for taking quick notes and storing temporary pieces of text, but for sustained work on multiple projects I want an app that can use multiple folders and sync to dropbox, so I know my work is safely backed up and accessible on other devices. For that, I use Notebooks. Despite the name, this app is not just a note taker. It can write plain text or HTML documents, in as many “books” or folders as you need, and can sync it all to Dropbox. It has some useful keyboard shortcuts for use when editing, for inserting markdown characters and date and time stamps. When you’ve finished writing, you can convert your document to HTML or PDF, or put all the notes from one book or folder together into a single ebook. As well as being a very capable text editor, it can display most types of files, save web pages, has task management features and can even act as a basic voice recorder.
I like these two apps because both are easy to use, but have a lot of functionality; the extra features are there when you need them, but won’t get in your way if you just want to use them for basic text editing tasks. Together, they make a convenient system for me.
Other Apps to Try
While I thoroughly recommend the above two apps, every user has their own needs, and you might find that a different app is best for you. There are far more iOS text editors than I can review in detail in one blog post, so I will briefly discuss a few of the other apps I’ve tried, and I encourage you to comment with additional thoughts on the apps mentioned here, or with your own app suggestions.
Voice Dream Writer An app designed especially for people who are visually impaired or dyslexic, aims to help you improve your writing. When you need help choosing the right word, it can search for a replacement for any word in your document, either phonetically or by meaning, and also displays definitions. It produces an outline of your writing, and you can restructure your piece by dragging paragraphs, sentences and headings. To help you proofread, it can read your text aloud, and its speech is separate from VoiceOver. This used to be my writing app of choice, but I don’t use it much anymore. Its tools for selecting text and checking spelling are no longer necessary for me, as recent iOS versions have made these tasks easier in every app. It has very limited file management capabilities, presenting all of your documents in one list, with no ability to create folders or sync with Dropbox, so if you are working on several writing projects at once, you can’t keep them separate. It’s also not ideal for taking quick notes, because creating a new document takes a few too many taps. It doesn’t quite fit in with the way I like to work, and I’ve found other apps that have more of the functionality I need, but I know that many AppleVis users have found Voice Dream Writer very helpful.
If you’re working on a book or other long writing project, you might like Scrivener. It allows you to write in any order, in segments as large or small as you want, which you can easily rearrange. You can also store your research files and project notes alongside your writing. At the end of the process, Scrivener can compile all the pieces of text that make up your project, putting them into a single Word document or PDF.
Ulysses is popular with writers. Everything I’ve read about it suggests it’s a good, simple markdown editor which can sync to Dropbox and export to several formats, but it’s expensive for what it does, and in a recent test of the app I found that navigating the editor with VoiceOver was very slow. There are other, cheaper apps which have much of the same functionality. Try Permanote (formerly Nebulous Notes), iA Writer, Byword or Bear.
If you’re looking for a text editor with automation features, you might like Editorial or 1Writer. I tried both of these apps some time ago, and my thought at the time was that the automation was fun to play with, but not really useful. Having just tried these two apps again, I think Editorial’s workflows may be worth some further exploration. 1Writer, on the other hand, is more difficult to navigate. It’s usable with VoiceOver, but has some poorly labelled buttons.
A Writer’s Toolbox
Text editors aren’t the only apps that can make your writing life easier. Terminology is a dictionary, thesaurus and research tool. A dictionary is included, but it can also look up your search term on other websites and apps, making it easy to find definitions and information from multiple sources.
If you need some inspiration for your next creative writing project, Lists for Writers might help you find a character name, setting or dramatic situation. You could also try Wotja. This is primarily a music generation app, but can generate creative writing ideas by making a cut-up of up to five source texts. This app is rather complex, and it may take some time and patience to work out how to use all of its features, but you might enjoy experimenting with it, especially if you are interested in music as well as writing.
These are just a few of the extra tools that can help you with your writing, but if you know of any that I've missed, please mention them in the comments.
Which apps do you use for writing? Do you have any recommendations of apps not mentioned here? Please share your thoughts!
hi there. Well, I use ulysses a lot, both on my mac and iphone, and never seemed slow to me, in fact its build in markum language is more powerful than the standard markdown, easier and faster. now, with the new subscription model, you can access both mac and iOs apps for a few bugs a month, and stop paying whenever you don't need it anymore. And, well, last but not least, ULYSSES shares much more with scribenner than with permanotes and Bear! in fact, as far as I knoy, bear is not accessible at all... In my opinion, permanote, bear etc are notetakers, like onenote, simplenote or whatever, each one with its own features, while Ulysses is a full text editor, made to manage all kind of projects, from small to big, with special features like a powerful exporting tool which allows you to choose any format docx, pdf,htm, txt, and a lot of stiles novel, article, poetry.Just my thoughts!
Thanks for your comment. I wonder if it’s just me who’s finding Ulysses slow then? I nearly didn’t mention that, but I tested it shortly before posting and found that the editor was nearly unusable, even though the rest of the app was fine, which seemed odd but I thought I’d better mention it. I tried it on my iPhone 7 with the latest iOS, and haven’t had the same problem with any other editor. If a lot of people comment to say they’re not having the same problem, I’ll edit my post accordingly.
Bear was indeed inaccessible when it was released, but the issues have been fixed, as far as I can tell. If anyone knows of any remaining accessibility problems with it, please let us know.
Thanks for adding your perspective to the discussion!
I love this blog! I do all of my writing with an iPhone and a Bluetooth keyboard and am always looking for new tools and perspectives. Although I generally use Voice Dream Writer, I am always open to new apps. In Voice Dream Writer, I am a big fan of the spell checker, but I ought to try the new spell checking interface built into iOS.
Thank you for such a useful and thoughtful piece!
I definitely agree. Very nice job. This gives me some good suggestions for that iPhone I'm getting for Christmas or my birthday. I hope so anyway, lol! Although most if not all the writing I do is for pleasure, I would like to check these out at some point. I've used the free version of Pages only for reading documents on my Mac thus far, but I've found it to be quite good. TextEdit is also good, but I don't believe there's an iOS version of that one. I don't recall if there's an iOS version of MarsEdit, but I have used that for my journal and it's worked great. I'm also wondering if Jarte is compatible with Apple products. If so, have any of you used it and what were your findings? I used the free version for a brief period on a Windows laptop that I owned, and it was great. Thanks again for an awesome blog post.
Can anyone please point me to how I can use the built-in spellchecking functionality in iOS? Or just spell it out right here?
Mani, to check spelling, first turn the rotor to misspelled words, then, flick down to the word you want to correct. If you want a list of suggested corrections, turn the rotor to edit, choose select, then choose replace from the same menu. You should then be able to flick left/right through the suggestions list. I hope that makes sense, but let me know if you have any questions.
I like how easy it is to get word count in Scrivener, if you need to write articles or pieces with that in mind. Scrivener also uses MarkDown, although I’m unsure how extensive the support is. I rarely use anything but basic formatting.
I bought both Ulysses and Scriviner, IOS plus Mac, and regret buying both. My perspective is that of a college professor reading lots of OCR books, supposedly writing regularly, and definitely writing for the Web a lot for my courses. Also, I slip into a Mac-based bias pretty quickly here, since I think of IOS as a potential stop-gap when I'm not near my computer... which I always am, so I really haven't ever tried to write on a phone. Some of the advanced features aren't available on the IOS versions, but all the apps mentioned here except for Text-Edit have IOS versions.
#1 Scriviner is a very nicely-designed app, but a couple of things. First, its philosophy treats the document like a database, by which I mean that its "inspector" allows you to enter lots of metadata for indexing purposes. I don't like to feel like I'm in a database when I'm writing. A personal preference thing. Second, I found some aspects inaccessible. I wasn't able to use the Insert Table dialog and wasn't able to navigate a resulting table I created with standard VO gestures. Also, in attempting to enter and review annotations, I had to resort to mouse routing and clicking to activate the comment. Even then, it did not take me to the specific comment I was trying to read, as it does for a sighted user. I was therefore unable to use commenting effectively. So, I found some of the advanced features unusable. That and #1 prompted me to remove it rather than paying for the upgrade. Others can educate me if they were able to use tables and comments as efficiently as a sighted person would.
#2 I'm pretty disgusted with Ulysses right now. I can't imagine what would make me pay $30 per year forever to keep using it. The editor is speedy, but I purchased the software more than6 months ago only to find that I can't edit output formatting styles within the app because they made a visual design decision to make the Styles preference payne inaccessible to Voiceover. The tools to make output styles accessible have been available since Sierra, according to them, but I've seen not one single update in the software since they switched to the subscription model. There's a work-around for styles, but it's pretty cumbersome and I haven't had the time. Second, mouse emulation appears to be required to move sheets around in its proprietary library management system. It's been incredibly frustrating to get to the document (I mean "sheet") I want to edit, and more frustrating to quickly start a sheet and then need to move it into the right folder. Every other app on Earth handles this with standard copy/cut/paste and the context menu. Furthermore, conversion between html and markdown has been hit and miss, with important aspects of formatting getting lost in translation for me on a weekly basis. I do a lot of writing for the Web on deadlines, and I've found myself basically just editing the file from scratch as html after attempting to convert it using Ulysses smart copy/paste. I think Ulysses is the best in theory, but they'd have to do a *lot* to keep me when ByWord is so inexpensive (I have that, too).
If you're interested in MarkDown, which I do recommend, take a look at PanDoc and see if a simple shell command script executed on a file created in Text-Edit won't do a lot of what you want...
All this is really just to say, run the evaluation versions of Scriviner and Ulysses all the way to the end and give them a work-out before getting excited and shelling out for them on both IOS and Mac like I did. They'll probably suit some users' needs wonderfully, and demonstrably have suited many.
I like the fact that both apps ditch the print layout bias created by writing in "pages" as the basic unit. A sheet in Ulysses and a document in Scriviner can be any length, making them semantic units. You glue/bind them together to make a master document, apply styles using a CSS-like document (that's HTML talk for a file containing text-based formatting instructions), and export to PDF, html, word, etc. for distribution.
In both Ulysses and ByWord, I like being able to copy my document on the screen with a keystroke that turns my MarkDown into HTML ready for pasting onto the Web.
I've said this many times on AppleVis, but folks should really launch Tex-Edit and take a good look at what it does, too. It's surprising.
Then try Pages, at least on the days it will speak text as it's being selected. Word is even more platform-universal, if you have free access to it as a student or employee (I wouldn't pay money for MS Office, since it's over-complicated and very Windows-centric).
Thanks for the excelent blog post and for your thoughts too Voracious. Can anyone recommend a good simple editor that works equally well on PC and iOS? I find I do a lot of writing on the PC but want to make a quick edit on a mobile device on a train or something. The ideal set up would be a full word processor type program on the desktop but something that is a bit simpler on mobile. Currently, I am using MSWord because I have a university subscription but I find the interface to be a bit clunky and overly complex on mobile.
Thanks for any thoughts you have.
@Alex, I spent a long, long time trying to crack that one, too. So, here's my longer-than-the-original-blog post compendium reply for anyone who's been in the same boat of wanting seamless movement from Word to IOS, which is a lot of us. The options listed below progressively increase in convolutedness, so stop reading when you get tired.
1) Overall, I suspect that your best bet is to get used to Word IOS. Most IOS writing apps have to layer the interface with lots of toolbars/menu levels to cope with the small screen and assumption that many users won't have a keyboard. So, I don't find IOS Word all that much different from Pages or other apps in that regard, at least in my very brief trials. If your documents are complex and need to be shared (papers, for instance), you need to stick with Word and Pages, although IOS doesn't yet support Word comments.
2) A plain-text Word alternative for Windows is Ed Sharp, which can be manhandled to convert to MarkDown on export/import. Then you could use ByWord, Ulysses (with an external folder set up), AI Writer, etc. on IOS. That would not be a bad workflow at all for documents you intend to convert to PDFs or HTML, or if they're mainly for personal use. EdSharp is a nice and feature-rich editing platform (naturally, since it's designed by Jamal Mazrui, a blind programmer).
3) In IOS Ulysses, you could open your Word documents directly, but you'd have to then Export them to Word to move them back over to your PC, and you'll lose a surprising amount of formatting in the process, including blank lines. Not a good option, then.
4) You can load Word docs into IOS Pages and always just convert back to word, or else make sure to save in Word for Windows to RTF by default in the File > Options > Save panel (I think: I haven't tried this). Even if your file is the neutral ground of rtf, though, I suspect Pages might try to save it as a .pages file unless you choose "export." Not sure. Pages has been doing a pretty good job of retaining Word formatting codes, and Pages has some nice integration with the rotor for document navigation.
5) Everything will open an RTF file, and Scriviner uses RTF as its native format (and stores all the rtf files inside its little library ".scriv" package, where you can find them when you're on Windows if you set it up right: kind of a hack, though, and filenames will be insane-looking). It syncs using Drop Box.
6) You might be able to jury rig something with VoiceDream Writer, but my experimenting with it wasn't successful. It cannot read the variety of formats VoiceDream Reader can, and it doesn't export to MarkDown, even though it uses MarkDown natively.
7) MarkDown is a washout on Windows, too, by the way. I've tried literally every MarkDown editor I've found, and none of them work. they all go for graphic WYSIWYG displays. THe older WriteMonkey 2 comes the closest, but key features aren't accessible (the jump list, for instance) and the newer version is inaccessible as well. So, no need to go there as opposed to EdSharp. Google Chrome actually has a MarkDown Essentials app or something like that which does work fairly well on Windows, but it does little more than show you an HTML preview, so I would only use it to convert the document, not write it, and you can do that with a PanDoc command line. Note that you could use WOrd to write basic formatted documents, then convert them using PanDoc to MarkDown, then open them in IOS ByWord or the like. That's a long walk, though. ...IOS Word still looking too complex? MarkDown conversion of any format won't support a lot of advanced things like comments, also. In a University setting, it's the comments feature that always drags me back kicking and screaming to Word. That, and navigating a long document by headings, which I can do in Pages or Word or Ulysses, but nothing else that I know of. And not in IOS Word, either.
8) Random thoughts: Google Docs might be worth a shot. I've never enjoyed the usability of anything Google, so I haven't given it much of a chance.
Most "artisinal" writing apps I've seen that work well on IOS/Mac don't work on Windows: EverNote, Scriviner, OneNote.
One other idea that just occurred to me is the IPHone Workflow app, which might have some tools for converting documents for you between Word and something else. Not sure, but could be worth looking into. It definitely will work with Ulysses sheets directly. However, I have yet to actually find a use for the Workflow automation app.
9) Oh, and then there's Emacs. It's quite a powerful text processing tool (and more) that's accessible on Mac, PC, and LInux, but the only version for IOS requires jailbreaking, though there's a MobileOrg app that at least does notes and outlines. If you're young enough and hate Word for Windows enough, that might be worth digging into. My life isn't long enough to retrain myself away from things like, say, cursor keys, so I'm staying away from it. Once you Emacs, though, no one ever seems to stop. The file generated on the desktop will be plain text such as MarkDown.
Thanks @Voracious P. Brain for all the information you’ve posted here. In response to Alex’s question, I’d think the easiest way to edit documents across iOS and Windows would be to save them as plain text files in Dropbox, use Markdown and/or HTML for formatting, then convert them to Word documents or whichever format you need when you’ve finished writing. If that doesn’t cover all of your formatting requirements, you could make any changes in Word right at the end, after you’ve converted your document. I know that isn’t exactly what you wanted, since you said you were looking for a full word processor, but Word is the only option I’m aware of for that. Pages probably wouldn’t work for you because, as far as I know, there’s no way of keeping your documents synced with Windows, and I’ve heard that it doesn’t always retain the formatting of Word documents.
This was a really great blog post and discussion.
I'm starting to wonder if I'm doing something very wrong. I write rather long documents, and one of the greatest challenges I've faced with any text editor in IOS is navigating the document, Bluetooth keyboard or not. Say I have a document composed of ten chapters. In word for WIndows I have them all formatted using headings for each chapter, plus the usual paragraph structure. I can just navigate by heading, then use whatever screen reader to navigate by paragraph. On IOS however, most editers seem to read by page when the keyboard is hidden, then by standard commands when the keyboard is visible. problem is, if I'm reading normally witht he keyboard hidden, find the paragraph I want to start editing, tap on it, then the cursor jumps to the beginning of the bloody document. Then when in text editing mode, I can really only move by line, word or Character. Voice Dream writer seems to be decent for this, but I can't import .doc files, and thus can't keep my formatting. Since I move from PC to IOS, that's sort of a must. Am I missing some fundamental text editing knowledge? I have the same trouble on an Iphone as an Ipad Pro. I should also mention, while one can move by paragraph using a bt keyboard, I've tried it, and sometimes it will miss paragraphs or jump around unreliably.
@Remy: I was hoping someone else would respond to your comment, since I don't use IOS for writing for reasons similar to those you describe. #1, remember that on IOS/Mac, option-down places the cursor at the end of the paragraph, not the beginning of the next paragraph like control-down does on Windows. However, in a brief try-out in Word and Ulysses on IOS, the cursor seems to be moving in the Mac/IOS way, but VO speaks either the whole paragraph or something else. It isn't tracking correctly in IOS 11.
#2) if not interacting at the level of the text, option-down is likely to give unpredictable results: in Ulysses, it jumps to another sheet, for instance. And it's not always obvious whether I'm interacting or not, since the standard Mac VO keystroke isn't the way to do it (VO+space is). In Word, option-up is just completely haywire.
#3) Pages is the only IOS app I know that allows any kind of textual navigation via the rotor. So, without option up/down working properly, navigation is very limited.
I've never considered IOS a viable platform for writing because of things like these. I bought VDWriter to overcome them, but its format limitations made it unusable for me moving from the phone to a "real" computer on documents with formatting/structure. So, I don't use my phone for writing, and remain a laptop user. The IPhone/IPad processors are capable of acting like a laptop replacement, but the devil is in the details.
I've always been surprised by blog or forum posts like this one that say how well writing on IOS works, since I've never found it usable. Maybe my needs as a professional are just very different. Or, we both need a reply here and some h-e-l-p... I haven't tried Drafts or the like, sincethe Notes app works for me as a cross-platform jotting app and what I am waiting for is a word processor. BTW, AFB put out one a long time ago, but it isn't maintained.
This is a great blog post. So I just added Drafts to my wishlist. Would that app work for writing short stories or journals?
As for Google Docs, my schools is into the Chromebooks and they use google docs. On iOS VO doesn't read a numbered lists when listening to the whole document.
You have to go line by line to hear what number you are on.
What a great post. Thanks for putting this together, and for being so thorough! Saving this on my desktop, since I am currently looking for a better iOS solution.
Hi, this is a great post! In your opinion, what would be the best app for writing blog posts? I use wordpress as a blogging platform and want to start writing using Markdown. Thanks!
You can write in Markdown in the WordPress app, so long as you’ve selected the setting to allow Markdown. I think this setting has to be changed from the website, though, not within the app. However, its markdown support can be a bit temperamental, so you might be better off either using HTML or writing your Markdown in another app and having that app convert it to HTML. You could use Byword or Ia Writer, which allow you to publish to WordPress from within the app. I have an action in Drafts set up to email what I’ve written to the WordPress email address for publishing to my blog, which converts my markdown to HTML before sending the email. This does take a few steps to set up, so I’d only recommend it to someone who already uses and likes Drafts, but once it’s set up it’s very easy to publish. But if you don’t want to go through that setup process probably Byword or IA Writer would be the best option.
Also, you probably already know this, but just to add for anyone else who’s curious about WordPress blogging: the WordPress app is very accessible, but before you start writing with it, I highly recommend going into the app settings on the me tab and changing the editor to plain text.
Sorry for the long delay in replying to your comment. To answer your question, yes, Drafts will work for writing just about anything. It’s not really designed for writing books and other very long texts but you could use it for that if you wanted to. You shouldn’t have any problems with short stories or journals.
While I’m here, and talking about Drafts, I just wanted to add a couple of extra bits of information: since writing this post I got an iPad, and I’ve found that Drafts syncs flawlessly between it and my iPhone. I’ve also, in the time since writing it discovered how convenient it is that this app saves multiple versions of your drafts. A couple of weeks ago, in a moment of madness I decided for no reason I can remember to delete all the text in a draft I was working on. Then when I came back to my work later on, I couldn’t figure out why my work had disappeared. Fortunately, I could restore a previous version of the document.
Another comment I didn’t respond to...
I understand what you mean about navigation of a document being a bit of a problem, but I’ve got a couple of ways to deal with this. If you’re writing something very long, it might be easier to store each section of it in a different file and then compile it all into a single document at the end, so that you have less text to navigate as you’re writing. For documents of 1000 to 2000 words, I find that the iOS commands are sufficient. A useful trick I’ve found, although this one works better on the iPad than the iPhone because of the increased screen space, is to move your finger on the screen to the piece of text you’r looking for. Once you’ve found it, hold your finger on it (this is important because if you let go, you’ll be taken straight back to where you were) and do a split-tap. You’ll be put at the start of the line you were touching.
I’ve heard of another app called werdsmith and wondered if anyone here knew if it was accessible?