It starts with text
If you come from a PC, writing on a Mac is different. It starts from a different premise and it uses different mindsets.
Ask a PC user about writing and you will be talking about Microsoft Office quickly. Ask a Mac user and your conversation will sound differently.
When writing on a Mac, ditch your former habits and old thinking. On a Mac, it’s not about file types and compatibility issues. On a Mac, it’s about text first.
Text is the universal medium of typed words. It’s flexible and versatile. Text is not restricted by software or desktop-versus-mobile. It can go anywhere.
If you start writing on a Mac, think text first. Think about transferring your ideas into typed words as a first step. It’s about what you want to express before anything else.
Keep the format of your words as simple as possible. Keep words as plain text. Be assured, you will be able to build anything from it.
Plain text is a powerful medium that you can turn into any form you like. With plain text you can construct complex rich text documents, presentations, websites and programs. Plain text can be the basis for notes, drafts and even actionable commands. You can’t go wrong with it.
Memo 1: Before you start thinking too much about the end product, think text first.
How to capture text
I have switched to Markdown for all my writing. It’s a simple but powerful way of writing plain text. It’s easy to learn. Even better, with my favorite writing apps for Mac, you don’t have to learn Markdown and can still make the most out of it.
The less constrained you are by interface, knobs and all, the more you can focus on developing your ideas. I believe in the power of distraction-free writing as the most direct manner to capture what’s on your mind. Tapping into the power of your creative brain without friction is the key to delivering your best work.
For this, you don’t need software with a plethora of functions and pseudo-functions. On the contrary, the more an app lets you declutter, the better. You need a tool that helps you focus on what’s quintessential: writing. Think of it as a digital scratch pad. You don’t need all the bells and whistles. You just need a text editor.
Memo 2: For building anything on a Mac - be it a presentation or a document - you need a tool for writing plain text first.
The case for minimalist text editors
For writing on a Mac, text editors are more important than so called word processors. Just as the engine is more important than the chassis to a car.
In academia and business, the discussion about getting work done on a computer, quickly revolves around „industry standards“ and how you have to adhere to these standards in order to „be professional“ or „to get real work done“.
I work in academia where I have to deal with scientific publication and research presentation and I want to make the case for minimalist text editors.
Once you realised that the process of writing itself is key, tools come second. It’s about letting your mind flow freely.
Let’s say I want to build a complex research paper with data sheets and a reference list. Chances are I will need a word processor (like Word or Pages) at some stage in the production process. (In fact, instead of Word or Pages, I use the app Scrivener for that - see below.) But having a powerful program without the input of the best writing I can produce won’t help me at all. In fostering the quality of my writing, a complex word processor like Word is worse than a minimalist text editor.
I am making the case for minimalist text editors because they help you focus on what matters most at this stage in your workflow. The focus of a good minimalist text editor is in making the tedious and demanding process of writing a more joyful experience.
If you enjoy something, if something is fun, you are better at it. If something arouses positive feelings inside of you, it captures your attention and boosts your productivity. You feel light and unleashed.
I happen to enjoy the beauty of type and crafting words. This joy has come about with ditching programs like Word and Pages for minimalist writing apps. Minimalism in writing has become an aesthetic principle of mine. Now, typing on a computer is joyful and fun to me. It has made me more productive. It has made me a better writer.
Memo 3: Try using a minimalist text editor.
The apps I use
The Appstore is not short of minimalist text editors. If you are like me, you will probably end up buying a lot of them. (I mean, a lot.) Chances are you won’t go wrong with any of the popular choices. If you have an organised system of file management and don’t lose track of your files between different apps (think Dropbox), why not have multiple editors? Plain text is compatible with all of them.
In my writing I tend to switch a lot between my Mac, my iPad and my iPhone. (Yes, you can do writing on an iPhone and it’s best done by dictation.) Text is compatible with anything anywhere, so it doesn’t matter whether you started something on your iPhone first and want to continue it on your Mac.
These days, I do a lot of my writing for my blog and for web publication. For this purpose, I got hooked on a beautiful new app called Desk. It’s developed by John Saddington and it’s fully dedicated to bloggers and those of you who intend to publish their writing to the web. As you know, you shouldn’t write your posts in any blog’s dedicated web interface. My blog is on the fabulous Squarespace and as of yet, Desk makes use of the email-to-blog service of uploading posts. The app is still in its infancy but I fully endorse it and can’t recommend it enough. More so, it has a great community around it. John has a lot more up his sleeve for the app in the near future, so go buy it and hop on the bandwaggon.
I do write more than I publish on the web. In fact, most of my writing still never meets another pair of eyes besides my own. For example, I keep a journal and I write on a (yet distant) book project. I fall into these impulsive writing urges ever so often when I just have to jot down a couple hundreds of words. For all this writing, I waver and just can’t decide between two wonderful apps: Information Architects’ iA Writer Pro and Metaclassy's Byword.
I have been a fan of iA Writer because of it’s simplicity and typographic choices for a long time. I just adore the Nitty font. It’s been the first writing app on my Mac and iPhone. Recently, I upgraded to the advanced version of the app called iA Writer Pro. It’s a different take on a fully featured writing app that has a unique workflow to it. You can read more about it on the iA blog. The app guides you from note taking via first draft to final edits. This happens with the option to move a document to different „workflows“. I can relate to this approach as I accumulate lot of notes from thoughts, scribbles, half-baked ideas, impulsive writing and the like throughout my days and the majority of these just never makes it to a draft stage (which is totally ok, by the way). Furthermore, the app has a unique syntax feature that allows to you focus on sentences, adjectives, nouns, etc. to clean up your draft while editing. I use iA Writer Pro for medium to longer form articles, journaling and any creative writing I do.
Byword is another favorite of mine and I sometimes just can’t decide between this app and iA Writer Pro. It’s also on MacOS and iOS. Compared to iA Writer Pro, it lacks some of the advanced workflow and editing features, but probably you don’t want to adapt to a workflow that’s new to you just for an app, anyway. Byword has a more classy, paper-type feel to it, if this is your thing. In version 2.0 of the app, the developers added publishing features for better integration with Blogger or Evernote.
If you need something bigger
If you go for any larger writing project (say a novel or a scientific research paper), you can still get a lot out of the aforementioned apps. However, if you are dealing with chapters or data integration, I recommend you check out Literature and Latte’s Scrivener or The Soulmen’s Ulysses.
Scrivener has forever been a staple for any writer on a Mac. I allows you to write your document in chunks and have all materials - thoughts, outlines, research, media - in one place. I especially like the template options Scrivener provides which make it easy for you to follow preset structures for your writing project. However, it’s Mac only and could need some interface and design improvements. When I use Scrivener these days, I tend to do most of my writing in iA Writer Pro or Byword and then just transfer the text over.
Ulysses for Mac will most likely be one of my next app purchases. So far, I haven’t dug into the app any deeper than the documentation on the developers’ blog and reviews. It is as fully featured as Scrivener and it just looks gorgeous. Supposedly, there is an iPad app in development. Once this hits the Appstore, I am fully sold.
Bot Ulysses and Scrivener have export functions to get your document in any shape, form and file type you want. So with any of these apps, you most likely don’t ever need to open „word processors“ like MS Word or Pages.
Where are the „industry standards“?
However, still a lot of folks out there tend to cling onto Word or Pages for document creation. Especially in business, it’s not unlikely that you will have to deal with MS Office documents coworkers send to you. Opening a .docx file in any program other than Word more often than not results in hickups like formatting errors, missing fonts or file corruption. For these exceptions, I keep a copy of Apple’s Pages on my Mac. It works with Office files most of the time. If you installed Pages as well, just make a difference and don’t use it for writing. Only after you finished your draft - when the whole task of writing and editing is over, use it for building a page layout, populating a preset Apple template or fiddling with fonts and arrangements, maybe. When using Pages, I transfer a completely edited text over to the app and won’t make any further changes to the content. To me, it’s one of those cases where this one step more of text transfer has many benefits as minimalist writing apps just work so much better. (It’s more than one step: cmd + c, cmd + tab for app switching via Keyboard Maestro, then cmd + v.) It contrasts a common notion in productivity where it’s most often about apps that one-click-less.
I may be an outlier, but when it comes to writing the „industry standards“ are just not for me.
Memo 4: Try to do it without MS Word or Pages.
To get started with writing on a Mac, I want you to answer these questions:
1. Have you thought about text before thinking about programs and file formats?
Come up with a way to capture everything that’s in your head without unnecessary restrictions first before moving on to drafting and editing. Try doing it in plain text instead of rich text formats. Get yourself a Markdown cheat sheet.
2. Have you tried writing in a minimalist text editor?
There are numerous different choices on the Appstore. They make your writing lightweight, more focussed and joyful.
3. Have you finished a project without using MS Word or Pages?
Feels great, doesn’t it? You made a mark. You are different now. You are a true writer on a Mac. Be proud about it and don’t look back.