Review of Writer Pro
(Originally posted on 2013-12-26)
All the talk this week for people who are obsessed with writing and their tools has focussed on Writer Pro. Information Architects Inc.(IA) have attempted to improve iA Writer. The new application is called Writer Pro. It comes in both a Mac version and an iOS version.
I am going to talk here mainly of the Mac OS version.
They have taken the process of creating documents and broken it into stages.
- A Notes Stage
- A Writing Stage
- An Editing Stage
- A Read Stage
Conceptually, these are the stages of writing and they have their own representation in the application. The look changes over the four stages. How effective it is, is a matter for some debate, but it tries to break down the stages and provide an environment optimized to each particular task.
For instance this is the notes stage of this document:
It uses a different font and a green cursor to give you a sense of which stage you are in.
Notice, the font change. We now have the blue cursor.
We can apply focus to Sentences and get to concentrate on a sentence, by sliding the Syntax to sentences.
In Edit mode, we can go through our document sentence by sentence, and the focus moves along. The cursor changes to a reddish variant and it is a different font.
We can also highlight other things in edit mode. For instance, this is the syntax highlight of nouns in a part of this document.
The last mode is Read mode, and here the font again changes and the cursor disappears.
IA is famous for the look of their applications. iA Writer created an absolute stir when it was released. They didn’t invent the product category but they did define it in some ways. The look of the original iA Writer was beautiful. The sequel doesn’t disappoint in that respect. It is beautiful. The idea of the different stages in the workflows and their particular nuances is gimmicky and irrelevant to your workflow. But it is not an uncomfortable environment to work in.
iCloud support is a feature of this application. I am not a fan. I understand that the integration between the iOS version and the Mac OS version is something that is integral to the feature set of the application but iCloud is a pain. I would have preferred Dropbox support.
I am spoiled. I use Sublime Text as my go to text editor. It has features I have grown to depend on and when I see that they don’t exist in other text editors, it makes me sad. Writer Pro is a markdown editor. Yes, it is a writing tool but it is also a markdown based writing tool. In markdown, we use links, we use links a lot. So, when I edit something I have written, I want to be able to turn it into a link. For instance, the first word in the section preceding this one: the Look of the application, I wanted to change the first word into a link. In Sublime Text I highlight the word, press the square bracket, and the selected text gets surrounded by [selected text], then I can press bracket which gives me () with the cursor between the brackets so that I can type or paste the URL to make a link. It is easy to do.
The process is manual and hence onerous in Writer Pro. It doesn’t autocomplete and when you type something with selected text it replaces the text that you have selected. Makes the process, like I said, manual and onerous. One of the main competitors of this application, Byword handles this the same way SublimeText does. It seems to be cognizant of links and Writer Pro and its sibling, iA Writer, seem unaware of links. It displays links fine, and it deals with links fine, but it doesn’t make the process of entering them all that convenient.
IA has always encouraged a minimalistic ethos in their Application User Interface. So, they don’t burden their product with preferences and choices. You are stuck with the choices the developers thought were optimal and that is it. On the whole, this has led to some good decisions and I am fond of the environment that the developers provide for me to write. But, I would like a dark theme. At night when I am writing on the iMac, I want a darker theme. I don’t like the screen emitting so much light. It hurts my eyes. In the world of IA, I am shit out of luck. Again, Byword wins this fight. Not a plethora of choices, but a few well selected ones, makes that program a tad more comfortable to be in.
I never write long pieces in one document. I write in chunks. That is why I prefer Scrivener or Ulysses III when I write large pieces. They have a file management system built into the app. I can move from chunk to chunk and then when I am done, I can compile my document, by putting the disparate chunks together in an order which makes sense to me.
Writer Pro attempts to tackle this issue but the implementation is weak and inefficient. It breaks the process into parts, but implements it all in one file. The Notes section is the same file as the Write section and it is the same as the Edit section. There is no ability to conveniently move the sections around and provide some flexibility in its ordering.
There are really two approaches to solve this problem. One of them is the multiple files later compiled into one file method of Scrivener and Ulysses III. The other is the one-file method of creation of which Writer Pro is a part. Even in this one-file from notes to read process, I prefer the implementation of FoldingText which attempts to solve this problem by letting you fold sections together and that gives you the ability to move sections around and conveniently provide an order to the document. Phraseology does a great job of this too by letting you move sections and sentences around in the edit phase.
Writer Pro needs improvement in this area. The only thing it does let you do is highlight a section and press ^ + ⌘ + Up Arrow or Down Arrow to move the section to where you want it. It is standard Mac OS behavior and not something added by Writer Pro.
Additions to the Paradigm
Syntax Control. This is the genesis of all the kerfuffle around Writer Pro that broke on Twitter last week. The basic question is the definition of innovation. If Apple in WWWDC shows all the attending developers a feature which has been implemented in the developer tools, is it innovative if you bring it first to market? And more importantly do you own that “innovation?”
I am not a patent attorney or a copyright lawyer. I am going to stay out of this determination.
There are a few writers on the web who have taken a definitive stand on this.
Quote from Gabe at macdrifter.com:
I don’t like asshats. I like people that figure out how to make a living from being awesome and making things people want to buy. I also consider Brett Terpstra to be awesome and it pisses me off to see people mimic his work and then use it to threaten him.
And based on the spontaneous reaction online, the folks at IA, have walked back a few steps and are now trying to pass off the kerfuffle as a joke.
I find myself unable to get too excited about this episode. There are lot of other things in the world for me to get agitated about. I can’t bring any level of angst to bear on a schmuck trying to sell a product for $19.99 with however dubious a patent claim.
If you look at the videos at Writer Pro, the developers contend they have solved the problem of the users having “substantial control over the process and the structure of the text”. I disagree. There is no significant addition to the process of writing. Changing the font and the cursor are puerile attempts at providing a meaningful workflow. The one-document structure is as old as parchment. Writer Pro is beautiful, but not very useful or more importantly, innovative.
Syntax Control. Phraseology attempts to tackle the same problem in their iOS app. But this is a better implementation. The ability to highlight all the adjectives in your piece and the context in which they occur is a heaven sent for a writer like me, trying to find his feet in this craft of writing. I am so fond of this feature, that irrespective of where the piece originates or gets written, it is going to visit Writer Pro to get edited. It is an useful addition to my arsenal, irrespective of who is responsible for its innovation.
If you think Syntax Control is important to you, get the app. If you don’t see the need for that, both Byword and Ulysses III are better solutions to the process and craft of writing text in markdown.
macosxguru at the gmail thingie
- First Thoughts on Writer Pro for iOS — Shawn Blanc
- Write Like A Champ With Writer Pro, Writer’s Successor | Macgasm