Writer for Mac brings brutally efficient text production to the Mac

| Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

“Oh, Wow.” That was my first reaction to Writer for Mac. My next one was “Freaking sexy!” Ok, I admit — I’m very much a sucker for minimalist things (I tend to avoid clutter, bloat, and unnecessary complexity), especially when it comes to software. That said, Writer for Mac is the cleanest writing environment I’ve yet seen for the Mac. Yes, I’ve tried WriteRoom, ByWord, and others. They are good, and I’m certainly not discounting them by any means, but Writer just has that last level of polish that makes it feel “right.” It feels like how an Apple-designed writing app should feel. You could even say it’s what TextEdit could have been.

The Typeface and Line Spacing

Perhaps the most instantly notable thing in Writer is the typeface. It’s about the only thing you immediately notice in the app. Writer is intentionally devoid of “typical” editor features. That is not to say it doesn’t have them — it most certainly does. They’re just implemented in a rather unconventional, but arguably much more efficient, way.

Sadly, many people don’t appreciate typography. As a designer, I’m certainly not one of them. Type matters, and in a very big way. It sets the entire mood for whatever you’re writing or reading, and guides the mind and the eye along as you do so. Perhaps that’s why I always hated Times New Roman, as most designers do. Microsoft had the opportunity to make Word’s default font (back in the day, of course, they’ve since changed it again) something great, and instead chose to make it something miserably bad.

Writer, however, was obviously sweated over for many hours by its developers. They must have tried dozens of typefaces, line-spacing and letter-spacing configurations before finally settling on the ones they chose to use. For what it’s worth, Writer includes a typeface called Nitti Light. Nitti Light retails for $75 by itself (the Light weight alone). If you want the rest of the typeface, you’ll need to spend much more money. If you’ve never purchased typefaces, it’s very easy to forget just how expensive they can be, let alone licensing them for resale in an app, as iA has done for Writer. Essentially, when you pay $18 for Writer, you’re getting to use that $75 font for free. It’s almost like iA is giving you $52 just to use Writer. (Yes, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but you get the point.) Writer feels more like typing on paper than any other app I’ve ever tried (but much better, alas), and trivial as that may seem, it makes the app very enjoyable to work with. The typeface and typography decisions are spot-on.

Another feature worth mentioning — no matter how seemingly trivial — is the cursor. Writer eschews the standard Mac cursor in favor of a more old-fashioned blinking insertion bar in big, bright blue. This cursor is actually featured in the Writer icon, so obviously iA is pretty proud of it. The huge insertion cursor makes finding where you are in your document incredibly easy, and looks great on-screen. It’s a nice touch, and one that I wish Apple would take a look at adopting for Mac OS X.

Markdown Support

Writer features support for a language called Markdown. For those of you not in the know, Markdown is a very simple and efficient markup language developed by John Gruber (of Daring Fireball fame). It consists of a series of very simple shortcuts for formatting text into headlines, italics, bold, numbered and unordered lists, blockquotes, etc. Markdown can also handle things like creating anchor links to a specific part of a document, embedding images, and creating linked footnotes. There are many tools available that can instantly convert Markdown to HTML for the web, or display it in all its formatted glory. Notational Velocity (or nvALT) is one such app. There are also plugins available for most popular CMSs that allow creating and editing blog posts in Markdown. Many CMSs actually have support for the language built-in. That said, you won’t need any of these tools, because—  guess what — Writer features an “Export to HTML” option that will instantly convert all your Markdown formatting into a perfectly coded HTML file which you can then paste right into your blog or website.

Additionally, when you type a recognized Markdown code, Writer instantly modifies the text to show that. For example, typing ## in Markdown creates a level two heading, so Markdown outdents it from the body text and makes it bold instantly. Likewise, bold and italics are denoted in real-time as well.

The point of this Markdown support in Writer is very simple. The idea is one that’s so obvious, yet missed by many. When you’re typing a paper, article, blog post, or other project, the less you need to take your hands off the keyboard, the better. Writer is designed to allow you to create formatted lists, headlines, blockquotes, italics, bold, and other formatting, all without ever stopping what you’re typing. You just type the Markdown markup right into your document, and when you’re done you end up with a fully formatted document without ever clicking a single toolbar button.

See, Writer does have formatting options. It just uses typing to insert them, rather than clicking toolbar buttons or using keyboard shortcuts. You just type the formatting right into your document as you go. It’s designed to not break your stream of thought and concentration, and quite frankly, it works very well

You can even export your final formatted HTML file via a simple keyboard shortcut. The idea is to improve your efficiency tremendously in the long run, at the small expense of memorizing a tiny set of commands in the beginning. Markdown is unbelievably simple to learn, so if you’re afraid of learning a “new language,” don’t be. It’s dead simple.

In fact, the first time you open Writer, you’re presented with a beautifully formatted document that gives you a brief tutorial on how to use all the basic features of Markdown to format your documents. The idea is that after you read that one document, you should be more or less set to start creating with Markdown without ever needing any more instruction. I told you it was easy!

Full-screen Mode

Of course, no review of Writer would be complete without mentioning two of its flagship features, “Full-screen Mode” and “Focus Mode.” In full-screen mode, Writer grows to fill your entire screen, allowing you to focus entirely on what you’re writing. Simple. If you need access to the menu bar, just mouse up there and it appears instantly. Of course, the keyboard shortcuts are always available as well, and are usually faster than mousing around in a menu.

Focus Mode

Focus mode is very simple as well. It literally greys out everything but the very sentence you are currently typing. It looks pretty cool in practice, though you probably won’t need it per se unless you’re one of those ADHD types who can’t stand having anything else at all on the screen while you’re typing. It’s biggest use in my opinion is for editing. As you tap up and down through your document with the arrow keys or mouse, Writer shows the current working sentence in black with everything else in light grey. This makes looking for typos much easier, and allows you to see just that one sentence and decide whether it makes grammatical sense or not. I suspect this is what the folks at iA had in mind when they created the feature.

Price

Writer costs $17.99. Big whoop. Some people apparently have a problem with this. I’ll explain Writer’s market positioning here, and if you want to buy it, great. If not, don’t. It’s pretty simple.

Some people are comparing Writer to Pages, and saying that if Apple charges $10 for Pages that iA can’t rationally charge $18 for Writer. This logic is flawed, and here’s why. Firstly, Apple is a hardware company (monetarily anyway). They sell iWork to help inspire people to buy more Apple hardware. Therefore, Apple essentially subsidizes their software development costs into their hardware sales prices. You need look no further than Lion’s $29 price tag (vs. $219 for Microsoft’s Windows 7 Ultimate) to see this in full effect.

Secondly, Writer isn’t Pages. Pages and other apps like it are Word Processor / Page Layout hybrid apps designed for making newsletters, quarterly reports, and the like. They aren’t designed for full-time professional writers who specialize in creating and editing vast quantities of text. Writer is. Writer’s unique emphasis on focus, brutally efficient formatting, Markdown and HTML export, and simple things like fast Find and Replace all point to an app focused on professional text creation. If a tool saves you any time at all, it’s worth some money. If a tool improves your focus and efficiency on a constant and daily basis as a major part of your workflow, it’s worth its weight in gold. Writer does both. I think 18 bucks is pretty trivial for all the efficiency and attention to detail that Writer brings to the table. It’s only a few lattes at Starbucks. That said, if you don’t agree, don’t buy it. If you do, go ahead and grab a copy on the Mac App Store. You won’t be disappointed.

Potential

Another thing I’d like to mention here is how much better Writer will become with Lion’s release. Lion brings features like an OS-integrated full-screen mode (as opposed to app-by-app custom full-screen modes), Resume, Autosave, and Versions to the table. Writer will gain all these features after Lion’s release, and with them may just become the premiere text production app. Sure, these are OS-level features as opposed to app-specific features, but when paired with Writer’s already great design and feature set, they will add up to create one fantastic writing environment.

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Conclusion

Writer is not designed for the average person. Rather, it was created with a very specific target group of people in mind. Writer is a professional text content creation tool designed for writers (Surprise!), bloggers, journalists, college students, teachers and professors who need to type massive quantities of formatted text for use on the web on a regular basis, and who need brutal efficiency and concentration to do their best work. I’m one of those people, and I love it. If you don’t fall into this demographic, you may not fully appreciate Writer. If you do, however, you may just fall in love with Writer. I know I did.

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