Chris Hannah

Simply Writing #

Ever since the iPad 2 was released, I’ve owned an iPad. And one of the main things I use it for is to write. The iPad for me is a perfect writing device. And in so many ways, it’s become my favourite computer to use.

That’s slightly off-topic here though, as I want to focus on the software that I’ve been using to write. And how it’s changed over time.

I’ll focus on just three applications that I’ve used over time, that I think represent my thoughts behind my writing, and the content I do (and want to) create.

The first writing application I’ll mention is iA Writer. It’s not the first app I’ve ever used to write, but probably the one when I first became serious about writing regularly for my blog.

I used it mainly because when I was getting into writing with Markdown, it was the most popular at the time. But I kept using it because of the simplicity, and how it let me focus on the raw text, rather than a typical WYSIWYG editor would. 

Eventually, I moved to Ulysses, partially because it was becoming more popular and was recommended by a lot of writers. But the biggest reason was that it provided a kind of full writing ecosystem. It lets you write, add photos, publish to your blog, and also organise your writing, all in the one app.

That was a big deal for me at the time, as I wanted a simple writing flow. And Ulysses allowed me to separate all my writing into one place.

However, the reasons why I chose Ulysses in the first place, eventually became the reasons why I switched away from it.

Although it wasn’t far from a plain text editor, it started to feel a bit too rich for the content I was starting to create. I was beginning to lean towards more text-heavy articles, rather than ones full of links and images. It also really bugged me that you couldn’t just write Markdown, and have it leave it in its raw state.

I also realised that I wasn’t using Ulysses to its true potential and that it felt like extra baggage that I didn’t need. The way I used to publish articles was just to use the built-in publishing tools in the app, but I was slowly moving to a more automated flow using Workflow/Shortcuts. It let me to essentially just use it as a text editor with Markdown support.

That actually led me back to iA Writer, as it let me write in plain Markdown again, and also let me separate my writing app away from where my writing was stored on my device.

At the same time as the switch back, I started using more and more automation. I was creating initial outlines with templates, for things like link posts (Gruber style), and my daily journal that I used to publish here on the blog.

But eventually, iA Writer also felt like too much for the way I was writing. The raw Markdown support was the main reason why I started to use it again, but I still wanted an even simpler solution.

That led me to an app called Pretext. I’m actually using it to write this post, and at this point in time, it just feels perfect. It’s quite possibly the Markdown app on iOS with the least features. And I absolutely love that.

It integrates with the Files app, which it also uses as the backbone of the application. As when you create a new document, you are essentially inside the Files app, and then transported to the Pretext editor, where you can completely focus on writing inside the text file, away from any other distractions. It doesn’t try to interrupt you with any handy features, or visually abstract your writing away from its raw format, all you do it write.

There’s near to none customisation available to you. You can change the text size, UI theme, and the app icon. In the past, that would be nowhere near what I needed, as I tended to worry too much about the exact font I was using, the various colour styles, and in general things that took me away from what I was actually inside the app to do.

With the overall lack of features, with I think is a good thing, it feels quicker than apps like iA Writer and Ulysses. Given all you do is create/open a file, write text, and then either share or close the file, there’s really no lag between hitting the key and having text appear on the screen. It feels super responsive, and while it may be all in my head, that’s not necessarily a bad thing:

Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real? – Albus Dumbledore

With the simplicity of Pretext, it doesn’t change the way I wrote using iA Writer that much, as I can still do all the automation I used to do because of two things. Firstly, the documents are just plain .md files, which I can access through the Files app, and therefore any automation that deals with files is fine. But also, because it features the native iOS share functionality, I can still use my Shortcuts that deal with my writing, like the one I use to publish articles on my blog.

What’s interesting to me, is that how the software I use to do my writing, represents the content that I want to write. With my recent focus on raw text most likely stemming from my desire to write cleaner articles, with more precision, and less fluff.

In an ideal world, the content here on this blog would feature some heavily thought out pieces of writing, side-by-side with various pieces of writing from other people that I’ve linked to, and shared opinions on.

But that’s an ideal world, not where I am right now. I’m still learning how to write better, and at the same time discovering what I want to write about. There may be a long process ahead of me in order to reach that goal, but at least this is one step in that direction.