Hey crew, I trying understand what makes a good “writing app”.
Most of these apps advertise “distraction-free” and various markdown features, but then charge equivalent prices to full-on graphics editors. As far as I can tell, these don’t seem to offer much more than basic text editors, with some asset management system built in.
If I could piggy-back off one of your comments, @Dellaster (you’re the de facto TCPR “writer” ):
Could you elaborate on your “several reasons”? What made you pick Ulysses over something like iA Writer, which also seems to have iCloud or “storage provider agnostic” syncing?
And what about Ulysses’ workflow, UI, feature set, etc. convinced you to subscribe over simply using a basic text-editor for pure writing, or a journaling system like OneNote to organize media/ideas?
Yeah, my problem (besides the $80 for iPad, iPhone, and Windows) is that it is oversimplified in my opinion. I do use keywords, and I love that I can move “notecards” around (which are scenes or chapters) with Scrivener. Anyway, Brandon Sanderson still uses Microsoft Word so I guess whatever gets you writing everyday is what you should use.
So the differentiator for you is the idea organization UX?
What would you say puts Scrivener above say Obsidian for organization capability, which is also cross-platform and has a free tier vs. Scrivener’s $60 on Mac or Win and $24 on iOS.
It just seems like these are very high prices to get cross-platform access for one app. (eg. The Mac+Win bundle costs $100 and then add $24 for iOS. For comparison, you can just buy the entire Affinity Suite, Photo, Designer, Publisher, on Mac+Win+iOS for $170.)
Though it’s subscription (~$50/yr), that covers all apps across iPhone, iPad, and Mac. No device limits so if I have two iPads and two Macs for some reason, it’s fine.
Editor styles: I can make the formatting of the editor look how I like, with my preferred font, line spacing, paragraph spacing, indentation, etc. iA Writer forces one of several monospaced fonts and web page-like formatting. I like to see my writing hit the screen in the same format that I like to read. Example:
This in focused “typewriter” mode with only the current sentence highlighted. You can choose to focus on the current line or paragraph or everything as well. Totally flexible. And I really like the plain monochrome theme, blacks and greys on white background, with no other UI elements exposed. That’s my kind of “distraction free”.
Export styles: regardless of how it looks when writing in the editor, you can have your exports formatted differently. Fully customizable by the user—you can create your own styles. I especially like that I can export clean XHTML & CSS to epubs—no messy custom paragraph definitions, spans, or other cruft. I literally tested every writing tool out there which had epub export to see which, if any, output clean epubs. Ulysses is the only one. (In the decade I did freelance editing for novelists I created hundreds of ebooks. So I have my preferences.)
Structure within a project, however I want to do the organization. Easy to shuffle things around. Chapters, scenes… Or I can just write an entire novel as one long text if I feel like it and break it up into chapters later. Whatever.
Those are the major things that got me to subscribe, though I might’ve forgotten a thing or two. There are a lot of other features that I don’t use or that I have not used yet. Do the trial if you’re interested.
Obviously other people will have different tastes and some of the things I like they will hate, like the focused sentence in typewriter mode which I know some people hate. Different strokes.
Who hasn’t ever published anything of my own. Please don’t look to me for writing advice. I just know what I like.
Haha, well looking at the post you just wrote, if that isn’t good advice for (aspiring digital) writers, I don’t know what is!
That was great, thank you for elaborating in such detail.
One feature that caught my attention was the “clean html/css export” you cited. Could you link an example of a clean epub (and ‘dirty’ one from another app, if you have it). I’m quite interested in easily overlooked technical differences, in otherwise similar looking apps.
Your and @Eltos’ description has kind of clued me into the sort of holistic draw of writing app UX:
A clean and customizable markdown editor with export options
An organizer for flashcard/fragment arrangement with embedded media.
I’m still a little murky on second part, but this is a good start to helping me ‘get’ what writing apps are about.
“Better Darling” style is the “Meet Darling” style from the Ulysses community-made downloads that I tweaked to my taste a little (e.g.- the original was forcing a new page after the chapter title for no good reason). I’ll work on the style more when I actually have something ready to publish… someday.
Using Sigil on my Mac to open up the Ulysses Epub export. Note that because this is a writing app it doesn’t have a need to turn each and every paragraph into its own paragraph class to account for slight formatting differences since nearly every paragraph in a book is identical. It uses /H2 + p/ and such for the few special paragraphs where you want drop caps or whatever. Italic and bold text are within /em/ and /strong/ tags rather than /spans/ with defined classes. As they should be unless there’s a darn good reason to use a /span/.
Pages on my Mac with the same text exported to Epub and opened in Sigil. Lots of /classes/ and /spans/ and other cruft which are totally unnecessary in an ebook of a novel or most other prose. They make it a nightmare if you want to change things. Want to tweak your basic paragraphs? You’ll have to edit each and every paragraph class (p1, p2, p3… p214…) and there’s probably one for each and every paragraph in your novel (worst case).
Does it matter? Yes, I think it does. Simple XHTML and CSS mean more consistency across ebook readers, ebook sources (Apple Books, Google, Kobo, etc.), and conversions from Epub to other formats (e.g.- the Amazon Epub-to-Kindle converter). They all treat the Epub “standard” differently if only by a tiny bit. The more complexity the more potential difference in result—it might look how you want on iBooks on an iPad but not on a Kobo or B&N ereader, for example. Especially problematic are some of the free third party ereader apps (some actually ignore the CSS while others interpret it in… interesting ways). You don’t want to have to edit and create different Epubs for each instance… which is what I had to do back in my early freelancing days, before I learned how to produce clean Epubs.
Also, if you want to edit your Epubs post-export, such as in Sigil, to create special chapter headings or drop caps or add illustrations with wraparound text or whatever it’s way easier if the Epub is clean.
That said, plenty of writers use Scrivener or other writer software that has more complex Epub exports and they don’t mind the differences, if any, and don’t ever dig into the Epub XHTML or CSS anyway. Even I would put up with messy exports if there were features in the writing software I didn’t want to go without. It’s not like it’s impossible to deal with it. But fortunately I’m pretty happy with Ulysses. I found that I never used things like cork boards. But that’s me.
The problem with Obsidian is how to get the data out of it. As far as I know there isn’t a way to get a good export of a novel. Now maybe there is a plugin.
The other problem, again, is cross-platform. To use Obsidian on an iPad or iPhone (and it does work very well, even the plugins) is you have to use icloud drive. Icloud for windows does include icloud drive, but it is ponderously slow to sync and is prone to errors. This is not a problem if you don’t need windows or android.
Right, this is true. I just export a simple word file anyway out of Scrivener. Then I put it in Atticus to properly publish. The same workflow I would use if Ulysses had a windows app. It would all end up in Atticus or Vellum (which I don’t own, but is more mature and expensive).
I’m somewhat in the same boat, looking for the best option for me. I think writing software is all very highly personal for your workflow. Waaay back in the day I used to carry around a very small notebook that I would hand write all of my 1-2 sentence writing prompt ideas in I got throughout the day, then I’d shuffle through them when I sat down at my laptop to actually write in WordPad WordPerfect? I can’t remember, one of those. I have never liked MS Word as much. When I discovered Evernote, I scanned all of my hand written notes into it, bought my first Android tablet with stylus, and started using it as my notebook for ideas and kept them all in a folder for ideas, with my stories separated into other folders. Evernote was fantastic for my process because it allowed me to feel the organic nature of hand writing ideas and then the flushing out process and editing was pretty easy. At the time, Evernote offered a lot more for free than it does now though.
Anyway, that was back when I was in a regular writing group and writing short stories pretty regularly. (None were ever published, but it was fun) I started having more and more kids and kind of set aside writing for awhile and only recently came back to doing some writing again.
So knowing that I like to have lots of writing prompt and idea notes for reference, and like to be able to organize my stories and chapters on the fly, I have been trying to refine a list of what I’m looking for. What I need/want now is:
Easy to access references
Easy to use text editor for the actual writing
Export to PDF (and possibly other options I may use later)
Syncs across iPadOS, MacOS, Windows, and Android easily
I have been using Notion for this for now. It has most of it covered, but it uses a block style text editor, which provides some of the cool tagging abilities for references and whatnot, but also is kind of annoying for just writing because it gets in the way of just clean writing. My long term plan is to create my own software that does this, but for now, Notion is passable. I’m not planning on publishing any ebooks though. I’m probably just going to upload some PDFs to a webapp I’m developing right now. I haven’t actually tested that with Notion’s PDF export yet though, so I’m not actually sure if it’s going to provide the format I want. We’ll see.
Any other recommendations that cover that, I’m open to though.
Absolutely. For that reason, and because sometimes a recommendation is mistaken for a negative view of an alternative that others like, I hesitate to put forward suggestions. But I was asked, so…
I was part of a writing group back in the mid 1980s that was among the first done completely online. On GEnie. Back then there weren’t very many choices for writer software. Today we have a such a wealth of choices that it’s hard to decide between them. I think I like now better than then.
It seems I’m still gunshy from the self publishing/e-book forums circa 15 years ago where people would get extremely, um, passionate about their favored software and/or method of creating e-books. I learned to walk on eggshells back then.
Ah, wasn’t that the golden age of internet fanfics? Whatever happened to that?
I loved reading stories from my favourite fantasy and comic series all over random sites. Seemed to have died off in the West, but in the East (ie. Japan) it seems like a new light-novel author is being born everyday from the sea of electrons.
I wouldn’t put much faith in this opinionated old fart - I still fail to heed the warning my late father gave to me at an early age - “Son, you’ve got to learn to stop putting your mouth in gear before you push in the clutch on your brain!”
I have to wonder if the question of writing apps is a short term concern.
Considering all of the “AI” encroachment on creative endeavors it’s a matter when not if the age of AI-written novels arrives.
On the plus side it’ll start out as AI-assisted writing and they’ll be written better (spelling, grammar, formatting) than the vast majority of current ebooks (including from major publishers which don’t appear to be assigning editors or even proofreaders to anyone but their very top, bestselling authors). Good for readers—I can spend hours wading through the slush to find something worth reading, to my taste.
Eventually it’ll be possible to just tell the AI to write a novel in the style of Stephen King and nobody will be able to guess. By that time the ebook stores will have become so flooded with AI-generated novels that human-written novels will rarely push through to the first pages of recommendations or searches.
But if you can tell an AI program what kind of novel you want to read and it’ll produce a good one exactly to your taste and present mood, there will no longer be any reason to buy novels from the ebook stores.
Which means the clock is ticking for those of us with the lifelong dream of writing a novel and having it (self-) published for others to enjoy. It’s time to buckle down and get it done before it’s too late. Do we have a decade before it happens or only a few years? I remember when ebooks were just starting to take off and more than one publishing executive pooh-poohed the threat and claimed it would be at least twenty years before ebooks sold more than print (if ever, ‘cause people will always prefer to hold a real book ).
This is my attempt to use the inevitable as motivation instead of as an excuse to give up trying.