The fine gentlemen at Metaclassy just released Byword as a universal iOS app yesterday, so I thought it time to pay my respects to my favorite text editor.
The minimalist writing app market is incredibly rich, but for me, Byword has always maintained just the right balance of features and simplicity. There are preferences, but there aren’t that many. Choose your font, column width, and whether you want a light or dark background, but otherwise, you won’t find much to fiddle with here.
Ben Brooks, however, disagrees:
I don’t dislike Byword for any one reason — I dislike it because it doesn’t work for me because of the fact that I am a tinkerer and using an app that I can tinker with, when I want to focus, is a truly bad idea.
Of course, having options doesn’t make Byword a bad app, and I know that’s not what Ben is saying. It’s the responsibility of the writer to have the self-discipline to “set it and forget it” when it comes to preferences. Ben’s text editor of choice, iA Writer, famously has zero preferences. For him, no preferences is best because it helps him do the work.
I, on the other hand, love going through preferences. Usually, the first thing I do when trying a new app is look for the Settings button. I like to customize the app to my liking, and when it comes to text editors, I think there’s value in being able to choose, for example, your font size. If I find an app aesthetically and functionally pleasing, I’m more likely to use it. Preferences allow me to tailor an app to my needs, thus increasing its aesthetic value or functionality for my experience using it.
Once I’ve set my preferences, I generally have no problem forgetting about them. Once in a while I’ll try a new font or something, but otherwise, I set it and forget it. But, that’s just me, and some may find Byword’s modest preferences to be too much.
My Writing Workflow
As of this moment, I’ve done very little long-form writing on my iOS devices. I have no desire to type hundreds of words with my thumbs on my iPhone, and while I can type at a pretty good clip on the iPad, I encounter friction when it comes to managing my documents. Allow me to explain.
I write articles on my Mac in Byword using Markdown syntax. Once an article is ready to be posted, I log into my Squarespace account and copy and paste the text into a New Post field. Then I schedule the publish time and date, hit Save, and I’m done.
Everything I write gets stored in Dropbox. QLE posts are all saved in the QLE folder. This way, I have everything I’ve ever published in one place, and it’s all safely backed up via Dropbox.
When trying to write on an iOS device, the friction I’ve encountered heretofore stems from knowing where the document is and getting that document into the QLE folder. On my iPad, for example, if I write a post in PlainText, it gets saved to my Dropbox in the PlainText folder. I then have to move the file to its proper place whenever I get back to my Mac, assuming I remember to do so.
Now, yes, most apps with Dropbox support allow you to change the Dropbox destination folder. But, some don’t, and they might rely on iCloud or some other syncing service.
My problem with writing on iOS is that I’ve never felt like I had a good sense of where my document is. For example, in Phraseology for iPad, my documents are in the Phraseology app, and to get them out, I need to export them, or email them to myself, or… something.
I’m not saying these apps don’t offer solutions to my consternation, but they’ve never “just worked” when it comes to my writing workflow. They’ve never fit perfectly right out of the box. They’re all great apps with great features, for sure, but the thought of using them to write usually makes me wince rather than tap and start writing.
My Desktop Workflow on the Go
I’m not going to spend a lot of time telling you about Byword’s features or interface. (See Shawn’s and Viticci’s excellent reviews.) It’s simple, clean, and beautiful, with just enough options to make it your own. I love how it looks and works on my Mac, and the new iOS versions are no different.
Byword for iOS has created the mobile writing workflow I didn’t even know I was looking for.
When I opened Byword on my iPhone for the first time, I was given the choice between iCloud and Dropbox for syncing. I use Dropbox because it lets me know where my files are: in a folder on my Mac, which is backed up to the cloud. If I need a document, I know where to go to get it. With iCloud, documents are in the app… but I feel like I can’t get to them outside of that app. They’re somewhere in iCloud, but I can’t “touch” them, so to speak. They’re isolated to the app itself, and I can only work with them there. I believe this is what Merlin was talking about when he expressed his concern about iCloud.
Now, I do use iCloud for contacts, calendars, bookmarks, and more. It’s great. But, my writing is too precious for me to not know exactly where things are. That’s just me. I do hear that iCloud sync works beautifully in Byword, and even slightly faster than Dropbox sync.
After choosing Dropbox as my sync preference, Byword automatically created a Byword folder in my Dropbox where new documents would be saved. I changed the folder to my QLE folder, and in seconds, all 259 files were visible in a clean, beautiful list. The kicker was that, by default, the list was organized by Date Modified, so I could see all of my posts in chronological order, which is so much more useful than alphabetical order. Tap on a post, and there it was, just as if I’d opened it via the Finder on my Mac.
The best part though, is that if I type a new document on one of my iOS devices, it gets saved right to my QLE folder alongside every other post I’ve written. Now, no matter what device I write on, the document goes right where it’s supposed to go. I don’t have to worry about it.
I’m sure other apps can be configured the same way, but for me, Byword just rocked my face off from minute one. The interface is gorgeous and offers just what I need — no more, no less. Byword is reliable; I feel like I can trust it. I also love being able to use the same app across all three devices. It just feels good.
No longer do I feel any friction when writing on an iOS device. When I want to write, I can pick up my iPhone, iPad, or Mac. In all three cases, I open Byword, write, and things get saved to my QLE folder in Dropbox. I feel like a whole world of mobile writing has opened up now that I always have Byword — my writing weapon of choice — by my side.
Actually Writing on iOS
Patrick Rhone has infamously been writing long-form pieces — like a-thousand-words long — on his iPhone using the onscreen keyboard. I was among the skeptical as to how it could be done, but with Byword, I can finally see it.
This entire post, which Byword tells me is currently 1,309 words, was written on my iPhone in landscape mode, with my feet up on my desk. Just my two thumbs and me.
It actually feels really good. Byword’s Markdown shortcuts make block quotes, parentheses, brackets, etc. relatively painless. The biggest annoyance is switching to Safari, going to a web page, and copy/pasting a URL you need for a link. Otherwise, it’s quite pleasant.
Will I be writing on my iPhone or iPad on a regular basis? Maybe, but probably not. I’m still much faster on my Mac, of course. Then again, the slower pace is kind of nice. Either way, it’s great to know that when I’m away from my Mac, my preferred writing environment is right in my pocket, if and when I need it. With Byword, I can definitely see myself starting articles on the go, when the mood strikes, rather than jotting down ideas in Notesy and waiting until I get back to my Mac to actually write.
Love at First Type
I get excited when my favorite apps are updated or when something new and great comes out, but I’m particularly passionate about Byword. It’s my style. It just clicks with me, and the new iOS apps are no different. I can’t wait to see how the app progresses.
I can honestly say that without, Byword, this website might not exist as it does today. Byword makes me want to write. For a writer, such an app is truly priceless.