Back to Markdown.

Looking for a text editor or Markdown writing app? This post may help.


Having used Ulysses to write blog posts and my first book, I began to grow accustomed to the app’s use of the Markdown language via a packaging of the text format into its proprietary “Markdown XL” format.

But, in writing my novel (out late 2019), a few things have been happening that got me thinking :

  • I was getting distracted easily while writing for any length of time
  • I was over-organizing in the library, which was time wasted
  • I wasn’t in love with the lengthy process of writing a novel in this text editor due to the XL format, which means that;
  • I longed for a “correct” Markdown experience and sense of simplicity.

Don’t get me wrong - I love Ulysses, and their customer support team is excellent and, frankly, for the development that goes on within the company I feel that the subscription premium is totally fair. Some don’t. Here is an example of the love/hate reaction that people had regarding the switch, which was heated around the subscription model pricing change. I am not trying to single out this one response. It was everywhere on the web two years ago when they announced the pricing change to users who, like myself, who were now being ushered toward a subscription if you wanted the app to continue to work in the way that it previously had (with device sync, proper backups, etc). The company has bills to pay, and it was the right move. They have since added some nice new features, like these last week. I didn't mind subscribing, and I always pay for great apps. See here, here and here for examples.

So, if pricing isn’t the issue, why did you fall out of love with Ulysses?

But for all of the innovation, I longed to go back simplicity. I didn't even like that there were line counters on the right side of the text. Also, I began to find it cumbersome when I wanted to be able to write something like " < Center > " to center the text, without having to include a raw source or code block ahead of it in order for it to display and format properly.

I'm a word guy. There was a time years ago when I began writing in earnest and used my first Markdown language text editor. I had a blank page and a cursor staring me in the face. I wanted that again. I write everywhere and need an app that has the same experience, regardless of the Apple device that I am typing into, so I began to search for “Markdown writers” in both the Mac and iOS App stores.

As you can imagine, I came across several results (as you probably have if you are reading this). Among the most mentioned and/or reviewed were :

What I found was that Scrivener was like Ulysses and Microsoft Word, combined. It has a lovely export feature set (like ePub), but being based on a rich text editor experience, it didn't really have the Markdown features that I was looking for. Byword has not been updated in a while, and I never really loved its UI, but I tried it out again. Nope. Bear is a nice app to take notes in for some, but I use Apple Notes for that. Also, I find that for all that it does so well, the lack of a quick preview without all of the hash marks left me feeling like I was reading code all of the time. The choice for me should have been very clear, even from the start. iA Writer has gone through some changes in its philosophy - some too ambitious for my tastes (anyone remember iA Writer Pro?) - but has really seemed to hit a consistent stride in the past few years.

So my new old app is...

iA Writer, which is my first love (and frankly, I am hoping my last), when writing. The blue cursor that sits on the blank page is what I had wanted for quite some time. I can write in straight-up Markdown, and peel through writing sessions just as Gruber had intended when inventing the language.

Some great features of iA Writer of note are :

  • Smart lists. You can filter out and include specifically the file types that you are looking for, whether text or images.
  • Code blocks. These things are great. I can write individual chapters for the novel and then include them, one by one in a master draft. If I wanted to change the order within the final document, I can simply move the chapter file (which is being referenced in the master draft via its library path), and in this way, make major changes with minor movements.
  • Shortcut integration on iOS. I have created a shortcut that allows me to highlight the text in the internal preview page within iA Writer, and then with three taps ("Share" on the pop up menu, Shortcuts in the share sheet and lastly, the Shortcut's name) I can have Squarespace’s blog app opened and ready to dump the text into it using a rich text format. It’s heaven.

What I am giving up by switching from Ulysses

  • A library that has a nice UI that allows for sheet drag-and-drop
  • ePub export to Apple Books to preview a novel.

The former is something that iA Writer accomplishes in its own way via iCloud. iA Writer has an interface that is essentially an iCloud folder, but specifically within the app. This way when I take a picture that I don’t want destined for the photos app only, but rather, to be used later in an iA document, I can send it to the Files app using the share sheet, and drill down to my iA Writer folder to save it there.

What are the other gains here? A big one, which I don't use often, but sometimes I wished that I had in the past is the ability to support tables, like this one. This table represents that way that I felt about each app, and was helpful in comparing them.

app ePub export RTF export True Markdown Pleasing design Parity of features between Mac/iOS
Ulysses x x x x
iAWriter x x x x
Scrivener x x
Bear x x x x

So I say to you, my minimalist, Markdown-writing-format friend : if you are looking for clarity, some nice features that stay out of your way and great support (thanks, Iain!), you may want to give iA Writer a whirl. The other apps above work great, but iA (which I have written this post in) works great for me!