Writer. Focussed Writing on the iPad.

by Milind Alvares

Writer. Focussed Writing on the iPad.

by Milind Alvares on September 22, 2010

Post image for Writer. Focussed Writing on the iPad.

When Simplenote 2.0 showed up, I didnt think I’d ever want to switch to another app. Simplenote took something simple, and exponentially enhanced it without losing that original simplicity. But as good as Simplenote, it still follows closely along the path of obvious user interfaces. User interfaces of the past can work fine on the tablet, but magic is waiting if you just put some thought to it.

Oliver Reichenstein (@iA) of Information Architects has been pondering over how best to transfer analog information into the digital age. We’ve been holding on to conventions of our analog past where they have no place to be. We think of pages and page numbers, where it’s perfectly obvious that a page has no relation on a digital screen, not unless you’re printing it.

Text editors on the iPad have so far been quite usable. Simplenote is a fantastic example of an effortless writing tool that can fit into anyone’s workflow. Even the Notes app in iOS 4.2 has got Helvetica and MobileMe syncing, making it a default writer. But as we’ve learnt from experience, there’s always room for improvement.

Writer is an app that tries to figure out what makes for a great writing experience. That’s all. A good writing tool lets you write, but where a blank page and pen is all you need in the analog world, digital needs something additional support to tame its nuances. You need to deal with files, or at least not have to deal with them. There’s the keyboard, which makes unintentional typos, unlike when writing with a pen.

Full resolution shot

Writer is very pretty to look at, though not in an obvious way like Simplenote. The large monospaced font gives you the perfect feel for writing. iA chucked out the page metaphor (though I haven’t seen it being used in other apps lately) and have instead added a timer, approximating the time it would take to read that article in full or up to the point of the cursor. This timer comes up whenever you pause your writing, so it’s not distracting in any way. I’m not sure why they’ve included character count instead of the more useful Word count, but it’s not important.

Writer’s innovative feature, is the focus mode. When you get into the focus mode — denoted by a lock icon — it flushes all distractions out of your view. All you see is the keyboard, and three lines of text, the rest of which are faded out. This is a pure writing mode and is not meant to edit your text. You cant even move the cursor around using your finger. I’d love to use focus mode, if it worked. What they don’t tell you about focus mode, is that it loses the iOS text replacement feature, which you know is crucial when writing with the soft keyboard. I was shocked to see the number of mistakes I was making. There’s also a bug in my case, where the focus wouldn’t shift to newly created lines, rendering the entire mode useless for me.

UPDATE: I didn’t realise that my using iOS 4.2 beta had resulted in the focus mode (and scrolling) behaving badly. I checked with a non-beta user, and it seems to work fine.

Focus mode.

Writer does come with a keyboard enhancement. You can move back and forth between words or letters, and it has some standard punctuation. I would have liked those quotes to have been a little smarter, but overall the keyboard enhancement is very useful. For those wondering, yes, it works just fine with the bluetooth keyboard.

A good writing app needs to sync. Writer joins the trend of supporting Dropbox sync, which basically saves text files into a folder named Writer inside your dropbox. It works fantastically, and I can use it with Notational Velocity without any problems. The best part about the writing tools lately, is that you can mix em up like you do with Twitter clients. Writer syncs with Dropbox, syncs with Notational Velocity, syncs with Simplenote, and so many of the apps that are gonna be out soon (I know Hog Bay Software already has their PlainText app in review). My only concern is that each app wants to use their own folder in Dropbox instead of being able to choose a folder — hopefully they’ll realise the need for a custom folder name.

All in all, Writer is an excellent example of the kind of user interfaces that are possible if someone puts their mind to it. Writer has a lot of little things that are too hard to notice, but make all the difference. For instance, the send-to menu has a Mail text button, and a Copy text button. The difference here being that so far I’ve had to manually select all text and then use the standard cut/copy button, which works, but is crude in the grand scheme of things. Text selection also works better, as Writer automatically selects whole words, but you almost don’t notice it’s doing that because it will also transparently detect when you want to select in between characters.

Writer is a little buggy right now. Due to the non-standard user interface, I’ve had issues with auto-scrolling and major issues with Focus modeBugs are iOS 4.2 beta issues you shouldn’t concern yourself with. If I do have a complaint about the app, is that it’s layout makes it a difficult editor. You can’t see more than six lines while in landscape, mostly due to the enhanced keyboard and large font. Difficult to gain perspective about the length of your article, and move around paragraphs, especially with this new way of displaying article length—the time it would take to read it. Old habits die hard, I suppose.

Writer costs $4.99, and I think is worth it. There’s also a story behind the app, as told by Reichenstein himself, if you’re into that sort of thing.

[UPDATE: Focus mode problems and scrolling issues due to iOS 4.2 on my iPad, as pointed out by Reichenstein in the comments. Edited the article.]

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Eray Basar

Even though I really like the concept and execution of the app, I’m surprised they’ve released the app for the iPad first.

My 50 cents:
UX design comes with more than a sweet UI, good typography etc. How could writing on an iPad ever be superior to writing on a desktop machine?
It’s a question of ergonomics. The tactile feedback that is missing forces you to regulary look at the keyboard – a distracting even if small defocus if you ask me.
Sure, I can type on the iPad as fast as on my macbook.
But then it forces me into an uncomfortable posture which exhausts me after 10 minutes of writing. And having the display at approximtely 75° makes writing impossible. And by the way, where the fuck do I find the ° on the virtual keyboard?

Unfortunatly, writer won’t change that.

I’m really looking forward to the MacOS version though!



I presume the purpose of this article is for writing with a bluetooth keyboard. You make a ° the same way.

(sent from my iPad)


Milind Alvares

Writing on an iPad is superior to desktop machine:
1. I’m exhausted working at my desk and I just want to get out of there.
2. I’m not at my desk, sitting somewhere waiting for something to happen.
3. I have my iPad with me, but no desktop with me.
4. I’m not at my desk.
5. The power is out (happens).

My redundant point is, that on a 1:1 competition, surely the desktop is better. But I’ve found so many instances where I’ve found it way more convenient to jot down something on the iPad, especially with its soft keyboard. I can also see a ‘writer’ writer preferring to use an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard to write something out rather than use a full blown desktop/notebook. Less distractions. I’m sure the Mac app will be nowhere near as focussed as the iPad.

Why did they make an iPad version first? It was probably the money. App Store dollars are way easier to collect.

As for the degree° symbol, hold down the 0 key on your soft keyboard and the truth shall be revealed.


Eray Basar

All I’m saying is that if I want perfect writing experience, I do it on the machine which suits best for this purpose. After all, we all have laptops and desktop devices. Interestingly, I see a tendency that more people get back working on iMacs arguing they are much more productive than on their macbooks.

That said, I fully agree that writer is perfect for writing on the iPad. And I bet they’ll be (financially) even more successful with the desktop version.


Daniel Avery

I like writing apps on the ipad, and I generally use a bluetooth keyboard if it’s a speech I’ll give or something along those lines, so I’ll have to try this one out. Currently I use myTexts, which is made by MOApps. He has some extremely nice Mac applications for the desktop and is very responsive when you send him an email. myTexts is his first iPad app. Would love to see you guys review his work.


Oliver Reichenstein

Thanks for the thorough review. Just one comment:

“I’ve had issues with auto-scrolling and major issues with Focus mode.”

Sounds like you used it in iOS4.2 Beta. In the official iOS there are no such bugs.

” You can’t see more than six lines while in landscape, mostly due to the enhanced keyboard and large font.”

Actually, most apps with a decent fornt size will show too few text for easy editing. Landscape was not intended for editing.




Milind Alvares

My apologies. I saw someone else in my twitter complain about the same issue so I thought it was widespread. Must have been another beta user. Will have a disclaimer set up.

As for editing, I’m with you in that landscape is more for writing, less editing. But the problem is the portrait keyboard is no good at anything. Which lends me to believe that Writer as an app is more about writing (who would have thought?!). As it should be.


Oliver Reichenstein

@Milind Alvares

Thanks for the correction. I’d appreciate if you’d actually strike through that it’s buggy. Not everybody reads the Update. That 4.2 Beta issue is the main problem I have to deal with right now. And it should not be.

As for landscape: Exactly. Writer for iPad is not for editing. It’s for writing. The desktop version will focus more on editing.




Tim Cox

Nice article. Thanks. But I couldn’t let your statement
“We think of pages and page numbers, where it’s perfectly obvious that a page has no relation on a digital screen, not unless you’re printing it.’
go by without comment :) I don’t think this is a good example of conventions which we need to revisit in a digital medium. All one has to do is give a presentation to others, with associated discussion, to discover that ‘page numbers’ (‘slide numbers’, ‘digital screen numbers”? ) are essential markers for navigating around the content. Also think of how computer memory gets ‘pages’. There is always a need to divide a whole into more manageable subunits, depending on context. ‘Pages’ and ‘page numbers’ are just generalized in the non-book context!


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