rothwell.im

by Jonathan Rothwell

Writer Nope

I’m really not sure what to make of iA Writer Pro.

The original Writer was (and remains) my short-form word processor of choice. Speed, markdown syntax highlighting, superb typography, zero distractions. It feels like a machine, something that just reliably helps in the process of churning out thousands upon thousands of words.

Looking at Writer Pro, it looks like the idea of a distraction-free writing tool has been somewhat lost in translation.

Of course, throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not necessarily a bad thing. My current go-to editor for long form projects, Ulysses III, metamorphosed from a Scrivener-a-like version 2.1 to a completely new version 1.0, based around plain-text editing and gluing sheets together. The results were remarkable, and I managed to write 55,000 words of a novel in Ulysses this year: it is, as stands, the closest thing I can find to writing perfection.

Unfortunately, as a rewrite, Writer Pro falls short. Firstly, there’s the process of finding your document in the first place.

On iOS, the document list looks like this:

These circled numbers confused me at first. My first thought was of the New York Subway. Did it indicate how many revisions the document had been through, from note to write to edit to read? The age of the document? Number of pages? Change at The Great Gatsby for trains to the Bronx?

The answer is none of those things. For some impenetrable reason, these numbers are used to identify individual documents. The first three documents become numbers 1, 2 and 3; my fourth document, the document I’m writing this in, was originally number 4, and then became number 126 after I’d imported my documents from the old Writer.

Maybe this makes me a refusenik, but I couldn’t see what was wrong with the old iCloud files/folders model. Files have names, and can be sorted into named directories: this way, I know what my documents are called. Applying numbering to files on iOS seems like we’re emulating the anecdotal grandmother, who creates New Folder 102, New Folder 103, New Folder 104… on her desktop, and keeps a notepad beside her Windows 98 PC with a list of what each numbered folder contains.

This stinks, and it stinks even worse when you find that the old filename system remains on OS X, but has been broken:

The criteria in which files are sorted depending on their state is something I haven’t been able to deduce. Some have moved when I’ve changed their state, some haven’t.

As for the editor itself: it works just fine, as always. The font choices are, naturally, amazing: the new Nitti Grotesk, in particular, looks great on regular displays and even better on HiDPI screens. (Regrettably, my favourite character, the interrobang, the ‽ symbol, has no glyph in Nitti or Nitti Groetesk.)

The state model—the idea that a writer moves from notes, to a draft, to editing, to finished—seems like an idea that utterly fails to understand the nuances of how many writers work. I, for instance, do not have a rigid workflow. Of course, while I’m writing, I may have extra ideas, and write them down somewhere: moving my whole document into ‘notes’ state feels like a very clunky way to do this.

The fact that all the state-switching does is change the font (and make it read-only in Read mode) makes me wonder what the utility is. Unnecessary state adds complexity—something that, given the original Writer’s absence of any settings at all, feels like a compromise, and an unnecessary one at that. It feels trite to jump to call it an antipattern, but I’m really not sure how else to describe it.

And workflows aside, Writer Pro also fails to understand something else that’s absolutely critical for many writers: the idea of division. I have a pretty simple one-scene-per-chapter rule when writing fiction. Other writers write multiple scenes per chapter. They divide their manuscripts into parts, comprised of chapters, of scenes, of verses—whatever they’re called, when it comes to dealing with a large body of text, treating it as a large, monolithic whole quickly becomes unmanageable.

Scrivener and Ulysses provide the best implementations of this, allowing each document to be merged, glued together, moved, unglued, rearranged and deleted at my heart’s content. Writer Pro is still, at heart, just a dumb text editor, and judging by the demo data, it feels like the ‘approved solution’ is to create separate files for each chapter, which is very far from satisfactory.

There is still no markdown support on iOS. Given that the main reason for this never being implemented in the old Writer was that the original iPad’s processor was too puny to handle it, this feels like a glaring omission.

And then there’s the price. There’s no two ways around it: Writer Pro is $20, or £14, for each version. I speak as someone who is more than happy to pay good money for the right tool for the job, but £28 for the two, particularly in their current form, hurts.

Since I’ve avoided it throughout, I’m now going to come to Writer Pro’s raison d’être, its saving grace: Syntax Control™1, natural-language syntax highlighting.

I’m not going to beat about the bush. It doesn’t really work. Here it is in action:

It does highlight adverbs, but it also highlights many things that are not. (It also, quite hilariously, thinks that the caret in footnote syntax is a verb.) Syntax highlighting for English is a nice idea, but unfortunately, it looks like the technology just isn’t there yet.

Although I really wanted to like it, I find it impossible to recommend Writer Pro in its current form. There are some nice evolutions from the original iA Writer, but there are more misses than hits. Against the good (the font choices, the aesthetics, the speed, the statistics, the intention—if not the implementation—of the Syntax Control) you also have the bad: the nonsensical dumbing-down of file management; the clunkiness of Syntax Control, and the enforced workflows; the loss of the distraction-free blankness; the failure to tackle Writer’s core weakness. In summary, while it’s still good for churning out prose, it is still no good at assembling it into something cohesive.

And then, there’s the downright ugly. Information Architects has been taking a ‘militant stance’ towards protecting the ‘innovation’ of Syntax Control, with a patent application.2 Software patents are evil, yes, but what makes this especially egregious is that natural-language syntax highlighting is something that seems to have mostly been done already (The Verge points out that most of the heavy lifting is handled by native Cocoa APIs.)

For something that doesn’t really work, this kind of bullishness feels disingenuous. I was truly looking forward to seeing what iA would produce with the new Writer, but unfortunately, the whole thing just leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

EDIT: iA have announced their intention to let their patent applications, for Syntax Control and Focus Mode, expire. I feel slightly better about sinking £28 on Writer Pro now, but the fact it seems to be grudging is very disappointing. Software patents are poisonous.

  1. I’m not kidding. They use the trademark symbol when talking about it.

  2. iA’s previous patent application, for the Focus Mode in the original Writer, was provisionally rejected by the US Patent and Trademark Office last month.