There are many options when it comes to writing applications. In fact, there are so many options that finding a new writing/note app today has become noise in the background. Another next best app with that one feature I’ve been waiting for and at the same time never seems to be in development.
Yet they all excel at something, many things, and they all stink at something else. Then the current “missing feature” becomes a deal breaker for me and I head back to iA Writer who always waits patiently for me to return, never complaining, always accommodating, never asking where I’ve been or what great things I’ve seen. It’s always just there, waiting for me, whenever I want to come home. Do I really need a second brain anyway? The first one is still working last I checked.
I have been using iA Writer since it came out (I think sometime around 2007–2008), and you may think since I have been using this one app for this long I haven’t checked out the other options. Wrong. I have looked at them ALL over the years. I have given most of them more than a cursory try. In the end, I always come back to iA Writer, for so many reasons. And in case you want to know what those “other apps” are, I’ve made a list of iA Writer Alternatives to cross my computer screen at one time or another at the end of this article.
If you are like me and endlessly pursue that next best notes, writing, text editor, markdown editor app, I’ll save you some time, just use iA Writer. It is hands down, one hundred percent, the best available options for a distraction free writing environment, with many advantages over the other options.
Somehow the folks over at Information Architects have managed to hit that super sweet spot of features and usability and then they just got out of the way. I can’t imagine using anything else at this point.
If you want the tldr; version, here are some quick specifics that makes iA Writer great are:
- totally distraction free
- markdown in all its glory
- focus modes are fantastic
- syntax checks for grammar
- review mode (see what the pdf looks like in real time)
- file structure, organization is whatever you want it to be
- export or import, they are your files, not iA Writers’ files
- cloud based if you want it to be, not if you don’t want it
- works with literally any cloud storage, iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive
- price (no subscription, you own it)
- cross-platform sync is as fast as the cloud service you use
- it begs you to write, the app practically drives you to write, and this is the point of this app, to write.
Top 5 Benefits to Using iA Writer
Here are five of my biggest benefits to using iA Writer for a focused, distraction free, markdown experience.
1. Focused and Pleasing Environment (UI)
First and foremost, this application is a distraction free writing area. The UI is literally a blank screen with a blinking cursor. This is the brilliance of this app. A blank screen and a blinking cursor. It is almost poetic in nature.
How much value can you put on something that removes distractions in technology? There are many apps that have this type of design built into the app, you can see it in options everywhere like Apple Music, it has a distraction free mode to cover the whole screen. It’s great.
But iA Writer psychologically assists you in writing by removing any and all distractions in front of you by the way it was built. iA Writer didn’t build a distraction free mode into the app, IT IS the app. And this is where this app excels.
They have designed something that, on the surface, is so elegant, so easy to use, it almost fades into the background of what you are doing and disappears. You don’t even feel like you are using anything of significance, like perhaps you got transported into 2075 and this is just what textEdit looks like now. Under the hood, it is a powerful, robust, feature rich engine, that does everything you want a writing app to do, and nothing you don’t.
Sometimes you think there are things you want iA Writer to do that it doesn’t do. I want this feature or that feature. But once you really get into writing, just writing, you realize you really don’t want it to do that in the first place. This is what features do. They clog down your experience, waste time, focus, and cause you to spend time messing with options and features instead of writing.
2. You Own Your Own Data & Files
There is nothing that fries my synapses faster than trying to get my own data out of an app. For this reason, I have almost exclusively gone to using apps that do not hijack your data. I actively seek apps that “allow” you to take control of your own files.
This is the very first thing I do when I look at a new app of any kind. How easy is it to get my files, my data, my information, my whatever, out of this app and into something that has longevity, readability, usability, 100 years from now. Sure I won’t be around, but my data will be… I think (hmmm…). But next year that great app whatever it is could be bought by Microsoft or Google and then made to disappear. Then how do you use those files you spent so much time and energy creating?
Finding an app like this is surprisingly difficult today. Companies want your data, they want your files. And for the most part, they have them. The most frustrating examples for a notes apps is something like Evernote. What happens when you have 10,000 notes filed away in Evernote and you want to get them out of there? Into some cohesive usable form. What can you actually DO with an .enex file other than use it in Evernote. Nothing. Same with Apple Notes. I love that app, but exporting data from it is nearly impossible.
For note and writing apps, look for apps that will either use native files like text or markdown, or that will export in either of those. Sometimes even those exports don’t work like you want them to either. My favorite journaling app, DayOne, has a text export, but I have over 12,000 entries in that app and it will only allow you to export either one file at a time or bulk export into one single text file. What am I supposed to do with one text file that has 12,000 entries in one single file, and on the opposite end, who is going to be able to take the time to individually export 12,000 entries.
iA Writer handles this perfectly. When you start a new document it has automatically created either a new text file or a new markdown file (your choice) that is physically located on your actual computer (or cloud based storage location same thing). It doesn’t store files in package contents, buried into some back end of something, or make you jumpy through a ridiculous set of hoops to get your data. It’s there. It’s just a file. Simple. Perfect. This is the way programs were meant to be.
3. Price and Value of Ownership
iA Writer costs real money. That is perfectly fine. It should. Software engineers, support, marketing, distribution, all these things cost money so having to pay for this service is totally and completely reasonable and you should no more expect an application like this to be free than you should expect to go to the grocery store and expect food to be free. But…
Companies have moved to two options when it comes to revenue generation. Ads or subscriptions. And these are the worst two possible solutions, in my opinion. It works out ok for the company, but not for the consumer, you end up owning nothing. And some companies are doing both! When Netflix announced it moved to an ad based subscription option I thought, this is insane to me, you pay AND get ads… insane.
I will actively seek out ways to not watch ads, and I have moved to eliminating any and all subscriptions that I can possibly remove. It has been amazing.
iA Writer took the high road on this and took a totally different approach. Maybe it is an old school approach at this point, but they value ownership, and they say so right on their pricing part of their website. Not only that, but they value choice as well, so if you are one who loves subscriptions, have at it, they are going to meet you where you are.
We value ownership and choice. Our products are offered as one-time purchases per platform. Soon, the choice between ownership and subscription will be extended to all our products.
To me, as a customer, this tells me they value me. When I am looking at a new app, if the first thing they show me is an ad, I can’t delete the app fast enough. If they tell me it’s a monthly subscription, I run. If they offer me the choice of ownership, I seriously consider what they have to offer. iA Writer does this perfectly.
4. Outstanding Product Support
This is something that has become the most annoying part of being a customer/consumer in the world today. Somehow, when COVID hit, the first thing companies seemed to have done was to cut any and all support. Have you ever tried to use DirecTV, AT&T, or any communications company support lately? Forget speaking to someone on the phone (not that I want to anyway), but now you can’t even get away from a bot chat that always gets it wrong. Once you do get to an person, they have a script to go by, are evaluated by how many tickets they close and resolve, and are paid less than McDonald’s wages.
From personal experience, iA Writer, however they handle support, has done a phenomenal job. I have contacted them a few times about a few different things. Once turned out to be a bug, the other turned out to be something the app wouldn’t do (one of those features you want but don’t really want or need). Both times, the response was quick, it addressed my specific questions, and offered a solution. Not just that, but they made a video to show me exactly what to do.
In one particular message I was asking about how to indent poetry lines without having to use some fanciful method. The support tech took my message and went line by line through the message and answered each question and provided this gif with the email.
It was personal. It solved (or in this case answered) the issue I was having, and reinforced my appreciation for the company. I don’t know what else I could have asked for. You don’t have to take my word for it, go read some of their Twitter replies to their users. You can learn a ton from reading those threads.
5. Continued Product Development
No features that get in the way of writing. This is what I read when someone asked about a certain feature in a future update. iA Writer is laser focused on the writing experience that they hold fast to not adding features that change the writing experience. This could be what made them survive this long. But that doesn’t mean that are done with development.
iA Writer 6 was the biggest update they had done in several years, and it was a fantastic update. And yet it did not change the writing experience at all. How do you add backlinks without changing the writing experience? I was super thrilled to see this feature was added after knowing how well it works in Roam Research and Obsidian, but it was executed in a way that stayed with writing is the focus.
I have no doubt they will continue to innovate, update, and develop iA Writer and not leave it for dead. If anyone at iA Writer ever comes upon these words, please don’t ever sell Information Architects to a Google-type-company. That is where all innovation goes to die. No matter what the company says, it will never be the same again. Keep innovating.
iA Writer Alternatives I Have Tried
What did I mean when I said I have “tried them all?” Well, here is a short-list if you are interested. I say “short” because it’s not a complete list, it’s just the ones on the top of the list. I offer the list with a very short snippet on what they do well, and at least one reason why I don’t use them for my main text editor. I may do a more in-depth review of all the notes apps I have tried and used over the years, but this is more about why you will love iA Writer not what else is out there.
Also, these are not all markdown editors, most actually are not, but they are all options I’ve tried over the years and are all in a similar vain as iA Writer in some ways (some less than others). Keep in mind this below not meant to be a fair comparison. Everything in the list is a bit of comparing apples to oranges. There is no exact one on one comparison for iA Writer. That’s what makes it so special. For example, Notion or Obsidian are very good at what they do, and they were not built to be a great markdown editor, but you can use them for that if you want.
- Ulysses – probably the best alternatives, but that recurring subscription (ugh)
- Bear Notes – another great alternative, but import/export, file structure/org, and that recurring subscription
- Text Editor (the built into MacOS app) – maybe the best alternative but not quite enough features (free)
- Simplenote – another good option for markdown, in fact, probably the best option on price/features, but it lacks in the experience and they collect too much data on you to sync files
- Visual Studio Code – actually one of the better options, your files are your own, markdown plugins galore, experience writing is just shy of iA Writer (when you set it up properly), and it’s free. But, it’s what you use for software development and it’s geared to that person, with that brain. If your brain functions like VS Code operates, then this would be a good choice.
- RoamResearch – great if you want a second brain and to build your own wiki, but complex-ish, similar to Notion and Obsidian, not cross-device friendly, and that subscription thing
- Notion – great for building your own library of knowledge, not good for distraction free writing experience, and that subscription
- Obsidian – pretty much the same as Notion above but a purple flavor of it, perhaps they do markdown better than a lot of alternatives, but like Notion, they are deep and wide not focused with lasers
- Scrivener – way too heavy for just writing, feels old because of file management structure
- Storyist – maybe ok for novels, too much for just text
- Day One App – my all time favorite go to app for journal writing, but I write in iA Writer then copy/paste into DOA. My main beef is I can’t get my individual entries out of the app one text file for each day, otherwise it’s the best journal writing app out there, worth the subscription, but ugh.
- WordPress – it’s WordPress, and blocks make my brain hurt when it comes to the writing experience, but it does work
- Word – no markdown but it’s a writing app, and it works, but the experience is out of the 1990’s, but it will work.
- Google Docs – great for collaboration, an ok option for writing, it’s free, Google owns the content not you, and no markdown.
- Apple Pages – also not a bad alternative, you own the files, the experience is slightly better than Word or Google Docs, you can build anything all the way to books, and it’s free. My main issue is no markdown and it’s not distraction free, it’s full of distractions being pretty and feature packed.
- Apple Notes – good option but you don’t own your files, clean export is IMPOSSIBLE (except with this), and trying to iCloud sync 10,000 notes/files is a horrible experience
- Notability – great on an iPad, not so much off
- GoodNotes – same as Notability
- OneNote – a bloated full feature hog that does a lot of stuff except distraction free writing, but hey, it’s free.
- Google Keep – good for short quips but it’s Google, they own you, I mean the notes
- Evernote – a workhorse in green, keeper of everything, finder of nothing, impossible to export into anything cohesive (so it’s their data not yours), and that subscription thing
- Standard Notes – great privacy and encryption options, not so great on features or experience, but your notes are your own
Like I said, this is not a comprehensive list. These are the highest ones on the list I’ve tried and given a good shot at using for writing and note taking. There are almost countless more than could be listed here, I had to stop somewhere.
Summary of iA Writer
iA Writer is the best at what it does. There is no “alternative” to iA Writer, because no other app does what iA Writer does, and they do it so well. At its core, iA Writer is an absolute distraction free writing experience. You own your own files, you can organize them any way you want. The price is reasonable, and they value ownership as an option over subscriptions. They continue to have one of the best support experiences when you need it, and the app is in continual development since its inception.
If you made it this far you may think 3,000 words about one app is a bit much. Perhaps. But as a hack photographer/writer if I had to live with only two apps on my computer, it would be Lightroom, and iA Writer. Everything else is some form of noise.
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