Glass slipper search: Writing app edition
August 19, 2021 6:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for the Perfect Fiction Writing App (tm) for the MacOS/iOS environment. I have tried most of the easily available/cheap varieties, and none are a perfect fit. I'm ready to look further afield. What are you using, and what do you love about it?

I just have a few dealbreaker issues, anything else is open to consideration. I am happy to consider both bare bones apps and super fancy apps, and anything in between.

1) I need it to work on both my Macbook Pro and my iPad. I use the iPad way more, but sometimes I need to write while having access to multiple windows.

2) On iPad, it needs to have a working word/phrase search function. Odd that this is so difficult to find, but in many apps it just doesn't exist. Byword, for instance. WTF, Byword? My settings allow the iPad search function to access Byword and contents in theory, but this does not work in practice.

3) I need it to sync to either DropBox or iCloud - preferably automatically as I type, without my active participation in the process.

4) I need it to be able to handle big and small projects - anything from 1000 words to 100,000 words.

5) I need to be able to check my word count easily.

6) I prefer having access to a dark theme that includes the text editor window, not just the wraparound menus. Writing on a white background at night makes me crazy.

I have tried: Google docs, Byword, Scrivener, FocusWriter (not available for iPad, or I'd still be using it), Microsoft Word, Apple Pages (which crashes all the damn time, wtf, Pages). None of these are my glass slipper app. I was happy using Byword until I found out about the lack of a search function at the worst possible moment, and now I'm really NOT happy.

If you're using something that meets these criteria - what are you using? What do you love about it? What extra functions makes it perfect for you? If there's something that annoys you about it, what is it?

I'd prefer to use just one program for this on both desktop and iPad, but if you've perfected a set-up using a different app on each device, I'm willing to hear you out.

I'm open to trying almost anything at this point!
posted by invincible summer to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think Ulysses checks all your boxes! It works across all your Apple stuff really seamlessly, too. The only ding is that it is not free, and it's that dang subscription model to boot. $50/year, but I think there's a two-month free trial.
posted by hollyholly at 7:32 AM on August 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I use and love Scrivener, but I see you’ve tried that. It is a massive Swiss Army Knife of an app and can be pretty overwhelming, and the sync needs to be carefully managed (although their conflict detection is a lot better than it was). However it can be customised to a frankly absurd degree and once fully learned, well, I don’t think I could work without it now.

Ulysses app seems like it might tick all your boxes? It’s a markdown compatible app and has the same nesting sidebar stuff that I love about Scrivener. It is subscription-based though, which rules it out for me.

Maybe Highland 2? It’s Mac only, but it uses a plain text format which I think can be edited in any text editor on your phone or iPad.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:32 AM on August 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Reading the post to see if you have tried Ulysses—no you haven’t!

Seriously, check out Ulysses. It fits your criteria so well that I thought you were being facetious in your original post.

Works and syncs seamlessly across iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air.

The search function works.

I do ALL my writing on Ulysses (short snippets all the way to entire books. Yes, I wrote my novel 90% on Ulysses, 10% Scrivener for the outlining and compiling).

You can change your themes to whatever you want. I prefer light background with light headings, but you can choose preset themes or customize them.

The only downside is the cost per year, and the lack of a daily word tracker goal. Oh yes and inability to archive. Minor, minor things.

Also I heard good things about Bear but have yet to try it.
posted by moiraine at 12:04 PM on August 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To clarify also, I use Ulysses 1 (the earlier discontinued version). The downsides which I highlighted might have gone away by now.
posted by moiraine at 12:10 PM on August 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've used iA Writer for at least four years. Find & replace in document, as well as search all documents.

Never had a syncing issue (started with Dropbox, they began to support iCloud in iOS 13) -- I've begun a sentence on the Mac and finished it on the iPad within 2 minutes.

I've got 100,000 words, but they're in ~900 files. Supports Smart Folders (saved search based on date, #tags, location). Earlier versions didn't like so many files, current version is smooth as silk. Those files are plain text, btw, so you're not locked in.

Next-day email support.

Not a subscription: US$30 for each platform: MacOS, iOS, Android and Windows.

Visible markdown with subtle on-screen representation and an exquisite mono font

Imports Word docs as Markdown, live customizable preview, exports as Word, RTF, PDF, HTML.

Things I don't like

1. No native share sheet -- it does support URL actions but that's above my pay grade

2. Screen keyboard on iPad requires one tap of the "meta menu" to show paste/copy/cut. External keyboard support is great and identical to Mac

3. Copy as HTML doesn't play well with MetaFilter because all the punctuation is coded as #nnnn entities, which MF throws away.
posted by Jesse the K at 1:14 PM on August 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Rundown on Bear since someone mentioned it, the pro version which is a subscription for $15 a year that you can try out for a month to demo; I think you'd need pro to have all the features you wanted. It:

* Syncs over iCloud in a way, as far as I can tell, but possibly not in the way that you want, not file based. It's pretty seamless. It has export to various formats that on iOS you could send to Dropbox pretty easily.
* Easy access to word counts per "note" on Mac and iOS
* Find: word find exists, works on mobile and desktop. One downside that I can tell is that it doesn't take you to the place it found it when you go to the note.
* Dark themes ahoy, across the entire interface

I went and tested out pasting a book from Project Gutenberg (around 130k words) into a single note and it apparently can take that but the word count stops going. However, I imagine you'd probably split up a project into multiple notes connected with a tag, so that might not be a problem.
posted by foxfirefey at 3:36 PM on August 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ulysses and iA Writer are both great. Ulysses is available on Setapp if you want to try it out, and if there are other apps you like in there, it’s a win-win! I think I’ve got a referral code for a free month, memail me if you’re interested.
posted by bluloo at 9:11 PM on August 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

iA Writer shows live character and word counts, offers dark themes.
posted by Jesse the K at 4:48 AM on August 20, 2021

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone! I've looked at all of these suggestions, and Ulysses seems closest to what I need.

It has a lot of what I liked about Scrivener, but without the need to manually sync. I like the interface, "find" works great, and I also really like that I can use either iCloud OR dropbox, etc for syncing files.

Your help has improved my work life greatly, thanks again! :)
posted by invincible summer at 7:44 AM on August 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

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