Byword

You can’t throw a rock at the iTunes and Mac App Stores without hitting a minimalistic writing app.

If you do a lot of writing, I see no reason not to find an application that has been built to best suit your needs as a writer. Sure, you can scribble something down on the back of a cocktail napkin using a mechanical pencil, but why torture yourself like that?

What I find so compelling about these simple writing applications is that they are custom tailored for writing, especially if you’re writing for the Web. In contrast, I never write in Pages.

Off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen or so minimalistic writing apps, and I’ve tried them all. Writing is my job, and it behooves me greatly to find the best possible writing app that I am comfortable in and that keeps me moving the cursor to the right.

Over time, the writing apps that have stuck for me are:

Preferring Byword over other similar apps is not to objurgate or even criticize them. As water naturally flows downward, it seems that I naturally gravitate toward Byword. I like it so much, in fact, that it tied for my favorite new Mac app of 2011.

I am also a fan of iA Writer. I love that big blue cursor and the elegant way it stylizes my Markdown-riddled writing. But even still, Byword usually wins my writing attention due to its basic typographic options. Writer, on the other hand, is famously free from any and all settings. The only option you have in Writer is to use the app or not.

Byword, by comparison, is rich with preferences. However, compared to your standard-issue text editor or word processor, Byword is slim in this area.

On the Mac, Byword’s settings pane looks like this:

Byword for Mac Settings Pane

You choose a typeface and size, a column width, and decide on light or dark. I write mostly in Menlo at medium width, and it seems I flip between light or dark mode depending on the weather or time of day. Springtime morning? Light mode. Rainy afternoon? Dark mode.

I’ve been using Byword since its debut last spring. But for any and all documents which I want to have available on my iPad or iPhone I’ve used the nerd’s common Simplenote+nvALT combo of apps. However, a good audit of one’s workflow is often in order and I’d like to start using a single text editor for my article drafts rather than spreading them out across multiple apps and folders.1

Therefore, with the advent of Byword for iOS and its iCloud document syncing, I’ve decided it’s time to evaluate and upgrade my writing workflow.

This isn’t a spontaneous decision. More and more I have been wanting to promote my iPad to a stronger work device. If I need to get “serious” work done I rarely turn to my iPad. I think that could change, and I think I could be the better for it.

For my trip to Macworld this past January, I took the Apple nerd’s three standard-issue gadgets: my MacBook Air, my iPad, and my iPhone. For the first time I can recall, I didn’t even use the Air. Nearly all of the reading, writing, linking, emailing, and tweeting I did was via my iPhone. And the rest of the reading and writing I did was on my iPad.

It’s one thing to look at a spec sheet, nod in agreement and say that yes the iPad has most of the tools I need in order to do my day-to-day job. But it is another thing entirely to actually put that into practice. And so my time at Macworld, working almost solely from my iPhone, was a bit of an eye opener for me.

The linchpin for me to use the iPad for work is the ability to write from it. But this is a bigger issue than just needing a text editor — the iPad is not in want for writing apps. What’s important is that whatever article I’m writing be available to me on my Air, my iPad, and my iPhone.

Enter Byword

Today the Mac app I write from so frequently was updated to accompany the launch of the its iPhone and iPad siblings. What’s new in Byword for Mac is little more than integrated iCloud support. With the new iOS apps, Byword now ships out of the box with the ability to sync all your documents via iCloud or Dropbox.

The iCloud integration is, as with most other apps, painless and quick. I’ve found that apps which sync their documents through iCloud are quicker and more reliable. However, what I don’t like about using iCloud syncing is that it is application-specific. And so, in a way, an app becomes a silo of my work. There are definite advantages to using Dropbox instead of iCloud (and I’m not just talking about Byword here), but the latter is new and still feels novel.

In addition to the new iCloud support, here are a few things about Byword for Mac that have always been there:

  • QuickCursor support.

  • Exporting of your markdown as HTML. Meaning, you write with Markdown and then copy and paste, but when you paste it’s been converted to HTML. I have a WordPress plugin that converts my Markdown to HTML when I publish, but there are times when I need an HTML formatted page (such as a Craigslist listing) and so I write it in Byword and then just export. Handy.

  • In-line stylizing of Markdown syntax. This has become standard practice for minimalist writing apps, and I like the way that Byword and iA Writer do it best — though they are somewhat different in their styles.

  • All the other Lion-specific features, such as versioning, auto-saving, and glorious full-screen mode.

Byword for iOS

Byword on the iPhone and iPad has a very distinct, subtle design to it with very low-contrast buttons and a monochromatic look throughout. All the interface elements and popovers are custom drawn to fit into the “style” of Byword, and yet they are still familiar and follow standard conventions of a familiar iOS app.

The Settings Pane in Byword on the iPad

When Apple began introducing monochrome icons to OS X I rejoiced. I prefer the more simple look that’s now found in the iTunes and Finder sidebars, and I like the simple and subdued look found in Byword for iOS as well.

It’s this custom yet simple design aesthetic seen in the app that carries throughout the whole of the app.

Custom but Simple

Obviously the main feature of Byword is the writing window. And, I’m pleased to say that it’s pretty much just a single text entry window. Unlike Byword on the Mac you cannot adjust the width of the text column, nor can you choose between light or dark themes.

The features and highlights of Byword on iOS include:

  • Typography: There are four typefaces to choose from. Two familiars — Georgia and Helvetica — and two custom fonts from the M+ outline family.

    The Byword default typeface is “M+ C Type 1″. It’s a nice sans serif with monospace overtones, and I like it. The other custom typeface, “M+ M Type 1,” is a monotype font that I do not like. The other two, Georgia and Helvetica, I consider great for reading but I do not prefer to write with them.

  • TextExpander support: This is stellar. I have quite a few custom snippets I use in TextExpander on my Mac. The TextExpander iOS app can sync all your snippets via Dropbox so that whatever abbreviations and shortcuts you use on your Mac can also be used on your iPhone and iPad. And, though it’s not a system-wide availability on iOS like it is on the Mac, TextExpander for iOS can be utilized by other iOS apps if they wish. Simplenote takes advantage of this, as does Byword. And so, my TextExpander library is available to me when typing in Byword on my iPad or iPhone.

  • AirPrint: If you have an AirPrint-capable printer you can print your Byword document. If you don’t have an AirPrint printer, check out Printopia.

  • Word count: To give a little bit of breathing room at the bottom of the text-entry window there is a small footer. In the footer by default it displays the word count. Tap it and you can see character count instead. Tap it again and you get words + characters.

  • Custom Soft Keyboard Keys: Swipe the footer and you get a custom set of keyboard buttons. Including brackets, parens, and shortcuts for inserting Markdown links, images, headers, etc. As well as one-character-at-a-time cursor navigation.

    Those familiar with iA Writer know that custom keyboard buttons are not a new idea. However, I’ve found that I don’t use Writer’s custom buttons all that often, yet they take up the full size of an additional row from the on-screen keyboard. And so I like the way that Byword has implemented its custom on-screen buttons because they are smaller, more subtle, and easily forgettable if you are not using them at the time (this is especially true of the iPhone app, where screen real estate is at a premium). But they are there when you need them. It’s good to see a useful feature like this implemented but re-thought out.

    The Keyboard in Byword on iPhone

    Worth noting is that the custom soft keyboard keys are not available when a Bluetooth keyboard is in use. When you’ve got a full-blown keyboard you don’t exactly need custom soft keys for inserting common Markdown syntax like brackets, asterisks, parenthesis, or pound signs, but it would be nice to have quick access to the link or image formatting.

  • Automatic list continuation: This is nice, and it’s something that bugs me when I’m typing in Simplenote, TextEdit, or iA Writer. When you start an ordered or unordered list in Byword then the next line is auto-formatted for the next list item. You don’t have to continually re-enter a new asterisk, dash, or number for each list item.

A Trick and Quibble Wrapped Up in One

There are a few quibbles I have with the iOS apps, and though I dedicate an inordinate amount of space to it in the below paragraphs, this is something I’m confident will be worked out in a near-future version of Byword.

The way Byword is designed, the settings button doesn’t show when the on-screen keyboard is brought up. This is because the entire top menu bar is intentionally hidden when you’re typing. This allows the most amount of space to be dedicated to your typing field as possible. Which is as it should be because when you’re working on a screen the size of an iPad, and especially the iPhone, you need as much space as possible to see the text you’re working with.

However, this makes for a bit of a quibble to get to a document’s settings, as well as being able to get to the list of documents.

On the iPad the only way to access the in-document settings is to hide the keyboard. When the cursor is active in the document then the Title Bar is hidden; when the cursor is not active the Title Bar is visible. On the iPhone there is no native key to hide the on-screen keyboard. Fortunately Byword provides one within the custom keyboard keys that are built in to the app. However, those custom keys are only visible if you swipe the word count over to the side to reveal the customized software keys.

Why not simply bring up the document’s Menu Bar (and thus the settings button) when the user taps within the text field?

Moreover, I discovered (while in the process of writing this review) that it can be quite tricky to get at the in-document settings when you are using a Bluetooth keyboard.

Since the Title Bar is hidden when you’re typing, you cannot “hide the keyboard” to disable the cursor. Thus, when typing with a Bluetooth keyboard, the only way I’ve found to get to the in-document settings is to swipe on the document from left to right. This will slide the active document over to the right and un-hide the document list. In the process the document’s Title Bar returns to views. Next, just tap the “3-bar” icon and the document will re-enter full-screen mode, but with the Title Bar still in view, and from there you can now see and tap on your current document settings.

This left-to-right swipe trick also works well as a shortcut on Byword’s iPhone and iPad apps even when not typing with a Bluetooth keyboard.

The Final Word

This review was written and edited exclusively in Byword.

I began this article on a Tuesday night from my iPhone around 11:30 pm while my son, Noah, was up for his late-night feeding. On Wednesday morning I picked up where I left off by opening Byword on my MacBook Air while in my office. After lunch, I grabbed my iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard and visited my favorite local coffee shop where a latte accompanied me as I finished the article.

This is exactly the sort of writing workflow that I’m looking to adopt.

That’s not to say I will always be writing articles in an assortment of locations and on a plethora of devices, but it’s nice to have a text editor on all of my gadgets that I enjoy using, and it’s nice that all my currently-working-on articles are now synced and easily accessible from within that application.


  1. I still use Simplenote + nvALT for all sorts of other snippets of text, running lists, etc. I’m just moving away from it for my long-form writing.
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