Review: Writing Kit for iPad

When writing long form on the iPad, I write almost exclusively in Writing Kit. It’s an app full of great features and options without being overly complicated.

I first fell in love with Writing Kit while writing Diary of an iPad 3 Owner. I wrote that article exclusively on the iPad and exclusively in Writing Kit. And I’ve been writing in the app ever since.

Writing Kit is a Dropbox-syncing, markdown-supporting, iOS text editor for writers. You can find it on the App Store for just 5 bucks.

Unlike some apps, Writing Kit gives me visibility into my entire Dropbox folder hierarchy. But I keep it pointed at my “Writing” folder because this is the folder where I have any and all articles that are in progress. This folder differs from my Simplenote database in that these articles have moved past the “idea” phase and are actually in progress. Currently I have 3 files in this folder, one of them being this Writing Kit review. After publishing, I move the document to a “Written” folder.

My biggest complaint against Writing Kit used to be its poor Dropbox integration. Writing Kit used to store a copy of its documents locally on the iPad and then would upload a copy of them to Dropbox whenever the user manually initiated a sync. That wasn’t an ideal syncing setup and led to conflicted copies on occasion.

However, Dropbox integration was completely rewritten a few versions ago and has since become significantly more reliable. The new Dropbox sync gives us access to our entire Dropbox folder hierarchy, and files are saved directly to Dropbox. And you no longer have to save manually (though you still can if you want) — Writing Kit saves your work automatically in the background while you are typing. Also, when you exit the app, your article is uploaded and saved in the background as well. I haven’t lost a single word to sync since Writing Kit’s Dropbox support was rewritten.

Like the small handful of other Dropbox-enabled iOS text editors out there, Writing Kit also has its own Markdown-friendly custom keyboard row, and it integrates with TextExpander. But this app is not like all the others. There are a handful of things that set Writing Kit apart for me. Specifically: (a) the fine-grained control of fonts and type, (b) an in-app Web Browser, and (c) some clever gestures support. The more I use it, the more I enjoy using it.

Font Control

Spitting in the proverbial wind of iA Writer, Writing Kit gives extremely granular controls over the font you choose to type with. A list of 15 “popular fonts” sits just above another list that gives you access to every single typeface that ships with iOS. Against your better judgment, you could type in Marker Felt or Papyrus if you wanted to — just don’t get caught. I usually type in Inconsolata, but have recently switched to Avenir Book.

Additionally, you have control over font size, line height, and several pre-defined color schemes (including the light and dark Solarized schemes). I use the Default theme, which is just black text on a white background. And I keep the line height somewhat generous.

The In-App Browser

Tap the upper-right compass icon and up pops a full-fledged Web browser. In the browser’s “omni bar” you can type the URL of a page you want to visit or simply type a search term to conduct a search via DuckDuckGo.

While browsing and researching, you can add and tag bookmarks locally in Writing Kit’s browser by tapping the “plus” icon. Unfortunately these bookmarks do not sync with Writing Kit on the iPhone (nor to any app on the Mac).

For bookmarking I prefer to use Pinboard. Writing Kit does support Pinboard, but it’s somewhat difficult to find and it isn’t exactly the greatest integration of all time. Tap the Bookmark icon and then tap the “Local Bookmarks” title badge. You’ll see an option to log in to Pinboard and/or Zootool. From there you get a mobile Web view of your Pinboard account which is, unfortunately, read only. So, in short, you can access your Pinboard bookmarks, but you cannot add any from Writing Kit.

However, Writing Kit does have fantastic Instapaper integration. You can view a nicely formatted view of your Instapaper queue, open those links in the browser, and you can send any web page you’re viewing into your Instapaper queue. (Gosh, I’d love to see this same type of polished integration with Pinboard.) Moreover, on any Web page, tap the “Text Only” button at the bottom and you get the mobilized view of the site, courtesy of Instapaper’s Mobilizer.

Now, presumably, with at least some of the websites you’re loading up in the browser you will want to link to within the article you’re writing. And this is one thing that makes the in-app browser so great versus switching back and forth with Safari.

When you’re on a Web page, tap the “share” icon in the lower right hand corner (it won’t be there if you have the cursor active in the Address Bar). From there you can choose to insert the URL of the current page into your text document. Tapping that option sends you back into your document with a new menu bar at the bottom of your screen, which gives you the option to either ignore the link or insert the link at the cursor point. Tapping the latter will place a fully formatted Markdown link using the title of the Web page and the URL.

If, however, you prefer to link your text after you’ve written the words you want to be hyperlinks, you can still highlight the words and then have Writing Kit wrap them in a Markdown format via the popover menu.

This text-document-to-browser integration is one of my favorite things of Writing Kit. I hope to see continued iteration and refinement here.

Clever Gestures

It seems that it’s always the little things that grab you and get you hooked. And it was the margin tap targets that first hooked me with Writing Kit.

Tapping on the left or right margin moves the cursor one character in the respective direction. If you’re writing with an external keyboard this isn’t that big of a deal, but when working with the iPad’s on-screen keyboard, having tappable margins is like a dream. Long have I wished Apple would implement this functionality into Mail.

There are additional gestures as well. Tap in the margins with two fingers and the cursor moves one word (instead of just one character) in the respective direction. Also, a two-finger swipe from right to left works as Undo, and 2-finger swipe from left to right works as Redo.

There are more gestures, and you can learn them all under the “i” icon for help, and then tap the “Gestures” cheat sheet.

Additional Unordered List of Miscellany

  • I’ll start with my biggest quibble: when creating a new document, Writing Kit gives you a seemingly nonsensical title. I don’t understand why not at least use the date/time stamp instead of some random string of numbers?

Update: Turns out this is a feature. Now that I know the “why” behind this, I can’t help but think it’s devilishly clever.

  • Terminology integration: tap a word, then tap “Replace” and you are sent to Terminology. You can then select a different word and Terminology will send it back to Writing Kit, replacing your original word.

  • The Markdown formatting keyboard row: It is present even when the external keyboard is active, thus giving one-tap access to link insertion, formatting, and more. The default has one-tap buttons for headers, bold and italic formatting, inserting links, images, code, and block quotes, and unordered and ordered lists. Swipe to the right and you get parentheses, brackets, quotes, and more.

When you tap on the bold formatting button, your text selection is wrapped in double asterisks for bold. If no text is selected, then Writing Kit generates the double asterisks with selected text in between ready for you type into. Tap the bold formatting button again and the double asterisks are removed. Clever.

  • Format selected text: Highlight any bit of text, and then tap a Markdown formatting button and that selected text will have the formatting applied. Be it bold, italics, code, or even a list.

  • TextExpander support: I already mentioned this above, but an app without TextExpander support is an app I’m not interested in.

  • Export: You can export your document as Markdown or as HTML to any number of other apps, but you can also send it as an attachment in an email or as inline text in an email. For example, once I’m done writing this review, I’ll email it as an attachment to my editor right from within the app. Won’t he be delighted?

  • Outline view: There is a dynamically-generated outline view that lists out the hierarchy of your document based on heading tags and links. I don’t use this often, but when I do need it I find it insanely helpful. Especially when writing multi-thousand-word articles on the iPad.

  • Inline link conversion: If you write your links as inline links, Writing Kit can then convert them all to reference links. Tap the “share” icon in the upper-left corner, then tap “Convert Inline Links to Refs”.

  • The icon: The icon, which was part of the 3.0 update, is both unique and gorgeous.

Writing Kit Icon

  • Quick Search: The in-app browser is not the only way to search the web. Tapping the magnifying glass icon in the upper-right brings up the Quick Search tool. And it’s not just for searching the document you’re in. This little magic box can also do many site-specific searches, calculations and more. You have to use it a few times to begin to understand its usefulness and cleverness.

Then, if you’ve drilled down into a site and you want to move over to the in-app browser, just tap the “full screen” icon and the page you’re on will open up in the browser.

My only quibble with the Quick Search is that it does not do find and replace.

Wrapping Up

Writing Kit is obviously one of the more full-featured writing apps out there. And I find its rich feature set to be comforting and useful. The app offers a simple enough view to qualify as a “distraction-free” writing environment, but also has enough bells and whistles that it’s great for getting work done.

Compared to many of my favorite apps that do “one thing well,” Writing Kit seems to be on a different end of the spectrum. But, on second thought, maybe it isn’t. Maybe Writing Kit does do one thing well. And that one thing is being an awesome text editor for writers.

Review: Writing Kit for iPad