I recently began using a new writing tool, iA writer. It is one of a slew of new programs that are “minimalist” writing tools including Omniwriter and Writeroom. They help you focus on actually writing rather than tinkering with fonts, layouts, hyperlinks, grammar checkers and other distractions. I was led to search for a new writing tool by Redmond’s Law of Large Numbers which states that a large and complex enough document will definitely crash Microsoft Word. I have been revising a paper for a journal and when it began crashing every ten minutes, I realized I was totally distracted by having to restart my word processor and guessing what changes had actually been saved. I was no longer focused on writing.

Initially I was skeptical and thought a minimalist tool was nothing new, just a modern version of Vi/Emacs or any of the LaTeX editors I’ve used. But it turns out to be a different user experience after all. Even compared to any of those, iA Writer is distraction free. There is no way to underline or italicize text. There are no styles, hyperlinks, or colors or fonts. There are no obscure Control/Alt/Esc commands to remember. There are however numbered headings which is useful. The overall effect is that your mind stays focused on paragraph structures, flow and generating interesting content.

The experience isn’t like using Notepad (Windows) or TextEdit(Mac) either. On iA Writer, one interesting feature — probably its only feature — is the “focus mode” which highlights the currently edited sentence and fades everything else into grey. This keeps your attention squarely on clarifying exactly what you are trying to express in the current sentence. I like that a lot. Oh and it does look great on screen, a bit like the typerwiters from days gone by.

iA Writer syncs to Apple’s iCloud, so you can edit on your Mac, iPhone or iPad and not worry about backups. You can roll back to different versions using iCloud’s built-in features. If you use Windows, the options include Darkroom, Focuswriter and Writemonkey but I haven’t tried any of those.

Because of its lack of features, a minimalist writing tool isn’t for everything, certainly not equation-laden articles. But it is great for a first draft and if you are primarily writing text. I am currently keeping iA Writer as part of my workflow, using it to draft things, then pasting the results into a word processor or other application for layout and finishing. If you have used such a tool, do share your experiences (good and bad) below.

ps: this blog post was written in iA Writer.

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5 Responses to Quick review of IA Writer – a minimalist writing tool

  1. rabee says:

    How easy is it to navigate a large document?
    Usually it can take me a week to write a document followed  by six to seven months of extensive editing. So I spend most of my time editing documents that I’ve already written.

    I initially draft the paper with a “nice” editor but then shift to vi for the real hard work of editing, refining, changing, expanding, contracting.

    With vi I navigate my large documents efforetlessly and I enjoy it very much. In fact I can feel both brain hemispheres work at the same time while editing with vi. 

    With vi the right hemisphere of the brain tackles the space related aspects of vi’s “normal mode”. Leaving the left to anticipate, for the sake of articulation, the verbal sequences that one will need when entering edit mode. 

    By the way, is there an IA writer mode in emacs yet? 
     

  2. hc says:

    I’ve been using IA Writer on my Mac and it is a useful tool.  It is surprisingly that there is a market for something whose main feature is the absence of options but there you go.  It is simple and you do get focus.

    For taking short notes on an IPad I found it less useful 

  3. David Gelman says:

    Another great example of the ‘less is more’ principle.

  4. I am interested to know more about equations. Does it support equation writing ?

  5. Kwanghui Lim says:

    Hi Ritesh, I missed your comment earlier (sorry!).

    Many of these apps are very basic and do not support equations. However, if you are using an iPad, there is an app that works really well for Latex called Tex Touch. Martin Byford from RMIT recommended it to me some time back.

    Tex Touch and a few other alternatives are listed at http://www.futurebird.com/2011/using-latex-on-the-ipad-a-review-of-the-best-and-worst-apps-for-writing-mathematics/

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