If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you just stopped whatever writing you are pretending to do and googled “distraction-free writing apps.”
So, let’s be clear: you’re the distraction.
If you can’t write what you need to write in your CMS, a Word doc, Text Edit, Google Docs, Evernote, or similar, then you are the problem. Each of these programs let you start with a blank screen. If you’re one of the few people in the world that can still read your own handwriting, you can even go the analog route and use pen and paper. But know that when you search for a “distraction free writing app,” what you really want is to buy yourself a few more minutes — hours, days — before writing that thing that you need to write.
I should know. For the past six months or so, I have been downloading and testing distraction-free writing apps just knowing that I’ll find one that will be the key to me upping my productivity. To my chagrin, I haven’t been writing a ton of essays or blog posts or novel chapters lately. But I have enjoyed playing around with several apps for my Mac and iPad/iPhone to see what works best for my writing and jotting needs.
I know I'm going to knock this essay out of the park…as soon as I find the perfect distraction-free markdown writing app.
— Melanie Renzulli (@melanierenzulli) January 7, 2015
Following are quick reviews of Scrivener, Ulysses, IA Writer, Byword, and Hemingway. These are some of the most talked about and well-reviewed writing apps out there, so I had to try them for myself.
About a year ago, I plunked down $45 to Literature and Latte for Scrivener. With its storyboarding capabilities, multiple templates, and random tools like the character name generator, Scrivener is full of distractions. To be honest, it doesn’t really belong on this list. You have to watch video tutorials just to use the software; I still feel sort of lost in Scrivener even after more than a year of use.
But if you do need to work on something big — a longform piece, a novel, a paper that requires lots of bits of research — Scrivener is a pretty neat place to collect all of that and put it together. The distraction-free part comes from activating “composition mode,” which is a customizable full-screen mode. My composition backdrop is this image from Chuck Wendig’s How to Push Past the Bullshit and Write That Goddamn Novel.
Grade: B-. This is great software but not ideal for distraction-free writing, plus it’s only available for laptop/desktop writing. Back in March, Scrivener announced that it was in beta-testing for its long-awaited IOS app. I’m curious to see how it turns out.
I downloaded Ulysses for Mac last November as it was free to download as part of a NaNoWriMo promotion. Ulysses was my first introduction to and first attempt at using Markdown, a formatting shorthand that lets you format everything inline as you write. I had been wanting to get on the Markdown bandwagon for a while, and Ulysses was a great way to get started.
I really enjoyed using Ulysses. It’s a beautiful app. Getting down to the business of writing was simple: just one click and you have a blank page. This last point is a big one for me. I hate having to name a file before I start using it, something that’s required in Scrivener and a few other writing apps. Ulysses also lets you organize your writings in subfolders (which look a lot like those in Scrivener’s sidebar).
Grade: A-. I really liked Ulysses and may ultimately come back to it if I’m feeling more flush with cash. I give Ulysses a minus because of the price: $45. The iPad app is an additional $20. Had I never bought Scrivener, I’d consider purchasing Ulysses. I’m pennywise and pound foolish sometimes. But if you have neither Scrivener nor Ulysses and want a quick-start, intuitive, distraction-free writing app, go for Ulysses. I haven’t tested the iPad app, but the reviews make it seem like it’s a solid companion app.
In December, I finally got an iPad. Following my experience with Ulysses, I was ready to try a distraction-free writing app on the iPad but I didn’t want to spend a lot of money. IA Writer was the first app that I downloaded and I used it quite a bit in the first few months that I had it. IA Writer works similarly to Ulysses, giving you quick start capabilities and syncing with Dropbox and iCloud. I also liked that it offered focused writing (which blurs out all text except for the line or paragraph you were working on) and syntax control (which highlights nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc., to give you a sense of your writing style and whether you’re overusing certain words). Unfortunately, I found the syncing buggy between my iPhone and iPad.
Another thing that irked me about IA Writer was that it was still in the App Store even though there was an IA Writer Pro version. Indeed, it’s normal for apps to have free and premium versions. But it seemed like within weeks of my downloading IA Writer, the app stopped syncing. “Maybe I should just upgrade to the pro version,” I thought. Alas, the developers require those who’ve already purchased the non-Pro version (which was $4.99) to purchase in full the Pro version (which is $9.99). No in-app purchase, guys?
Grade: C. Can you stop using an app out of spite? Yes. IA Writer has a desktop version that syncs up with the app and I did download the trial version of it. But IA Writer just left me wanting and slightly miffed.
I noticed Byword when I first browsed the App Store for a writing app for iPad. So after my annoyance with IA Writer, I decided to download it. The price was attractive: $2.99 for the iPad app, $9.99 for the Mac app. (Those prices have since gone up.) Byword looked and felt a lot like IA Writer but it also included a few other features, like exporting/publishing to blogs (in-app purchase), that I thought would come in handy since a lot of my writing eventually ends up on a WordPress blog.
Byword has become my go-to writing app but it’s not perfect. I use it on my iPad and Mac for a quick start and it syncs well and quickly between the two. I purchased the export/publish feature for both my device and my laptop but I found that I don’t use it; I still don’t feel comfortable publishing something on WordPress without first seeing it on WordPress. Bad formatting can throw me into hours of blog self-loathing and I don’t have time for that.
Grade: A. Byword is great for the reasons I stated above. But if you really like to keep your writing organized in neat little subfolders, Byword will probably drive you crazy. Now that I’ve used the app a lot, I am starting to get overwhelmed by its lack of organization. You really have to remember to label your docs after you get started writing them or you’ll have a zillion docs titled “untitled.txt.”
I’m throwing Hemingway in here for fun. This app for Mac and PC (only, as of this writing) helps you tighten up your writing into sharp sentences a la its namesake Ernest Hemingway. I have used it a few times just to see how convoluted my writing can become with adverbs and passive voice. I wrote this article on going to my local cafes in Rome in Hemingway and I like the way it turned out, even though when I read it back to myself I feel like I cheated. About a month later, this article in the NYT, specifically the section from Anna Holmes, left me feeling sheepish about using Hemingway.
But, like I said, Hemingway is kind of fun. You can use it online by writing or copy/pasting text from another program into it to see how “bold and clear” your writing is. Or, you can download the desktop app to use it as you would any other writing program. As of about a week ago, the developers upgraded the desktop app ($9.99), so it may have even more features that you may like.
Grade: B-. Hemingway is fun and allows you to write quickly. But it may change your writing voice if you’re not careful.
There are many other distraction-free writing apps available in the App Store and many more cropping up each day because of people like you and me searching in vain for a technical solution to our writers block. I can’t review them all. And this list will probably become obsolete in no time. Ironically, I’ll probably come around to update it from time to time when I need a distraction from the real thing that I’m writing.