Review: Writing Kit for iPad and iPhone

by Mike Evans

Ever since the iPad hit the shelves 18 months ago there has been endless discussion about its rightful place in the world. Is it a computer, is it a post-PC device, or is it simply a media viewer? Concerns have often centred on the iPad’s limitations in relation to a PC rather than on its benefits. Writers and productivity gurus are divided on whether or not the iPad could become a primary device, especially for on-the-road use.

The iPad is a PC

I have gradually come round to regarding the iPad as a fully-functional post-PC computer. This is not just because of the overwhelming sales and the pre-eminent position in which Apple now finds itself. If iPads are considered to be personal computers, there is now no doubt that Apple is the biggest computer manufacturer in the world. No, my main reason for regarding the iPad as a computer is that it can do everything that anyone, other than a specialist, needs.

Some iPad applications, in particular OmniFocus, are better, more intuitive and more fun to use than their Mac counterparts. Yet it is in the field of text editing that most advances have been made.

Text editors

If there is one application that has done more to convince me that the iPad is an entirely viable writing and research tool, it is Writing Kit from Ahn Quang Do.

On both my iPhone and iPad I have folders bursting with writing apps, from the ultra simple such as PlainText to the rather more complicated such as Circus Ponies NoteBook. I give a nod to Pages, which does a good job of replacing your PC-based word processor, but my prejudice these days leans very much towards plain-text applications where the fruits of my labours are fully portable.

A year ago I was entranced with Elements, Plain Text and Nebulous Notes. I reviewed the three and really could not pick an overall winner. Every one, in its way, is a good choice. Then along came Notesy which I also reviewed and it became my firm favourite. I still prefer it for use on the iPhone.

Still later came the simple, focused iA Writer and I love that too. iA Writer has a full complement of iPhone, iPad and Mac versions and it is ideal if you want to forget distractions and simply home in on the sentence under construction. It is still my most-used writing tool on the Mac.

Writing Kit, however, is something else.

Above: Editing panel with a Bluetooth keyboard connected. Instead of the full virtual keyboard you see just the supplementary Markdown hotkeysWriting Kit, the oddball

Writing Kit is a real oddball, in the very nicest sense of the word. Not only is it a superb text editor, it has in-built writing and research tools that make it a joy to use.

If I want to write a review or longer article on the Mac, I will more often than not turn to Scrivener because of its peerless research, planning and organisational facilities. Many authors swear by Scrivener and I can understand why. I am also an addict.

While Writing Kit puts me in mind of Scivener, it does not have the same extensive capabilities for managing long documents. Frankly, you couldn’t expect this on the iPad at the moment. But it does do most of what you need within the limitations of iOS.

Scrivener is headed to the iPad and I intend to review it as soon as possible. It will be interested to see how it stacks up against Writing Kit.

Markdown

Writing Kit has full Markdown integration. But unlike some other Markdown-enabled editors, Writing Kit presupposes no knowledge of John Gruber’s simplified entry to HTML. Even if you have absolutely no knowledge of Markdown syntax, Writing Kit offers all the more useful features via keyboard shortcuts. The supplementary row of shortcut keys appears above the virtual keyboard or, if you are using a Bluetooth external keyboard, the shortcut row appears at the bottom of the screen.

From here you can insert headings at various levels, select bold or italic, enter links, photographs or code, format block quotes, bullet lists and number lists. You get everything you need for normal writing. But if you fancy a bit more in-depth Markdowning, a full crib sheet is brought up by pressing the information button. Incidentally, you can change the default .txt file suffix to .md and this is something I would recommend.

Print or Markdown view shows the text as it should appear with the codes translated into headings, formatted links and textFast text editing

Writing kit is a fast, accurate text editor, especially when using an external Bluetooth keyboard. As with any other self-respecting editor, it incorporates full support for Text Expander snippets. The shortcut keys help keep the flow going without distraction. And a bonus is the ability to tap either side of the screen to move the cursor back and forth. One tap moves either left or right by one character, a tap with two fingers moves it left or right by one word.

This is brilliant and is one of my favourite features of Writing Kit. Lack of arrow keys on the iPad’s virtual keyboard is one of the biggest gripes from writers. I really think that with the shortcut keys (which are by no means unique to Writing Kit) and the tap-tap arrow function, composing text is just as fast and accurate as on a PC.

In general I get by very easily with the iPad’s virtual keyboard and it is perfectly adequate for the odd note and for emails. Splitting the keyboard (zoom out on the keyboard with two fingers) helps if you prefer thumb typing. Nevertheless, there is no substitute for a good physical keyboard. I am a fast typist and I can achieve twice or three times the speed when using a Bluetooth keyboard as opposed to the built-in virtual keyboard. It’s a simple matter of ergonomics.

Writing Kit includes a character and word count facility that helps when composing long documents. There is also the option to choose from 13 type fonts, vary the font size and select from a number of background themes, including white text on black. The yellow notepad theme is particularly attractive in my view.

Research

Research, though, is where Writing Kit really excels. The iPad, as we all realise, has a contrived multi-tasking system where it is necessary to temporarily exit your application in order to visit Safari or another application. When using a PC or Mac we are used to the benefits of windows, enabling us to have a research document or web page open while we are writing in another window. On the iPad this flipping back and forth, cutting and pasting, can be a pain.

Writing Kit has a built-in browser. Again, this is not unique, but the way in which the browser is integrated is a one-off as far as I know. Press the browser icon while working on a document and you are taken to a simple, uncluttered web view where you can search for and open pages. There you can view a page in normal or text mode, all very straightforward. But now comes the interesting bit. A queue button leads to a two-section box where you can store appropriate research relating to the document. You can save it locally, to the document file, or to Instapaper.

Research view allows you to open web pages, add bookmarks and refer to previously saved articles, including items sent to Instapaper’s Read Later folderUsing the Instapaper button you can view any web pages you have bookmarked in your Instapaper Read Later folder. At this stage it isn’t possible to drill down to Instapaper sub-folders. For instance, I tend to file my research in a custom sub-folder which I use when preparing Macfilos articles. So at the moment I cannot view this folder from within Writing Kit. It is a small gripe and I understand that it will be addressed soon.

That small proviso aside, you can built up a table of research articles applicable to the article under construction. At any time you can open a particular page and refer to it.

Quick research

Alongside the browser icon on the top toolbar of Writing Kit is another useful icon, Quick Research. This gives you instant access to a search bar and provides a library of useful hints for types of search, including calculations, conversions and a plethora of potentially useful text search terms. For instance, search for “total number of bones in the human body” and you will be taken to DuckDuckGo where you can choose from a list of articles. When you find the one you favour, press the fullscreen icon in the quick-research window and you are taken to Writing Kit’s standard web browser. Use the share button to send the link to the editor and then insert it. Here we have The Total Number of Bones in the Human Body.

Linking to research results

The share button within the Writing Kit web browser makes adding links to the text extremely simple. In addition to the option to export the page to a wide variety of applications and services, including Evernote, you can bookmark the page in the queue or send it to Instapaper. The link option, though, is the killer.

Press the “Insert Into the Editor” button and you are taken back to the editor. Simply place your cursor where you want the link to appear, press the “Insert Link at Cursor” button (which appears only in this instance) and a fully formatted HTML link is inserted. You can customise the the text, which is the bit you see in the article. This is extremely simple and intuitive and can be done with absolutely no knowledge of HTML or Markdown.

Previously, when writing an article on the iPad, I would always leave links until I got home and could use the Mac. I would then have to try to remember where I wanted to put the reference material and would invariably forget something. Now, with Writing Kit, I can do the job quickly without breaking the flow of composing text.

This difficulty in the past when handling links meant that any on-the-road postings, without the benefit of having a Mac on hand, meant that the articles would probably be published without links until I could get home and add them.

Of course, if you a dabhand with HTML or Markdown, none of this would present a problem. I am not.

Pictures

Manipulating photographs in iPad documents is never a satisfying experience. In fact, it is the one area where I really need a Mac. At the moment it is possible to import photographs only from a CloudApp account. I have not tested this feature but will update the review at a later time. It should also be possible to import from the iPad Camera Roll but I signally failed to make this work. The developer tells me he is working on more photo importing facilities for the next update.

Note that all photographs and screenshots in this article have been added on a Mac; it is the only part of the drafting and publishing process that was not done on the iPad.

An Apple wireless keyboard and Origami Workstation makes an ideal arrangement, almost as good as a laptopDropbox

Although Writing Kit also has an iPhone version, which is excellent for revising and adding thoughts to an existing document, there is no Mac editor. No matter, your file can be opened in iA Writer, WriteRoom or any other plain-text editor. In fact, having written most of this review on the iPad I opened the file in iA Writer on the iMac in order to do some last-minute revision.

Since Writing Kit is a plain text editor, you have no problems in opening the data files in other plain text applications, re-saving them and subsequently opening them again in Writing Kit.

To engineer this you need to link Writing Kit to your Dropbox account where you can select a folder (the default is a folder called Writing Kit but you can change it to anything you like). From then on, all your Writing Kit documents are available on the Mac.

Outlining

Writing Kit also includes a simple outline view which lists the headings (created using the built-in H [for heading] button). Tap it once and you get a first-level heading (# in Markdown), twice and you get ## and so forth. Also listed are all the links which you have already inserted into the document. At the moment this is a simple list view and you can do nothing clever with it (such as reordering the paragraphs). You can, however, click on a heading and be taken to that section in the text. This is clearly highly practical if you are working on a particularly long document.

There is one excellent text app that does permit paragraph re-ordering and, indeed, you can view a Writing Kit document directly in Phraseology.

I could well envisage using Phraseology as a final editor for plain text Writing Kit documents. It gives the opportunity to move paragraphs and headings into a different order, something which is not possible in Writing Kit (even with the help of the outline view) except by cutting and pasting.

Unfortunately, Phraseology is an orphan app which does not synchronise with anything. No Dropbox, no nothing. So, while it has great potential, I cannot readily incorporate it into my workflow. At the moment.

Print View

The print view, or Markdown view, icon opens the text as you would see it in print, complete with links in blue and with the text description of the link rather than all the HTML stuff. It makes proof reading much easier. You will see headings, text emphasis, block quotes and other enhancements you have added to the draft using Markdown coding.

Learn more

If you want to learn more about Writing Kit you will find this screencast by Don McAllister of ScreenCastsOnline (available on the Writing Kit home page) will give you all the facts you need. It’s how I learned to use the functions and, as usual, Don has done a great job.

 

Wrap up

The hallmark of a good writing app for the iPad is that you begin to want to use it in preference to your favourite Mac-based editor. Writing Kit achieves that lofty ideal. Paired with a Bluetooth keyboard, Writing Kit is every bit as useful as an authoring tool as any OS X application other than, possibly, Scrivener.

I now choose Writing Kit as my editor of choice for long documents. Since I have been using it, I have found less need to carry around my MacBook Air and I now feel fully confident in leaving home for a week or two without it. As I mentioned, the only shortcoming is the difficulty of handling photographs, but this is by no means limited to Writing Kit; it is a fundamental flaw in the current iOS UI.

We are still in the early days of the iPad and of tablet computing in general. Already we are seeing useful convergence between OS X and iOS, as highlighted in the pre-announcement of Mountain Lion, and this trend will continue. With these developments comes a blurring of the boundary between iPad and Mac. For many, maybe a majority of consumers, an iPad is now the only computer they need. And as brilliant applications such as Writing Kit continue to improve the user experience, expect even more cannibalisation of the PC market by tablets.

Writing Kit is available from the App Store for $4.99 or £2.99 and represents exceptional value for money. It is a universal app for iPhone/iPod touch and iPad.