#iPadOnly book » Section 3 - There's an app for that! » Chapter 19 - Writing

Chapter 19 - Writing

Writing on the iPad in plain text with Markdown is a bliss

The ‘plain text format’ is back! After years of using Microsoft Word and other ‘rich text’ apps and fiddling with bold, italics, styles, font sizes and the like… we’re finally back with writing in simple text. This seems like a step back, but in reality, it’s an improvement. It helps us to focus on just writing and not playing with formatting.

Plain text with Markdown

Yes, you can still write formatted text in many apps on the iPad. But the ‘plain text’ format (especially with Markdown styling) makes the process easier and most of all, distraction-free.

Michael on writing in plain text:

“All of the chapters of this book, all of my blog posts - everything starts in plain text format. I use a Markdown format which is a way of writing text that adds formatting by just writing bold or italics instead of playing with the B and I buttons in the button bar. It sounds a little ‘geeky’ but it’s actually very effective once you get the hang of it (more on Markdown a little further in this chapter).

As my co-author, Augusto, puts it - when you write in simple plain text format, your only option is to write or not to write, you don’t waste time fiddling with other options. He’s so right about this one.”

Augusto has written several books like this already:

“I like working in plain text files that sync with my Dropbox and can later be picked up by Scrivener to put the book together when I jump over to the Mac. We’ve been co-writing this book the same way. Both of us writing text files and syncing with a shared Dropbox folder. It’s easy and effective. I am hoping that Michael and I will write the second edition of this book after iOS 7 ships and another book that I hope he will accept. Suffice to say, the ‘text files in Dropbox’ process works for both myself and for co-writing a book with someone else.”

Now that we explained how we love text files, let’s jump to a detailed description of why the iPad is a writer’s best friend and in our opinion, the best tool around. Along the way, let’s talk about some apps as well.


This is Augusto’s app of choice and an app he recommended to Michael when they started working on this project. Now that Michael switched to Byword and explained to Augusto how the Markdown formatting works, Augusto is even more confident with his app choice. Augusto writes with black background and white text.

Michael switched from Nebulous Notes to Byword:

“When I started writing this book I was using an app called Nebulous - I liked it a lot - it syncs with Dropbox and has a very nice full-screen mode. When I started talking to Augusto about this book, he mentioned he was using a different app called Byword. It didn’t take long for me to make the switch. Byword is more beautiful, better designed and most of all syncs with both iCloud and Dropbox perfectly. It also supports Markdown brilliantly.

Most importantly - it doesn’t have a button bar - I can type on a full screen without any distractions. All I can see is text on my iPad.

The best part - I use the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard and while the default orientation of the iPad there is horizontal, I can easily put the iPad in the vertical orientation. This is a game-changer for me - you can’t do this with any laptop. My iPad is black, when it ‘stands’ in vertical orientation in front of me, with my text color set to white and background to black… it’s by far the best writing environment ever. The text is laid out vertically just like a traditional sheet of paper. It conveys the feeling that I’m really writing something important. Like this book.

This app, together with the Logitech’s Ultrathin keyboard and the iPad set in vertical orientation, makes it the best writer’s machine ever.”

AI Writer

This is an app Michael was also using before he switched to Byword. He keeps the app around for two main features:

  • focus mode - helps the writer maintain focus by highlighting only two lines of text in the middle.

  • automatic scrolling - as you type, the text is always displayed in the middle of the screen and it scrolls up automatically as you type new sentences. This helps you stay focused on what you’re writing even more.


Augusto found this gem of an app recently and it’s the only app on the iOS App Store that allows him to see two columns of different text on the same screen.

Augusto uses this app often to translate text:

“I do a lot of work translating text from one language to another. This is a process that was really easy to do anywhere but on the iPad. It wasn’t until I discovered DualMailT that I finally had a dual text screen to work on different texts. Previously, it required a bunch of tricks, or I’d simply pull the laptop out and finish the job.

The application is super simple; it allows you to have two text screens opened side by side. I love this for writing as well as translating. I can start with the text of one language on the left and add the translated text on the right. If I am in writing mode I put the outline on the left and write the text on the right. To this day I don’t understand why there aren’t more applications with this feature, especially applications that are aimed at writers, who love outlines and text on the same screen.”


This ‘writing app’ deserves a different chapter as it’s actually not for writing text, but for writing code.

Michael occasionally continues to code and he finds Textastic to be one of the best IDEs out there:

“Being the CEO of the company doesn’t give me too much time to code and every developer on my team can code faster and better than I can anyway. But sometimes, out of necessity or simple curiosity, I like to dive into code and tinker with a script or something… and I do it in Textastic.

This app features amazing code-highlighting for practically every language there is (PHP, MySQL, JavaScript, Ruby, Python… you name it) and works with any kind of connection like FTP, SFTP, Dropbox and others. It also features amazing search capabilities. This is invaluable when you’re coding and you want to quickly find a line of code that interests you.

In addition, it works offline and later syncs the file to the same place as it was downloaded. It’s very convenient - I download a script via SFTP from one of my servers, modify it and hit ‘upload’ and Textastic knows exactly where the file should be sent to. If you do any kind of coding on the iPad - this is the app to use.”

Markdown format for text files

We mentioned Markdown several times in this chapter so we decided to give you a quick overview of what it actually means to write in Markdown. Once a file is written in plain text using Markdown format, it can be sent later as HTML, DOC or other text with all the formatting intact. It divides the process of writing text and of exporting/formatting text.

Markdown was invented by John Gruber of Daring Fireball blog fame. Here is a quick Markdown cheat sheet:

To add **bold** just use two asterisks, *italic* requires just one.

* a bullet point goes like this
* just start the line with asterisk

Hyperlink can be written like this: [Nozbe](http://www.nozbe.com/)

Or can be written like this: [Nozbe][n]
and defined later:
[n]: http://www.nozbe.com/

An image can be added like this:
![Nozbe logo](http://www.nozbe.com/logo.png)

It’s a fantastic way of writing in plain text on the iPad while at the same time making your text formatted for the web. The best part? All of the leading text editors for the iPad (Byword, Nebulous, AI Writer, and many more) support Markdown natively and can export your formatted written text to the web, email, or even a Pages or Word document.

Here’s Augusto’s take on Markdown:

“Michael was bragging about Markdown since our first call, and I finally decided to check ‘The Mac Sparky Markdown Field Guide’ to see if I could learn it, too.

I was reluctant to use Markdown; worried it would become a distraction instead of a tool. The reality is that for certain things it is very effective for writing. I’m not even close to mastering it, but the little things I am able to do have proved useful, so I am grateful to Michael for bringing it to my attention.

Markdown converts the plain text from a simple to a formatted form in a magical way. I’m still a beginner but as it becomes more natural to me, I can tell it will become my favorite form of writing. From that moment on, regular plain text writing will be gone forever in the same way that my handwriting was forever changed by the first Palm Graffiti writing. I will never write a ‘T’ the same way again.”

That’s why if you’re considering going #iPadOnly as a writer, which we totally recommend, think about getting a good text editor that lets you write in full screen and supports Markdown. Dedicate some time to learn the basics of Markdown and you will never look back.

Pages, Word, Evernote and other editors that support text formatting

If you’re the kind of writer that likes text formatting in a visual way, you can still use these apps and write in any format you choose. We just believe an #iPadOnly writer is best off with a plain text format supported by Markdown formatting.

We’re both writers. Augusto has already written several books and for Michael, this is his first one. We’re both bloggers and we both write essays and columns for magazines. We think the iPad can be the writer’s best tool in his toolbox. It’s very portable, you can write in portrait mode, you have great full-screen-and-very-focused apps and writing in plain text is just brilliant. If there is a profession that can go #iPadOnly the easiest, we believe it’s the writer.


Regular blogging is really hard. It doesn’t seem that hard - you write a piece of text and you post it online on a blogging platform. But that’s not the whole story. If you want your posts to look good, you need to prepare good illustrations or photos. You also need to format your post, tweak your post title and after all this your blog post is finally ready for posting. But…the job doesn’t stop there. You then begin the next stage of posting it to all of your social media outlets (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn… etc.). Let’s not get started on tweaking and modifying your Wordpress blog installation. Simply stated, it’s a lot of work.

Michael on Blogging

“In theory, blogging should only be about writing. This is why I really loved a blogging platform called ‘Posterous’. It was easy. I’d simply write a longer email and send it to the blog - the platform would convert my email to a blog post and automatically post it to my social media outlets. I loved it. Sadly the platform didn’t have a viable business model so it sold itself to Twitter and subsequently was shut down at the beginning of 2013.

Because working on my iPad forced me to focus on correct workflows, I decided to migrate from Posterous to a blogging platform that would help me simplify my blogging process.

It started with Dropbox. Dropbox has a very good API so why not use it for blogging - why not just write blog posts as text files and put them in a folder in Dropbox and they’d get posted automatically?

There are several projects like this in the works (as well as some open-source software packages, and maybe even plug-ins for Wordpress) but I asked my Nozbe developers to write a custom blog for both our Nozbe site and my blog.

Suffice to say, I now write everything in text files in the Byword app on my iPad. I format my writing in the popular format Markdown. I put each of my posts in a special ‘drafts’ folder and I write from there. When I have an illustration or photo, I simply upload it using the Dropbox app to another magic ‘images’ folder. When a post is ready, I set up a date of posting by writing it at the beginning of the post’s text. A special script scans my ‘drafts’ and ‘images’ folders in Dropbox every few hours and when there is a post that needs to be posted - it gets published.

After that, another script posts information from this blog post to my social media outlets. Easy. All I have to do is write and occasionally prepare an illustration.

I realize this might not be very helpful to you, as not everyone has programmers working for them to create a system like this, but actually, because there are several similar platforms already on the Internet, it’s the question of finding one and setting it up for yourself. My point in this chapter was to give you an idea of simplifying your blogging setup - of making sure you focus on what’s really important. On writing. Maybe that’s why Seth Godin (a very famous marketing blogger and writer, the author of ‘Linchpin’, ‘Purple Cow’ and other bestselling books) never switched from his TypePad blogging platform to anything modern? His old platform is familiar to him and makes him just focus on writing. That’s why I set this up the way I did. I just fire up the Byword app and create a new text file on my Dropbox and write.”

Augusto on Blogging

“This is an area that needs improvement in my current workflow. I don’t have a programmer that can help me develop a better system. My posts are mostly text, and my blogs are all in Wordpress, via the Wordpress application for iOS. It is not perfect in any way, shape or form, but it can be worked with certain level of success.

Again for what I do that are mostly text, the application is good enough. I can access Stats, Create Post, Categories and even access to the dashboard and more. The only thing that I don’t do in this application is work with images. For that I log into the web interface. Currently, I create most of my posts in plain text using Byword. Later, after they are finished and edited, I copy and paste into the app, set the posting date and categories and I am set. The Wordpress App makes accomplishing this work fast and simple.

Other blogging platforms

Another good blogging platform is Tumblr (recently acquired by Yahoo) which has a great iOS app. Michael uses this app to upload short info to the Nozbe’s ‘test blog’ and ‘status blog’. As with writing, a blogger should also feel at home on the iPad and find it a very powerful and easy-to-use tool for his blogging needs.


Journaling is a excellent habit. Both of us are doing it regularly and, of course, we journal on our iPads:

Augusto is journaling in Day One:

“I am a believer that the process of writing a Journal helps one grow, therefore it is not a surprise that I have been journaling on my iPhone and my iPad since the first opportunity appeared. Currently the application I use is called Day One.

I really like this application for journaling. I actually like it so much than when I made the decision to use it as my permanent journaling solution, I imported everything I had in my previous app to Day One and have not looked back since.

I am a believer that Journaling helps you clarify things, identify patterns, work on stuff over time and in general covers a whole set of positive attributes.”

Michael is journaling in Byword:

“Journaling provides an opportunity to pause every day to think about the day I just had and to contemplate if there is something new to learn from it, some idea I need to sketch… or anything else. It’s a very hard habit to instill and sometimes I forget to journal but I always try to get back to it.

To pick up the journaling habit I started with the Day One app. But in the end I actually ditched it. I decided to simplify and do something else instead. I started journaling in my favorite text editor - Byword. Here’s my workflow:

For each month I create a new file in iCloud in ByWord with the year and the month - for March of 2013 the file had a name of ‘2013-03’. I write in that file using Markdown. Each day starts with a header of the day of the month and the week: ‘# 1, Friday’ and what follows are my thoughts for each day starting with bullet points. The order of the days is descending - the newest day is at the top of the file, the oldest at the bottom. Here’s a sample entry:

# 2, Saturday
* Great weekend with my family
* Went to the movies with our 4-year old, had great fun

# 1, Friday
* New month, new challenges, let's get that new version of Nozbe done at last!

OK, you get the idea. Now, when the month is done I create a new file with the new month. I open the old month again, read through it, add something if need be and export it ‘formatted’ (again, thanks to Markdown) through email to Evernote to a special notebook with a ‘journal’ tag. Then I delete the file and focus on the new month.

That’s it. This is how I journal. It’s so easy; because I’m using the tools I know and love - Byword and Evernote.”

Next Chapter: Chapter 20 - Traveling

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