the candler blog

My Text Problem


A few years ago, when it became clear that I would be writing for more than one outlet, I bought Scrivener and it became my go-to app for organizing the disparate strands of my writing. It is one of the best purchases I have ever made. That people spend $140 for Word in a world where Scrivener exists is absolutely insane; it’s 20x the app and a third of the price.

One of the side effects of using Scrivener was learning how to write in MultiMarkdown.1 At first, the plain text syntax confounded me, so I bugged the Scrivener developers on their (incredibly useful) forums until I started to get the hang of it. Shortly thereafter, the iPad came out and plain text documents became “a thing” again, with Markdown the preferred language for composing richly formatted documents on the go. The only problem? Scrivener doesn’t work directly with text documents.

Over the past year I have moved away from Scrivener. Instead I’ve tried to create a workflow based solely around text documents I organize in folders. It has been, to say the least, a struggle. The trouble with Scrivener (actually one of its strengths, unless you’re fiddly) is that it organizes all of the documents you are working on as RTFs within the current .scriv project. Not only are those documents RTF, they are inaccessible to other editors.2

I’ve been buying text editors for Mac OS X and iOS in hopes of finding “the one” that fits my workflow. On the iPad, I’m pretty happy with Daedalus. Lately on the iPhone WriteRoom has been my main writing app. On the Mac? I flip-flop. A lot. Sometimes I’m in the mood for Byword, which features excellent writer-centric Markdown syntax highlighting and keyboard shortcuts. Other times I’m into the enormous (like, 36px enormous) beauty of iA Writer’s typography. When it’s time to get serious about editing a document, TextMate does an excellent job of filling the screen with all of my nonsense. Plus I love changing all the themes in the fullscreen wonder that is WriteRoom. But guess what? I miss Scrivener.

I should probably talk about the elephant in the “I wish I had a text only version of Scrivener” room: Ulysses. This app, made by the same folks behind Daedalus, gets very close to providing me with the kind of structured madness I need. It predates Scrivener and paved the way for this kind of editor.3 Not only does Ulysses work with text documents but it also features a kind of syntax highlighting that is extremely customizable. Big plusses! The trouble is that there is no easy way to incorporate the basics of Markdown into Ulysses. You can get very close, but it takes some investment to set it up and then falls short on some nifty conventions that are available in other apps.4 Beyond that, the text documents you edit in Ulysses are kept within a .ulys document, just like Scrivener’s .scriv, so again you’re stuck editing within one app. Worse, currently there is no real document sync. It’s easy enough to export your current work for editing on an iPad, but getting it back into Ulysses is tricky.

If you’ve made it this far, you either completely agree with my frustrations or think I sound like the kind of person who writes messages in poop on his basement walls.5 The truth is that I find myself comfortable using many tools given my changing moods and needs. This is why plain text documents are so brilliant. There are an endless number of apps and devices you can use to edit text. Better, it’s simple to share with others and can be turned into just about any other kind of document you like. Getting fiddly is part of my process. Given the market for text editors out there, I gather I’m not alone.

So what does my perfect text editing app look like? Well, it actually looks like a version of Scrivener that edits text documents located within my Mac’s filesystem. I love that I can keep my documents organized in Scrivener and scribble notes into a sidebar. I love being able to do things like change the color of documents in the “binder” or view my documents in an outline or “corkboard” view. I can get pretty close to all of that by using projects in TextMate or Espresso or Sublime Text or BBEdit, but not close enough.

I know, I have a problem with text. But I’m working on it.

Apps Mentioned in this Article

If you are considering purchasing any of the apps mentioned above, using one of the Mac or iOS App Store links below to purchase will help support the candler blog. Many thanks and happy writing.

  1. Scrivener supported it before it was cool. (Yup, that was a hipster douchebag syntax declaration.)

  2. Scrivener 2 introduced a “sync” workaround which allows you to export your work as plain text files, but there are tradeoffs. For example, file names must contain extra digits so that Scrivener can sync them back, and they must be put in a “Drafts” folder within your destination. I’d need another post or two to explain why this doesn’t pass muster.

  3. The Scrivener and Ulysses teams have a very cordial competitiveness between them, or so it seems from an onlooker like myself.

  4. Like being able to wrap selected text in asterisks by hitting ⌘I or getting the coloring of links just right

  5. Is there an app for that?