On finding the perfect text editor: the one that’s right for you

For years now, I’ve been an unfaithful user of iA Writer. I want to say I’ve been using the app from the beginning of its MacOS days, since I clearly remember writing these using its minimal, beautiful light grey interface in 2011, the year it was introduced on the Mac.

I say unfaithful because I may have tried other apps along the way. Why? Because I am a very curious tech enthusiast always looking for a subjectively better app (sometimes it was simply to have the same icon on both my laptop and my phone).

Second to iA Writer, Byword must have been the one I used the most. Both apps are very similar, even if iA Writer has become more powerful and more refined over the years, while Byword kind of stagnated. These apps were perfect for my needs: writing a blog post from time to time, and then importing the edited, ready-to-be-published content into Squarespace, meaning copying-pasting raw Markdown, or HTML.

As you may already know, I recently moved my blog out of Squarespace to use Blot instead. And guess what: my needs in an text editing app have changed. iA Writer file management stopped being ideal for me, and is not compatible with my workflow anymore.1

If it was just about workflow, it would have been fine, as I eventually would have get used to a new behaviour with iA Writer. But something else became more and more obvious: iA Writer was slow, and it was not my ageing MacBook Air’s fault, at least not entirely.

Before jumping to conclusions, I had to be sure first. So I read again Craig Mod’s brilliant Fast Software, the Best Software, and tried nvALT for myself, just to see what was this “speed” he was talking about with such passion.

Let me say this clearly: nvALT is very, very fast indeed. After spending some time with it, it becomes hard to look at iA Writer — or most writing apps for that matter — the same way. To quote Craig Mod:

Speed in software is probably the most valuable, least valued asset. To me, speedy software is the difference between an application smoothly integrating into your life, and one called upon with great reluctance. Fastness in software is like great margins in a book — makes you smile without necessarily knowing why.

iA Writer just doesn’t make me smile anymore. I realised I had a small, unconscious reluctance using it, to use Mod’s language.

Despite its lightning speed and all its great features, nvALT is still not the app for me. I tried it,2 I thought thoroughly about using it as my main text editor, but a few limitations ruined it for me in the end. For instance, the line height was too small and I could not figure out a way to change it. Another example: the software is now kind of old and was barely updated during the last couple of years, which makes its future uncertain, and not worth all the work needed to adopt a new app.3

So I kept looking. I was looking for an app with a fair amount of speed, a satisfying way of managing files, a few Markdown-specific tools, decent enough looks, and not trying to be a replacement for Apple Notes, which I still use and love as my go-to notes app (that’s why I did not try apps like Bear or Ulysses for instance.)

From BBEdit to Typora, from Hemingway Editor to Tot, I felt I was getting close to my dream app, but not quite there yet.

One morning, I found it. Well, I did not really find it, but I gave it a second chance after the first try, when I too quickly dismissed it. Drafts is now my go-to text editor.4

We will now see how this new relationship goes, but so far so good. I stripped it down from most of its power features, took the time to set it just right for me, with minimum customisation. I don’t even think I need to upgrade to the Pro version. I may do it later to support the company because they deserve it, but it shows how little I need from the app.

The app is not nvALT-fast, but it’s way faster than iA Writer. The file management system is the one I need, and even if it’s not iA Writer-pretty, I am satisfied with the looks, both on the Mac and on the iPhone. I switched from the beautiful iAWriter Quattro S font for my drafts, to the regular monospaced Menlo, even if I didn’t have to.5

Drafts is working for me, and it may not work for you. The journey of finding the best app for yourself is what’s interesting, and there are so many great apps available, especially on the Mac.6

I could still use iA Writer, and probably be happy with it, but again, I am a curious tech enthusiast, and trying out all those new apps was a satisfying, energising process.

Please let me know on Twitter or email what is your go-to text editor, why you picked this one, and if you are planning to change it soon.

  1. I kept on accidentally creating new files in my Dropbox instead of my default folder, which Blot automatically converts into blog posts.↩︎

  2. Several times.↩︎

  3. nvUltra — supposed to be the successor of nvALT — should be released soon.↩︎

  4. Just as I was editing this, I suddenly lost the last 5 minutes of edits. I was starting to get mad, and ready to rewrite this post later about another app, but thankfully Drafts saves “Versions” of drafts (of course it does), so I could restore all the lost changes.↩︎

  5. The iA Writer custom fonts are available to download for free on Github.↩︎

  6. On Windows, I like Appy Text.↩︎