Writing Kit


Following up on my piece on iPad editors, I’ve been trying out some new stuff that you might like.

A Little Context

Although I’m still committed to vim on the desktop (which, quite honestly, is what I’d use to write all my stuff if I could, since it does Markdown brilliantly with a few tiny tweaks) and use Textastic for pretty much everything on the iPad, I decided to try out Writing Kit after reading about its editing and research/integration features.

I tried to summarize my findings in the same way as the previous piece for ease of comparison, and, of course, wrote the whole thing (as well as this week’s other posts) on it.

Storage

Writing Kit only supports Dropbox and, alas, limited to a single folder (that you set by typing in the path name when binding the app to it), and there is very limited file management (including a mystifying sorting feature that appears to use twice as many buttons as it should).

You do get a lot of exporting options (for both Markdown and the resulting HTML), which range from the usual clipboard export to (mind-bogginly) Facebook, including the usual “Open in…” option to send the current document to other apps for further editing.

Fonts and Layout

Besides choosing a font (Georgia is, thankfully, the default), you get to pick the editor’s look and feel from a somewhat overwhelming list of presets that includes the Solarized themes and more common looks (think “white on blue”).

Writing Kit sports yet another soft keyboard variant, with a sliding row of half-height keys for formatting, inserting (smart-ish) brackets and common symbols - but, alas, not an easy way to insert footnotes, something that I’ve yet to find.

There is no syntax highlighting of any sort, but the genius aspect of it is the way it handles the caret. It neatly circumvents one of the most common frustrations of editing text on iOS - that awkward moment when you need to move the cursor a single character sideways - by enabling you to simply tap on the side of the screen instead of fumbling around with the standard magnifying glass:

Tap with a single finger to move a character, tap with two to move a word’s worth to either side.

It even works when you have an active selection - tapping will dutifully extend the selection, character-wise or word-wise - and, to my joy, sliding your finger indents the text.

On the whole, these little things are fast, simple, and intuitive - as well as something that Apple themselves should probably consider as a standard gesture whenever feasible.

The caret movement side taps are so good that I found myself trying to use them in other apps, and I expect most iPad editors to steal this feature as soon as they get wind of it.

There is also a “smart return” feature (smart auto-indenting, in fact) that will make it trivial to insert consecutive items in lists, and a very handy document navigation menu that allows you to not just jump between headings and sections, but also to the location of every link referenced throughout the document1 - another thing I haven’t seen before, and that makes it trivially easy to check if you’ve defined references to all your links.

Word Count

If you really care about that, there is a word count display when you pull down the tasks menu (but no way to show a live count, which is just as well).

Preview

Previewing is fast and efficient (a single tap will get you in and out of it) but apparently not customizable. The default result is pleasing enough, but it’s annoying not to be able to tweak some minor aspects..

Sadly, MultiMarkdown footnotes almost work - the footnote links are placed correctly, but links in the footnotes themselves are not rendered properly - which is a very serious bug as far as I’m concerned, and completely spoils the experience for me.

It also bears noticing that previewing is completely separate from export and printing, which was a little baffling at first - there’s no way to jump to export or printing from the preview screen, which is less serious but somewhat surprising.

Images

Writing Kit also has a go at image handling by letting you insert images from your camera roll, but I’m not too fond of the way it handles things - the default way is to upload them to CloudApp, which I have no use for, and there appear to be no other options.

I’d rather it took a stab at managing images alongside the document itself, really.

Other Extras

The much-toted research features are pretty good. Even though I’m used to switching to and fro Safari and other apps when writing, it’s exceedingly nice to have a browser available a single tap away, let alone a browser that has built-in Readability and find-in-page features.

I was quite taken by the way it makes it trivially easy to browse to a page, pick a link (or a block quote) and insert it without undue fuss.

Even though I find the link/quote editing dialog somewhat disturbing to my workflow, I’m positive that a lot of people will love the ability to tweak the link before it’s actually inserted into the document.

But (and this is the bit I really didn’t like) it inserts the link inline. I’d rather it inserted a new reference at the end of the document, which to me is the whole point of using Markdown instead of Textile markup - a preference setting to do that instead of going through the link dialog altogether would be just the ticket.

Concerning markup handling, Writing Kit also sports an action to convert inline links to reference links (at the end of the document) that works well in theory but which, alas, has a bug that makes it useless to me: it does not handle relative links (i.e., those without an URL schema), ignoring them and leaving them inline2.

The built-in browser also has a standalone bookmark manager and a fair amount of integration with other online services (many of which don’t use), but it bears noticing that Instapaper support actually requires a subscription to be useful (i.e., you can’t refer to your saved items without it, even though you can add stuff you find to your queue), and that you can’t pull stuff in from Evernote (for instance)3.

Another issue I had with the research feature it is that I’d have loved to be able to define my own search prefixes to limit online searches - but since it apparently uses Duck Duck Go to fetch results, that might be tweak-able to my liking in ways I cannot fathom yet.

Conclusion

So, you might ask, is it better?

It depends. Putting aside for the moment the UI quirks and the disastrous way it handles footnotes, I found it more enjoyable and practical to use than Byword - even though I miss the ability to navigate to any folder on my Dropbox and Textastic’s syntax highlighting.

But the cursor control gestures are a stroke of genius, and I can see myself using it for that feature alone (and fully intend to badger other developers to try to improve upon them, if at all possible).

Throw in the “research” features (which, admittedly, need a little tweaking, namely the way it handles links) and it’s probably the best all-around app around right now4 for blogging in Markdown - provided you don’t use footnotes.

It won’t make me stop using Textastic, but then again I use that mostly for coding.

There are, I’m afraid, entirely too many text editors out there for me to keep track of, and I honestly don’t have the time (let alone the funds) to test every single one of them…


  1. Except, alas, for footnotes, which it apparently cannot fathom since they aren’t listed anywhere. I’ve yet to find a Markdown editor that actually groks footnotes in their entirety. ↩︎

  2. It also appears to have mangled my footnotes at least once and leaves quite large references instead of single-letter/single-digits ones, so I’d rate it as a work in progress for now. ↩︎

  3. I’d love to be able to do the latter, even though the former might be just as useful for most people. ↩︎

  4. In line with the ludicrous amount of time I’ve been spending using Android devices, I’ve also been trying to write stuff on them. So far I regret to report I’ve found nothing of much use besides Evernote (which is brilliant on any platform and where I keep all my notes, but not really the sort of editor I like for writing). ↩︎