There are dozens of great iOS apps for writers, and hundreds of articles online which list them all out with short blurbs. Instead of doing a quick punch-up on every writing-focused app on the App Store, I’d like to do a deeper dive on the apps that I actually use every day to write short stories, beat my head against my novel, and generate fine blog posts such as this one. My point here is that this list will not be exhaustive, but it should be a great starting point.
My primary writing device is a 2017 10.5” iPad Pro. I use the Smart Keyboard on the go and a mechanical keyboard at home, as well as the Apple Pencil from time to time for sketching and marking up documents.
While I also use several other devices, including both Macs and PCs, I’ve found that the iPad (Pro or not, as long as you’ve got an external keyboard) is the perfect compromise between power and form factor, being just small enough that it feels incidental to carry it and just powerful enough that I never become frustrated at it struggling to do something.
Plus, there is something about the sandboxed nature of iOS apps that feels very conducive to productivity, forcing me to focus on the one (or two) apps open on the screen instead of application-hopping, as I often do on my desktop computers.
If you’re interested, I’ll be writing a longer post about my iPad writing workflow in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
Let’s jump into it. These are the best iOS apps for writers that I have come across. All apps are free unless otherwise specified.
This is the big one.
Ulysses is the best tool for composing original prose available anywhere, for any platform. The interface is deeply customizable, gorgeous, and intuitive. It can get as deep as you want it to, allowing for power users to quickly perform almost any in-app action with a series of hotkeys while refusing the alienate newer users with a bloated interface.
Ulysses is complex, but never complicated.
Those of us that fetishize typefaces and on-screen text appearance will feel immediately at home in the Ulysses Style Exchange, a resource where similarly-persnickety people come together to share their own downloadable Ulysses configurations. The text you write can take on any flavor you wish to ascribe to it, be it a clean, minimal style, a colorful New Wave-inspired editor, or a stright-up 80s console look. Of course, you can always just tweak everything to your preferences. Perhaps you, like me, prefer the IBM Plex monospaced font? The sky is the limit, but you don’t have to change anything. The default setup is crisp and clean.
Publishing is where Ulysses really shines, from a functional perspective. While you can change the appearance of your text as it appears on-screen as you type it, that doesn’t actually change the font of the output. Instead, documents are formatted using Markdown, allowing you to decide at the time of publication just how you want them to look to readers. Ulysses has powerful publication tools, allowing for extensible formatting in any of the common document or ebook types, and supports pushing directly to WordPress or Medium, if you are a blogger.
Ulysses is uniquely suited to writing long, multi-chapter works. Instead of a traditional filesystem, where your documents are saved and sorted separate from each other, Ulysses instead has uses what it calls “pages.” A page can be an independent document (for example, a letter or poem) or just one section of a longer work. Pages can be dragged around and reordered, independently edited, or easily moved to the side. When it comes time to publish your work, multiple pages are stiched together to form one cohesive piece. This makes editing far simpler and more intuitive than the old cut-and-paste method.
There are other cool features under the hood, including:
- Daily writing goals, allowing you to visualize just how much progress you’re actually making on a project
- Inline image embedding, removing a lot of the formatting that usually has to happen on a blog editor
- Keyword tagging, enabling easy search and categorization
- Marginalia, allowing a writer to keep notes and images for a text in a sidebar for later reference
- Code display function, if you are writing about programming
- Markdown support
- Lots of keyboard shortcuts, if you’re the kind of person who wants to shave 5 seconds off a multi-hour project
- Dark mode, thank god
Of course, Ulysses is also available for iOS and Mac OS, so I can continue from where I left off no matter where I am. I began this paragraph in the office and am now typing it from my phone.
I’ll be real: Ulysses isn’t cheap. At $39.99/year or $4.99/month (after a one-month free trial) it is the most expensive app that I subscribe to. That’s a lot of money to spend on a text editor, so it has to be worth it. In my case, it is. Ulysses removes so many of the headaches of composing prose, syncing it across devices, publishing beautiful documents, and just being available when I need it that I’m willing to pay the premium. If you aren’t willing to pay that price, I completely understand, and there are cheap or free options available that do almost the same thing.
Ulysses is my workshop. It’s where writing goes to get finished.
But where does writing start?
From a powerhouse of a pricy app to the most humble of stock app inclusions, we move now to the classic Notes.app.
Notes is included on every Apple device, and for a long time, was seen as the height of late-2000s skeumorphism. Over the last few years, however, continuous updates have pushed Notes from being a simple .txt note application to a constant and valuable writing workbench.
If Ulysses is where work goes to get finished, Notes is where ideas go to take form. The ease of typing out a quick idea for a scene, premise for a short story, snippet of dialogue overhead at the office, or otherwise stray thought about the human condition makes Notes the most frequently-opened app on all my devices. My whole life lives in Notes, creative or otherwise.
I keep a running list of premises for stories called “Idea Chest,” which began on Evernote in 2008 and has lived in Notes for the last several years. Virtually every story or article that I have written in that time has started its life as a bullet point in Idea Chest, graduated to its own note or set of notes, and finally moved to an open document in a word processor.
If you are a visual thinker, Notes allows for handwriting with the Apple Pencil, which still feels like magic (hint: enable the lined or dot grid page view in Settings). This is helpful for drawing out flowcharts and world-building sketches, if you’re into that, or just handwriting notes like you would in a notebook.
Notes is my constant companion, my writer’s pocketbook.
Although I treat Notes as my notebook, Paper by FiftyThree is my preferred app when I want to actually hand write or draw things. Paper is a relatively simple tool, not nearly as feature-rich as something like Procreate or Concepts, but that simplicity is what makes it so usable.
When I want to draw a diagram of a narrative arc (similar to Vonnegut’s shapes of stories) or indulge my love of handwriting, Paper is the best place to do so. It’s even laid out using the idioms of notebooks, which makes it perfect for compartmentalizing different kinds of work.
Plus, sometimes I like to draw. I have a paper notebook dedicated to sketches and doodles, which aid in creative thinking. When I’m struggling to get a story going, I’ve found that trying to draw out something from the story, be it a location, character, or just some abstract “feeling” of a story, is a great way to start pushing the boulder downhill.
I don’t currently pay for Paper, as I only sketch on my iPad, but for many people, their affordable subscription could be a major asset.
We’re getting further and further away from the obvious.
Trello is a task management tool popular with corporate teams. It’s based on Kanban, a Japanese productivity method in which tasks and projects are written on cards and moved across various columns to measure levels of completion. Traditionally, this happened on a large signboard in an office, but Trello takes the same concepts and puts them on a digital canvas.
Kanban is a compelling task management tool, but not what I use Trello for, at least with storytelling.
Years ago, I began outlining novels by writing scenes on index cards. This was beneficial because I could reorder them as needed and attach them to my wall with tape. This method allowed for a very clear visual metaphor for how a story was shaping up. I knew easily:
- where my narrative gaps where
- if any section of the story was too heavily weighed
- if the perspective of any character was unintentionally over-represented
- if character arcs occurred too quickly or slowly
- how many chapters I actually had planned, as opposed to how many I had been telling myself “were basically already done”
Trello allows for this same methodology.
Create a card for each of the scenes you have written or have planned, and make columns for different acts, locations, or characters as you see fit. Personally, I go for a chronological view, with five or more columns.
Trello, of course, could be used as intended, as a way of tracking the completeness of tasks and projects. However, I use a different tool for that.
Things is the most pleasant and full-featured task management tool I’ve come across. Cultured Code, the company behind Things, has been making and writing about intentionally minimal design since the early days of iOS, and that expertise shows in their most recent offerings.
Collecting and organizing tasks should be boring, but it isn’t. Is that weird?
Things elevates my to-do list into an entire productivity system. It forces me to really think out what I need to do, how my tasks are divided up into different projects, and gives me an honest assessment of how far along I am on said projects.
Using Things, you can assign tasks to different “Areas” (i.e., Work, Home, School) and within those areas you can create projects, which are completable units of production. Specific works, such as novels or articles, could be tracked this way, with a visual indicator displaying how close you are to accomplishing your goal.
Things isn’t free. The iPad app costs $19.99 for iPad, $9.99 for iPhone and a whopping $49.99 for Mac. If this is too much, there are many, many to-do apps that are cheaper or free, and all of them are capable of doing similar things. I am willing to pay for Things due to the interface and because I rely heavily on the project view. However, most people won’t necessarily need this functionality. Check out Wunderlist, Todoist, or even the stock Reminders app before committing to the steep price of Things.
This is an obscure one. Brainsparker is a charming little app that just generates ideas for you. Or, at least, it sparks a fire under your creative engines.
At its core, Brainsparker is a deck of hundreds of digital cards, each inscribed with an idea, a jumping-off point. The cards are shuffled and presented to you at random. Depending on which decks you have enabled, you could get a prompt for a short story, a question about character development, a single cryptic word, or a Mad Libs-style title of a blog post (“7 Innovative Uses for XYZ”).
Brainsparker is an excellent tool for shaking off the cobwebs after a period of creative downtime, or for when you feel like working on a story or article, but don’t have any inspiring starting points already loaded in the chamber. I often swipe through 5–10 cards before freewriting on a new story, just to see if any interesting associations crop up.
Brainsparker can be extremely effective if used in the right frame of mind. It’s not expensive at all. The stock pack contains only a few cards, but you can but individual packs for $0.99, or do what I did and pay $2.99 for complete access.
I’m going to be honest here: I’m always torn on Evernote these days.
In a lot of ways, Evernote is an old friend. I began using the program ten years ago, when I was just beginning to really appreciate the utility of digital note taking tools. My earliest notes were a mixed bag of articles clipped from the internet and tentative, poorly-formed notes meant to grow as I outlined fantasy novels and kept track of world-building. Evernote was my primary application for taking class notes in university, and ultimately I amassed thousands of mostly plain text notes sorted into dozens of “notebooks.”
Last year, I made the switch to Apple Notes, as described above, when Evernote announced that they were ending support for anything more than two devices on their free tier of service. I use at least three (sometimes, up to five) devices every day. After the third time in a day that I tried to open Evernote on the wrong, unattached device, I decide to move away from the program.
Today, a year into the move, Apple Notes outperforms Evernote for my mostly text-based use case pretty handily, but there is one tool that forces me to keep Evernote on my MacBook Pro and my iPad (with my phone being left out of the mix). That tool is the Evernote Web Clipper, an official browser extension (available for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari) which allows you to save full copies of web pages to Evernote.
The Web Clipper, as of time of writing (July 2018), is still far superior to any form of direct webpage clipping tool available for Apple Notes. Yes, you can copy and paste text and images into Apple Notes, and it works moderately well, but formatting is an issue and you will end up spending more time curating a note than feels appropriate. With the web clipper, on the other hand, I just click on the applet, select which notebook to save to, and viola: That article is now available in my Evernote account forever.
This is immensely valuable for saving notes of research on the fly. If I’m writing an article or a story which requires some points of reference or background knowledge, I’ll do a cursory Google search, clip the relevant Wikipedia, news, and/or blog articles to that project’s notebook, and go through my research materials later at my leisure. The advantage of clipping instead of bookmarking is simply that links change, text disappears, and websites go under. If you save everything you need to Evernote, you don’t have to worry about any of this.
Evernote is a tool that values quantity; the more content you have in Evernote, the more valuable the tool becomes.
I don’t do much actual work in Evernote anymore; all my brainstorming and actual note-taking happens in Apple Notes. But as a filing cabinet, Evernote cannot be beat. However, I’m always on the lookout for a true web clipper for Apple Notes. If some enterprising plugin dev is able to build one, Evernote will be in a world of trouble.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Evernote is a weak platform. If I weren’t on Apple products, I probably would just suck it up and pay for the subscription.
Journaling is one of my great passions. I go back and forth between writing in a physical journal and a digital one, and Day One is my digital journaling tool of choice.
I have hundreds of entries spread across several journals, including:
- “Journal,” which is what it sounds like. I post notes and thoughts about my day, pictures of the places I go, nightly mental check-ins, and whatever else I happen to notice and want to keep for the future.
- “Morning Pages,” which is where I write approximately 750 words each morning as a way of decluttering my mind and setting the creative gears in motion. This is based on a technique described by Julia Cameron.
- “Gratitude,” a weekly gratitude journal where I write a paragraph each for five things that I have been thankful for that week. This is a way of keeping me honest with myself about how good I have it and pushing back against depression and defeatist thinking. I recommend it.
- “Dream Journal,” where I write down what dreams I remember as soon as I wake up. If you do this long enough, it’s easier to start lucid dreaming, which is always a trip.
Day One is more than just text. What justifies the price ($35.99/year) is the fact that it keeps track of your location, your activity levels, the weather, what music you are listening to, and what other entries occurred nearby, and allows you to imbed images in a way that feels almost like a scrapbook, if you want it to.
My entries during my travels are some of my most treasured digital possessions.
From the outset, I want to point out that I don’t generally publish articles directly from the WordPress app. Ulysses is capable of pushing neatly-formatted articles directly to WordPress and Medium, so I just use that.
However, I still use the WordPress app every day to tweak posts, fix broken links, check comments and page statistics, make sure that plugins are working properly, and follow other blogs that I like.
The internet runs on WordPress. Admittedly, most of the heavy lifting takes place on the desktop, working in the administration panel, but the app is more powerful than it appears at first glance. Plus, if you’re a one-app-for-everything kind of person, the post editor is completely serviceable and actually encourages you to keep best practices with posting, such as actually specifying your headings and subheadings.
The reader function of WordPress is probably where I spend most of my time in the app. I follow a lot of blogs that I’ve found over time, and in lieu of an RSS reader (pour one out for Google Reader, y’all) I follow many directly on the platform.
Much as with WordPress, I don’t generally type directly into the Medium app, instead preferring Ulysses (although the Medium interface is minimal and gorgeous), but Medium is where much of the really high-quality writing on the internet lives these days.
Founded by the same mind that brought Twitter into the world, Medium is designed to solve the exact problems Twitter can be argued to have created: low-quality content and too much of it, encouraging people to gradually shorten their attention span to 140 (280 now, I guess) characters.
Medium is exactly the opposite of this: a community that ostensibly rewards thought-provoking or helpful long form content. I have to applaud that, no matter how unnecessary I feel the five-free-article limit per month is.
Reading in your niche on Medium is a great way to get a feel for what is getting attention right now. As writers, we’re often too likely to just put our heads down and ignore the world moving and chattering around us. Unfortunately, that chatter is pretty valuable, and that conversation you’re trying to ignore might be exactly what you need to hear. Or read.
If Twitter is the nervous system of the internet, Medium is the pulse.
Yes, I use Ulysses for most of my writing. That doesn’t mean that everyone else does, too.
While Ulysses does allow for text importing, in general, it makes more sense to send documents to other people in formats they already understand. I often work as an editor on other writers’ work. Most of these people use Microsoft Word, or in rarer cases, Pages.
In either circumstance, Pages comes through like a champ. I can track my changes, do any formatting necessary, and return the document without a hassle.
It’s a word processor. A really good word processor native to iOS. I don’t need to use it every day, but I’m always thankful to have it when someone shoots me an .rtf file of their life’s work, and you can’t beat the price.
Ah, yes, Google Docs. That app that I should love, but since I live in China, it’s sort of a pain to use. All Google services are behind the Great Firewall. Yes, I have a VPN (ExpressVPN), but it’s like a single-stroke motorbike. You never really know if it’s going to work all that well.
That said, when the VPN is humming along without a hitch, Google Docs is still the best way to write collaboratively. Watching a document become progressively filled with content as you and a partner work on designated sections still feels like magic in 2018.
And I’ll admit it: The interface is nice. If you’re working with dozens of different documents, it’s easy to sort and arrange them according to your tastes. Compared with the native file management tools on the iPad, Google Drive is an improvement.
If you use multiple devices (particularly, across multiple operating systems), Google Docs is almost certainly the easiest and most consistent cross-platform word processing tool. While I’m pretty firmly entrenched in the Apple ecosystem now, this wasn’t the case until very recently. Until a few months ago, Google Docs was the only platform that ran equally smoothly on my office PC, personal iPhone, Linux laptop, and Android tablet.
Plus, it’s free. If Ulysses is too sweet for your blood, Google Docs seems like a perfectly good replacement, as long as you don’t mind the enterprise-y interface.
iOS as a platform is extremely well-suited to longform, focused writing and creative organization, with the iPad Pro being a near-perfect tool for content creation. With more and more authors taking the plunge and moving away from traditional desktop publishing, we can expect even better iOS apps for writers in the coming years.
As mentioned, this list is not comprehensive. There are many great iOS apps for writers that have gone unmentioned here. Did I leave out your favorite? Let me know!