Why I switched to Byword from WriteRoom for my Mac text editing

WriteRoom, which I started using in 2007, must be one of the applications which I've used most consistently, and which—I've written about it several times—have given me the most satisfaction, over the past four years. The simplicity of its soothing, green-on-black screen has allowed me to focus on my writing without any distractions. This fidelity was not a choice lightly made: writing requires far more concentration than the more passive activities in which one is otherwise engaged on a computer, and I've found the quality of my output to be directly correlated to that of hardware and of the software used to produce it—elegantly-minimalist WriteRoom, to me, was the worthy corollary of the beautifully-designed Apple computers I've been using for the past eight years. Yet I'm drafting this blog post—the first time I've done this since I adopted WriteRoom—on another text editor for the Mac, Byword.

Text editors, by their very nature, are not the sort of applications that require frequent updates: what made WriteRoom attractive was its minimalism—something which, by definition, doesn't benefit from additions.

Nevertheless, I had actually been looking for alternatives to WriteRoom for some time.

One thing in particular had started irritating me about WriteRoom: I used it mainly to draft blog posts, which I wrote using Markdown, the lightweight markup language originally created by John Gruber and Aaron Schwartz allowing people to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid HTML. But I didn't publish my articles using WriteRoom, preferring to use MarsEdit, a simple, effective and carefully-maintained dedicated blogging application. Over the last year or so, I've been using a simplified blogging workflow where I basically (1) drafted the post in WriteRoom, using Markdown, (2) pasted the resulting code into MarsEdit, (3) converted the Markdown to HTML using my own custom script, and finally (4) added a title, summary, tags and category and sent the article to my WordPress blog.

In the past couple of years, however, use of Markdown has boomed, effectively becoming a mainstream way to blog. Both Posterous and Tumblr have for some time supported it out of the box, and it's relatively easy to achieve the same result in WordPress using Michel Fortin's excellent and well-maintained plugin [i]. This has increasingly fuelled demand for minimalist text editors that could also handle Markdown natively, by (1) allowing one to preview Markdown text and (2) handle conversion to html if desired. Syncing my draft texts with my other devices is easily achieved by saving them in a folders that's synced to my Dropbox account.

Markdown-enabled text editors for iOS have blossomed in the last year or so: the best so far, in my opinion, is Nebulous Notes, a Dropbox and TextExpander-enabled universal app that mimicks WriteRoom's desktop minimalist interface. Ever since I got a Macbook Air when it launched last autumn, I've actually stopped using my other devices for editing blog posts and texts, since I nearly always have my computer to hand, but it's nice to know those alternatives are available.

Nebulous Notes screen
The Nebulous Notes screen on my iPhone with or without keboard enabled: This comes about as close as one can get to the WriteRoom experience that Hog Bay Software has so far never delivered. It's useful for editing draft blog posts when I'm on the move without my Macbook Air to hand—which doesn't happen often.

Unfortunately, WriteRoom's developers have been slow to pick up on this trend. Effectively, the application has only received minor updates in the past five years, and an iPad version, announced a year-and-a-half ago, has yet to see the light of day. WriteRoom for iPhone had always been a substandard version of the desktop app [ii] Ironically, while there has been a spate of good-to-excellent iOS minimalist text editors—my current favourite being Nebulous Notes, which I will try to review separately—until recently not a single good desktop alternative to WriteRoom had emerged. I was basically looking for an application that met the following criteria:

(a) WriteRoom features that I wanted to keep:
  • minimalist interface;

  • ability to toggle between full-screen and window interfaces via a keyboard shortcut (WriteRoom can switch between these using the Esc key);

  • ability to customise the font as well as the screen and text colours (One reason I was always drawn to WriteRoom was because of its soothing, green-on-black interface).

(b) features missing in WriteRoom I wanted to have:
  • Markdown preview;

  • in-app Markdown-to-html conversion;

  • choice of font and of background and text colour.

Byword has added all these features to those already available on WriteRoom,and nothing else: the result is a lightweight text editing application that I can use to draft posts in full-screen mode. Any other applications which I may need to access—usually Safari in order to find a link—are just one easily-memorised keyboard shortcut (⌘↵) away.

Another keyboard shortcut (⌥⌘P) will take you straight to Markdown Preview mode:

Byword screen
Byword in Markdown preview mode: you can check whether your links have been properly formatted and html conversion (or saving as an html file if preferred) are just a mouseclick or keyboard shortcut (⌥⌘E) away.

Byword's Markdown Preview Mode will even enable you to visualise a preview of all your draft text, including any images before you convert to html, which I find is a killer feature:

Images in Byword
Images appear properly in Byword Preview mode

After a few days of using it, there's no doubt that Byword is a viable, modern alternative to WriteRoom—it does everything the latter does and more—and I've switched to it for the time being for all my desktop text editing.

Byword screen
The Byword screen (seen here in window mode, but full screen mode has exactly the same appearance, except it fills the whole screen) has the same soothing appearance as WriteRoom. The user can choose between either a light or a dark background, both subtly shaded so as not be be aggressive in any way. the font can also be customised as desired.

There are still a few minor bugs (for instance, the app doesn't appear to be deleting any of the autosaved drafts it creates on my hard drive, meaning I have to manually delete quite a large number of these when I've finished writing—but this king of thing will be easily corrected). i'd definitely recommend Byword over WriteRoom to anyone who needs a Dropbox-enabled text editor for the Mac.

  1. Something I've chosen not to do, as I prefer to store my blog posts in html
  2. A rather good iOS alternative, PlainText, was, however, made available by Hog Bay Software as a universal app.