I really like writing in plaintext. Whenever I write in Word, I am always stopping to fix formatting problems or tweak the styles. With plaintext, there are no styles or formatting. It helps me to stay focused.

All I need is a little Markdown (or HTML) to designate emphasis, headings, lists, and blockquotes, and I can plow through blog posts and memorandum drafts.

Text files are also my favorite answer to the problem of compatibility. If you have ever tried to create or edit a Word document on an iPad, you have probably experienced small formatting problems. Since plaintext files don’t have formatting, this is not a problem.

For these and other reasons, plaintext has been growing in popularity with non-programmers in recent years. This seems to be especially true among Apple users, for some reason. The App Store is overflowing with text editors, while last time I checked, there were virtually none in the Google Play Store, and only a few options for Windows users.

I have tried a lot of text editors, and I like a lot of them, but Byword, Nebulous Notes, and Drafts have consistently been my favorites. Here is why.

Byword

Byword-icon

Byword is the text editor I use for writing, and therefore the text editor I use most. I have it set up to connect to the Writing folder in my Dropbox account, where I keep all the blog posts, books, and other things I am working on.

What I like best about Byword is its the way it dims Markdown elements to make it easier to focus on the text, not the markup. Headings show up as bolded, blockquotes show up as indented, and italicized words show up in italics. (This is purely visual; nothing is changed in the contents of the text file.)

You can sync files to Byword via iCloud or a Dropbox subfolder. The upside to this is that Byword is very efficient at keeping your files in sync, and you don’t have to spend time managing files (looking for them, sorting them, moving them).

The downside to this is that you have to keep all the files you want to edit in Byword in the same folder. (You could probably sync up your entire Dropbox, but you might run out of space on your iPhone or iPad.) So unless you want to keep all your text files in the same folder, you will need something besides Byword. If you want to be able to edit text files all over your Dropbox, get Nebulous Notes.

Nebulous Notes

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While Byword only syncs up one folder, Nebulous Notes can open any text file in your Dropbox. You will spend more time managing files, but you can also get to all of them. Instead of syncing the contents of an entire folder, like Byword, Nebulous Notes only syncs the files you work on in the app. That means you can have text files from all over your Dropbox synced up to your phone.

Nebulous Notes is a really good text editor, too, with a good variety of fonts, colors, and a few themes you can modify. If you want a pink background and yellow text set in Marker Felt, you can have it. As well as many combinations that are easier on the eyes.

It is a great text editor that I use for working on things like taking notes or drafting briefs. Still, there is one other text editor that has some pretty compelling features.

Drafts

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Unlike Byword and Nebulous notes, Drafts is a one-way app that lets you send your drafts to nearly everything else. You can draft your tweets or Facebook updates, but you can do so much more. In fact, there is a pretty huge action directory full of useful shortcuts.

For example, I like to make a note whenever I weigh myself. With Drafts, I just type my weight and any notes/excuses I want to add (“Wearing steel-toed boots.”), and select “Prepend to weight.txt,” an action I set up that adds a timestamp and and my weight to the beginning of a text file, weight.txt, in Dropbox. I also have actions set up for my workout and blood pressure logs. Another action creates a new text file in the Notes folder in my Dropbox, naming it with a timestamp and the first line of the draft.

Of course, if I want to edit any of those files, I use Nebulous Notes, because Drafts does not have a way to import files from Dropbox. It’s just for pushing your drafts out to other apps, services, etc.

Just One, or All Three?

If you only want to have one text editor on your iPhone or iPad, get Nebulous Notes. It is definitely the most-versatile text editor.
But if you are a writer, Byword is an excellent text editor to use with your writing folder. And Drafts is great at capturing ideas, quick rough drafts, and online comments, and pushing them out to all the apps and services you already use. All three text editors have their strengths, and you might want to have all of them on your iDevice.

Featured image: “Vintage typewriter isolated” from Shutterstock.

3 Comments

  1. James Miller says:

    Have you considered using Emacs or Vim? Almost all of my complex documents start in Emacs using “org-mode”. You should check it out.

    And when it’s done, a few keystrokes exports the document to Libre Office format (or pdf, or markdown, or latex, or ascii etc..). It’s a piece of cake to then get it into Word or Wordperfect or whatever your document’s final form needs to be.

    The freedom to never need to touch the mouse while drafting has made me so much more productive for complex documents. And the find and replace, rectangle edits, ease of numbering and bullets, section headings etc. all just *work*.

    For the truly nerdy, you can use a version control system like Mercurial or Git to then be able to see line-by-line changes between any versions of your document.

  2. James Miller says:

    Oops. Just realized it was for iDevices. My apologies.

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