August 25, 2020

Web writing on your iPad with Byword.

Writing specifically for the web is now an old discipline. Most web writers writer in Markdown, an HTML-tag shorthand that’s integrated into most content management systems. This article shows you how to use Byword, an iOS, iPadOS and Mac OS text editor that was built for writing in Markdown, with a preview and instant publishing to most blogs and content management systems, like WordPress and Medium.

Contrary to what the so-called experts may say, blogging is not dead. Far from it. Blogging grew up to became web news writing and, more than ever, is a vital piece of the content ecosystem. The strength is that web articles can embed all the other formats. You can embed a tweet in a post, but you can’t put a full post in a tweet. You can embed a video, but it’s impractical to try to make a post into a video. Blogging killed the analog newspaper and magazine, while laying the foundation for online reporting.

Markdown is the new black. Ink.

Over the past 16 years, adoption of Markdown has been massive, since it makes web writing possible without knowing code and without having to overly think and apply formatting (like with Word). How big is it? Reddit and GitHub both use Markdown. Markdown has proven itself in the note-taking space too with popular apps like Ulysses, Bear and Agenda. (These are hybrids that use Markdown for formatting, but automatically render tags to look more like Word.) There are over 100 Markdown editors in the App Store, so I’m sure you’ll find one that fits your workflow.

Why the popularity of Markdown? Many of those who write or take copious notes have found Markdown such a stress-relieving and productive change from the formatting nightmares of word processing: You just type. No highlighting a word and choosing italic from a menu. No complex keypresses to remember like Control-I to start an emphasized word and then another Control-I to end it. And unlike raw HTML, no more typing <em> and then </em>. You just type a simple asterisk before and after a word and it’s italicized. (If you like WYSIWYG formatting Byword does have the basic keypresses and menu-bar formatting for Markdown available. Most Markdown writers just find it easier to not have to stop typing to format.)

Markdown has many converts looking for an easier way to do both HTML and rich-text formatting. Creator John Gruber has a Markdown Syntax Page that shows the basics. His page is written in Markdown and if you add .text to the URL, you can see how he formatted the page.

Byword remains the most functional app for writing and editing Markdown.

Compared to the Ulysses, Bear and Agenda hybrids, Byword is a spartan text editor, but highly functional and targeted at web publishing. Byword’s greatest strength is its syntax highlighting that makes it easy to read what you’ve written. Shorthand characters like # and * get grayed out, but the text associated with them (like headers and emphasized text) gets bolded or italicized. At the same time, link-and-image-tag shorthand is completely visible, making editing complex tags much easier. Byword both writes and reads exceptionally well, minimizing the need for ever calling up a preview (which you simply do by swiping left). It gives you the productivity that Markdown was intended for. Features include:

  • Stable syncing across iPad, iPhone and Mac
  • On-screen word and character count
  • Dark Mode
  • Handling of multiple content storage platforms at the same time
  • Search from Spotlight
  • Multitasking
  • Shortcuts to create and open recent documents by holding the icon on home screen
  • TextExpander integration

A simplistic app. And proud of it.

Unlike Bear, Ulysses and Agenda, Byword doesn’t have an aggressive development roadmap. But then, it doesn’t really need to develop quickly, since Markdown hasn’t changed since 2004. The Metaclassy dev team in Coimbra, Portugal (vao Briosa) focuses on just this one product and adds core function and OS compatibility, not bells and whistles that often just get in the way of writing and editing. Byword adds features that Markdown users value most, like publishing to all the major blogging platforms and recognizing the syntax of various flavors of Markdown, like the recent addition of support for opening R Markdown docs (that incorporate data charts written in plain text).

Publishing with a tap.

Byword can publish directly to content management systems with APIs like WordPress, Medium, Tumblr. Blogger and Evernote. (Currently Squarespace is not supported for direct publishing, but Byword Markdown can be pasted into the Squarespace editor.) HTML docs can be created directly in Byword for uploading anywhere on the web. Byword can also send HTML-formatted emails or create PDFs.

How I blog with

I’ll admit it: This blog is a travesty. Over the years I’ve dabbled in blogs on various topics: Lytro cameras, food, self-sustaining urban lifetsyle, Automator for Mac, iOS photography, short stories, etc. But I’ve had to face the fact that I’ll never be able to focus on any one subject long enough to make a blog about it a success. So my blog is a real hodgepodge. Blogs were originally intended to be a diary revealed to the public and in a sense, that’s exaclty what mine is. Again. Like Coca-Cola, I’m back to the original formula and find that works best for unbounded creativity.

Byword and the Blot workflow.

I blog with a well-kept secret platform (shh!) called Blot. You drop Markdown-formatted text documents from Byword into a Dropbox folder and Blot instantly turns them into blog posts or web pages. Since Byword supports both Dropbox and iCloud, my drafts live in iCloud. When a post is ready for publishing, Byword lets me easily move it to Dropbox and in a few seconds it’s live. The Blot folder structure in Dropbox also appears in Byword so I can make quick changes to live posts on my iPhone from anywhere. Other Markdown apps I’ve tried on iPad don’t make the process this simple.

Still a bargain.

Pricewise, Byword is still the best value in Markdown. I bought the iOS app for $6 and the Mac app for $11 years ago and haven’t had to pay for updates. By contrast, Ulysses is $40 annually, Bear is $15 annually and Agenda offers annual premium feature upgrades for $25.

My take.

Unless you’re writing legal documents that require tracking changes, Word seems to have become more of a liability than a writing app. (Ask anyone who’s tried to render HTML with Word. The garbage characters can really screw with browsers and may not render at all.) We’re now in the age of Markdown and apps like Byword have been instrumental in bringing about this new age.

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