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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review of some free text editors

This week, I'm going to break down some free text editors available for iPad, though some of these are also available on multiple platforms. I will note one trend I've seen, pretty much across the board: if the editor is free, it doesn't do Rich Text; if it does it uses a proprietary storage format–that is, if you want to edit with bold/italic/underline, use inline graphics, use bulleted lists, etc, you have to either pony up some cash or deal with files that are not saved in RTF format. While seemingly a small hassle, it can get distracting to not have basic word processing tools like bold and bullets. Same is true with file formats; it's a reasonably simple thing to copy-and-paste, until the document is more than a few pages long, and then Donovan's Corollary of Proportionality to Murphy's Constant kicks in. Murphy's Constant, for those unaware, is "Matter will be damaged in direct proportion to its value," and my corollary to that is "the chance of damage is proportional to the amount of matter"; this implies that the longer your copy-and-paste is, the more likely it is to import incorrectly, and the more likely it is to need fixing. In an ideal Author-using-an-iPad-to-write-with world, there'd be a simple, free-as-in-beer RTF editor that stored data in standard RTF files. Alas, that doesn't seem to be the case.

With that in mind, it is perfectly reasonable to use the free options that are available, along with one (and quite possibly more) of the free storage options noted earlier (also, see my followup), and write down those things that hit you while sitting in line at the Motor Vehicle or Emissions sites, or while waiting for your Venti Peppermint Mocha, or whatever. I do not, however, recommend using these for all of your whole writing project except as an experiment; there's so much effort involved in massaging and hand-holding their output into a powerhouse word processor that it's much less hassle to use that word processor for your book or project. A brief note: nearly everywhere you might want to publish, whether that is through traditional publishing houses, artisanal publishing such as is covered in the APE book, or any other way, you'll need to output your final manuscript as a Word file (.DOC or .DOCX). That's just the way it works, right now.

As a later blog entry, I am going to sit down and make an actual recommendation including recommended configurations and installs for a Cloud Age Author (I really should trademark that, huh?), as a guide to getting started and going forward. Also, I want to note that in most cases, I link directly to the App Store or website for whatever I link, but there are occasionally links to desktop software, and occasionally to books or other things. When I link those items, the links are generated from my Amazon Associates account, which means that if you click on them and purchase the item, I get a very small referral fee. It's not much, but in the interest of full disclosure, wanted to make sure you were aware of that.

The Editors

First, the free plaintext editors:

Simplenote is a plain-text editor with a few extra, bonus features thrown in for good measure. First, it has a system to tag any notes you make and keep them together, so you can organize your notes by project or even within a project by type (say, 'research' and 'plot outline'). It has a couple of options to keep your notes stored on Simplenote's servers, and there are some Mac OS applications capable of connecting to it and using that storage directly (in fact, if you use Scrivener to write with on your Mac desktop or MacBook, it has explicit support for Simplenote).

  • Free (as in beer); using it requires free registration.
    • When registered, free version will maintain 10 levels of revision (meaning, it will keep the last nine saved versions of a document, and also the current version)
  • Multiple Mac OS applications can connect to it (Scrivener, Notational Velocity, Justnotes)
  • Ability to tag and organize notes
  • Premium version ($19.99/year) allows connection to Dropbox for storage, as well as a 200% increase in revision storage (maintains 30 levels of revision in premium) and other perks.
  • Search function; search box is at the top of the note organizer area, and searches through the currently selected group of notes. To search all notes, select the "All Notes" group.

  • Plain text only (no bold, no italics, no bulleted lists, etc.)
  • While not hard to set up, does require a little bit of setup to use even the free version to its full potential
  • Requires registration to use.

PlainText is a plain-text editor with simple organizational capability; each note can have a title (kept separate from the text itself), and you can create folders to keep related notes together. Even in the free version, it permits linking to Dropbox. In addition, it will connect to a third-party iOS utility TextExpander(touch), which permits the creation of abbreviations to be expanded automatically into longer text (anyone who used a Palm device recalls these; also, several control panels for older versions of the Mac OS used to offer this functionality). With TextExpander (which is not free), you can create boilerplate text and insert it with a short abbreviation. 

  • Free, ad-supported (ad is small banner along bottom edge of screen, and not terribly intrusive, though I found it distracting everytime it switched; someone with less raging ADD could probably ignore it). Upgrading to non-ad version is $1.99 and can be done in-app.
  • Very simple editor
  • Dropbox integration built-in to free version, can be used without Dropbox.
  • Search through all documents

  • As with all apps in this category, plain text only.
  • Exploiting some functionality requires purchasing third-party tool

DraftPad is, plain and simple, an app for taking notes. When you open the app, you get a blank page, with two icons: upper left, a "do something" button (apparently called "Assist" by DraftPad), and upper right, a "done" button. "Assist" permits you to use the contents of the current note to do a variety of things, including: create a new email or SMS message with the current note, search google, youtube, google maps, the iOS 6 maps app, tweet, make facebook status, and on and on. There are a lot of options in this list, and the capability to create more, as well as a connection to a Library of additional assists that are not pre-installed. The app only supports one note; this note can (theoretically) be arbitrarily large, but only one note exists at a time. To create a "new" document, you "do something" (through "Assist") with the current note, then clear it (select all/delete or swipe Left or Right, and a "Clear" button appears). As such, it's less useful as a tool for writing a book or whatever, but is quite useful as a simple tool for jotting down information, notes on research, or even just those "A-HA!" moments, where you absolutely need to jot something down and remind yourself later. For those, it is eminently useful, made more so with the "Assist" feature.

Say you've just had an epiphany about how your secondary protagonist must die in your action novel. You whip out your iPad, open DraftPad, type "James Secondary gets run off the road by the FBI agent/KGB mole, dies in a fiery vehicle crash against the guard rail" and then tell DraftPad to "Email" this note to your agent. Easy-peasy.

  • Word/Character/Line count: tap title bar to cycle through word count, character count, and line count.
  • Uses iCloud to sync to any other iOS device using DraftPad
  • Supports TextExpander
  • Wide range of options to deal with current note, with many more able to be installed, and the capability to define even more.
  • Almost all of the screen is typing area. Small title bar at top with two buttons. Uncluttered and non-distracting, allowing the user to focus on the writing and nothing else.

  • Only one document.
  • Again, plain text only.

Second, the editors which use proprietary storage:

It has an elephant for a logo, and is kind of an elephant in the field, too. That is for a very good reason: Evernote does an outstanding job of collecting whatever kind of information you need to store, and saving it so you can retrieve it wherever you are, so it "remembers everything." Evernote is a free download (e-mail registration required), and offers 60 MB monthly uploads for free ($45/year upgrade, or $5/month, to get priority support, 1GB monthly uploads, and other perks). Since Evernote is extensively covered in many places, I won't go into too much detail today, but will cover a few basics.
Evernote uses the note as a loose term to describe any individual entry; it can be text (rich or plain), video, audio, what have you; notes can be organized into notebooks, and these notebooks are synced across devices.

  • Saves everything: rich text, hypertext, images, video, audio (voice recording), whatever.
  • Available for just about any device on any OS; Android, iOS, Mac OS, Windows, Blackberry, and as a plug in for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari browsers. Also works on other operating systems.
  • Extensive coverage on the internet, how-to videos for using Evernote with just about any kind of project or business venture.

  • Proprietary storage format; exports only to HTML or this proprietary format
  • Text uploads are no big deal, but uploading notes with image and video will rapidly hit the 60 MB upload limit/month.

I covered the Google Drive storage in an earlier blog, so I won't go into a lot of detail now. I will note that if you store your files in Google Drive in Google Docs format, you get two benefits: First, they are not counted against any storage limits; second, they can be directly edited as RTF (for document files), and the editor for the iPad is built into the Google Drive app.

  • When storing documents as Google Docs format, they don't count against limits, and the built-in editor for those documents does Rich Text.
  • Available on just about all devices, and can be accessed by most web browsers.

  • Proprietary file format; exporting/importing isn't really that hard but every import or export increases the chances of an error (see Donovan's Corollary of Proportionality above)
  • Must have a Google gmail account, or use Google's Google Apps.


Notes is the built-in note-taking app for iOS devices, and as such has some pretty good integration with the other iOS apps (iCal, Contacts, etc.). It does not do rich text, only plaintext, but will automatically highlight things it thinks are phone numbers, dates, times, and etc., in an effort to make it easy to link to contacts or calendar entries. It syncs through iCloud (or iTunes, if you choose that option).

  • Built-in and always available (like all of the built-in apps, can't be deleted, at least not easily)
  • When synced through iCloud, notes are available wherever the user can connect to the Cloud

  • Plain text only
  • Proprietary storage

No App Store link (built into iOS)

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