There are very few certainties in life: death, taxes, and that, at some point, you’ll need to use a computer to write something. Whether you work in an office, run your own business, or volunteer in the Congo, there’s pretty much no escaping it.
Since you’re going to have to use your Mac to write, you might as well use the right app for it. Using the wrong tools is never fun.
In this article, we look at some of the best writing app options available on macOS. Not all these apps will be right for you, but one of them probably will.
What Makes a Good Word Processor for Mac?
Word processors and other writing apps have been around for decades now. There are very few bad ones left! Most writing apps will work for most things, but they sometimes won’t be very good at it. Microsoft Word is a really powerful word processor, but it’s overkill if you’re using it to write a blogpost.
This means that the number one thing that makes a good writing app is how well it fits your needs. I write a 1000 word article every day of the week; I also work on longer more heavily researched projects at the same time. This means that I’ve got some very specific needs. If you only need to write the occasional quarterly report or something for your personal blog, your needs are going to be very very different.
Besides fitting your needs, there are a few key features that any word processor software for Mac has to have for them even to be considered a good writing app:
- They need to be able to open and export multiple filetypes.
- Whatever file formats they use have to be open or widely supported.
- They need to offer some way for you to style your text.
- They need to allow you to work on more than one document at once.
- They need to be stable, bug free, and still supported on your Mac.
While this is hardly an exciting feature list, it does exclude a surprising number of apps. You just can’t have an app as crucial as your word processor crash on you because the developer isn’t supporting it any longer.
The Best Writing Apps for Mac
Now, let’s start digging into the best writing apps for your Mac. This list isn’t in order of best, but rather moves from most popular, most easily available, down to niche apps designed for specific purposes.
Full Word Processors for Mac
Full word processors are applications that do pretty much anything you could imagine with text. They’re things like Microsoft Word (and all of Microsoft Word’s main competitors). If you work in an office, you probably need a full word processor, but for some they can be a bit over the top. Let's look at detail on what makes these apps powerful options to work with:
1. Microsoft Word 2016 - For Use on Your Mac
While Microsoft Word isn’t as dominant as it once was, it’s still used in millions of offices around the world. If you work in any big company, the odds are this is the app you have to use. It might not be anyone’s favourite writing app, but it can do pretty much everything.
In fact, it’s deep feature set is almost a problem; for most people there’s just too much going on. If you have to use Word, then there’s nothing you can do about it, although given the price and quality of some of the other options, I’d recommend at least looking elsewhere if the decision is up to you.
- Microsoft Word is available for $69.99 a year (or $6.99 a month) as part of an Office 365 Personal subscription.
- It’s the most popular word processor in business so widely supported everywhere.
- There is also a companion iOS Word app so you can work on your documents from anywhere.
2. Google Docs - Accessible With Your Mac
Google Docs is the leading competitor in reach, if not necessarily in quality or features, to Word. It’s an online, collaborative word processor. While its feature set is more limited, for most uses, it’s possible to use Docs over Word.
3. Apple Pages - Mac Word Processor App
Pages is Apple’s Mac-native answer to Word. It takes full use of all the Mac’s native technologies and has a companion iOS app. It's a decent app with all the features you’d expect a professional word processor to have. You can even collaborate with PC users through Pages for iCloud.
- Pages is free for macOS and iOS users. PC users can also use the iCloud version for free.
- Pages is the best looking, and has the best looking templates, of all the full word processing suites available on Mac.
- Unfortunately, Pages just isn’t as popular as the other apps, so you might have a hard time convincing the people you want to collaborate with to use it as well.
4. Writer - Free Word Processor for Mac
Before Google Docs, the leading free competitor to Word was LibreOffice’s Writer. It’s still around, it’s still free, and, well, that’s about it.
Writer is a decent open-source word processor that, for the most part, has been replaced by other options. While you can still use it for your own personal use if you’re familiar with it, it doesn’t really have anything going for it that makes it stand apart.
If you desperately don’t want to use Microsoft, Google or Apple’s offerings, it’s there. Otherwise, it’s probably not the app for you.
General Writing Apps for Mac
These writing apps are less fully featured than a full word processor. Some are more suited to specific kinds of writing, like blogging, but they are all pretty flexible. For most people, one of these apps will give you the best balance between form, features, user friendliness, and price. They’re all a lot easier to get to grips with than a behemoth like Word.
Like Writer, TextEdit is getting a reference for completeness sake rather than because it is a truly amazing word processor. It comes with macOS and can create, edit and style simple text files. If you only need a very basic scratch pad for writing quick text documents, it’s perfect; but if you need something more fully featured, there are better options.
6. Ulysses - Pro Writing Software for Mac
I’m writing this article using Ulysses. It’s the app that, by far, best fits my needs. It’s great for writing longform content as well as keeping dozens of shorter articles organised. I know quite a few other writers who use Ulysses as well, and that’s the key. Ulysses is perfect for writers. If you are banging out hundreds of words on a daily basis, it will make your life easier. If, however, you only need something for occasional report writing, it will be a poor fit.
- Ulysses costs $44.99 for the Mac version and $24.99 for the fully-featured iOS version.
- Ulysses has full Markdown support.
- Ulysses is designed for writers so offers a lot of features to make it easy to outline, draft, write, edit, and rearrange longer works.
- You can also publish directly to your WordPress site or Medium account from Ulysses.
7. Byword - Simple Mac Writing Software
Before Ulysses, I used Byword. It’s a simple, beautiful text editor. If you just want to write a letter, a diary entry or a blog post, and not worry about much else, it’s great.
- Byword costs $11.99 on Mac and $5.99 on iOS.
- Byword is designed to be used with Markdown. In fact, it’s the app I used in my introduction to Markdown tutorial.
- With Byword, you can export your files to text, HTML, or PDF files. More usefully, you can publish them directly to Medium, WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, and Evernote.
8. iA Writer - Minimalist Writing App for Mac
iA Writer is a similar style of app to Byword: a simple, minimalist Markdown writer. Where Byword prioritises publishing to elsewhere, iA Writer offers better file exporting: you can use custom templates and even export to Microsoft Word files.
- iA Writer costs $9.99 on Mac and $3.99 on iOS.
Specific Writing Software for Mac
While you can write almost anything with Word (or Ulysses or Byword), they’re designed for pretty general work. Jacks of all trades but masters of none. If you want to do something really specific, like write a book or a screenplay, then you need to use a writing app that’s able to handle all the special formatting that’s required.
9. Scrivener 2 - Long Form Mac Writing Software
Scrivener is designed for writing longform documents. Things like novels and theses. If you’re writing something that’s less than 20,000 words, Scrivener is complete overkill. On the other hand, if you are writing the next great American novel, then Scrivener is perfect.
- Scrivener is $45 for the macOS app and $19.99 for the iOS app.
- It’s a “complete writing studio”. There’s a virtual corkboard so you can outline and organise your ideas, rearrange entire segments, and much more. Here’s our guide to getting started with Scrivener to help you find your way.
- Scrivener takes a non-linear approach. You can just start writing anywhere and move it into place later. Want to jump from working on chapter 15 to chapter 22? Go right ahead.
- Scrivener also has a file browser/research tab so you can keep all your research in the app as well.
10. Storyist - Robust Mac Book Writing App
Storyist, like Scrivener, is designed for writing books. The biggest difference isn’t in the feature set but in the interface. There is very little one can do that the other can’t. Both have free trials so, if you’re writing a book, the best thing to do is try them both out before settling on one.
- Storyist is $59 on Mac and $14.99 on iOS.
- Storyist has a more modern and clean interface than Scrivener which may appeal to some people.
11. Final Draft 10 - Powerful Screenwriting Mac Writing App
While Scrivener is the go to for writing novels, Final Draft 10 is the industry standard for screenwriting. The developers claim it’s used in 95% of film and television productions.
More than most other forms of writing, screenplays have very strict formatting conventions: everything is written in 12pt Courier on US letter paper with everything laid out in a certain way. Fail to stick to these conventions and you’ll just look like an amateur. Final Draft makes it easy write your next screenplay professionally.
- Final Draft is $249.99 for Mac.
12. Slugline - Simple Screenwriting Writing App for Mac
Final Draft is undeniably a professional app with a professional price tag. If you’re just looking to get to work on your first screenplay, it’s understandable that you’d want something that’s a little less expensive. This is where Slugline comes in.
For $39.99 you get a beautiful screenwriting app that’s designed just for the Mac. A printed screenplay written in Slugline will look identical to one written in Final Draft. It might not have as wide a use in the film industry, but it is being used in more and more productions.
As I said at the start, the biggest factor you need to consider when choosing a writing app is what you need. Slugline is awesome if you’re writing a movie, but it’s not very useful if you just want to publish an occasional blog post. Word is still the de facto standard, but Google Docs and Pages are decent, free competitors. Look at what you want to do and pick the app that suits you best. Many also offer free trials, so don’t be afraid to download a few different ones before you buy.
Finding sources to cite is easy5 Ways to Get Your Hands on Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (or Money)5 Ways to Get Your Hands on Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (or Money)For a lot of people academic journals are hard to get hold of. They are also expensive. But with the right tools, you can get your hands on any academic journals you want.Read More. Planning a paper is easy. Sitting down and writing the thing? Much harder, and though there’s no shortage of word processors, not all are well-suited to academic writing.
As someone currently working on my dissertation, I know this problem all too well. So I found five popular Mac applications commonly used for academic writing and reviewed each in order to see which excelled the most when it comes to writing college papers and dissertations.
Here’s what I found.
At just short of $45, Ulysses is one of the more expensive applications in this rundown. I reviewed version 2.0, which runs exclusively on 64-bit Macs running Yosemite. There’s also an iPad version ($19.99), which Bakari reviewed recentlyUlysses, Pages & Write: 3 Very Different Writing Tools for iPadUlysses, Pages & Write: 3 Very Different Writing Tools for iPadWe're no strangers to the Mac versions of Pages and Ulysses or the earlier version of Write for iOS, but which is of these apps is best for writing on your iPad?Read More.
Ulysses is, like Desk and iA Writer, a markdown-oriented text editor. Markdown allows you to format text using a special syntax, rather than pressing a button in an application. The advantage of this is that it doesn’t break your workflow, and text written in MarkDown can be copied between applications without losing formatting.
Another advantage of Markdown is that it’s incredibly easy to learn, not just because we published a guideLearning Markdown: Write For The Web, FasterLearning Markdown: Write For The Web, FasterMarkdown is the best way to write in plain text but still create complex documents. Unlike HTML or LaTex, for example, Markdown is simple to learn.Read More to it last year. Ulysses is different from other markdown editors in a number of ways that distinguish it from the pack.
Firstly, it allows you to separate texts into individual sections, each within their own writing space. This is handy if your university project is effectively an anthology of texts, as most dissertations are.
Secondly, Ulysses allows you to change the theme from a bright one, to a more subdued night-mode version which looks great when working in the dark. It also comes with a command palette that feels oddly reminiscent of Sublime Text 2Try Out Sublime Text 2 For Your Cross-Platform Code Editing NeedsTry Out Sublime Text 2 For Your Cross-Platform Code Editing NeedsSublime Text 2 is a cross-platform code editor I only recently heard about, and I have to say I'm really impressed despite the beta label. You can download the full app without paying a penny...Read More, which allows you to navigate your document without endlessly scrolling, just like VimThe Top 7 Reasons To Give The Vim Text Editor A ChanceThe Top 7 Reasons To Give The Vim Text Editor A ChanceFor years, I've tried one text editor after another. You name it, I tried it. I used each and every one of these editors for over two months as my primary day-to-day editor. Somehow, I...Read More.
Ulysses also makes it easy to set goals, which is handy when you’re unmotivated and trudging through the tedium of a literature review. Unfortunately it doesn’t natively support any major reference managers, such as EndNote and ZoteroTake The Stress Out Of Referencing With ZoteroTake The Stress Out Of Referencing With ZoteroEssays are dry. They're time consuming. They're dull. And the worst part of it? Referencing. Thankfully, there's an app out there making referencing less frustrating.Read More, and it doesn’t allow you to embed images or graphics.
Despite these limitations, it’s a perfectly adequate markdown editor, and one that lends itself favorably to academic applications.
iA Writer Pro ($20)
I’m a fan of iA Writer. We reviewed the non-proiA Writer for Mac & iOS: The Best Word Processor You've Never UsediA Writer for Mac & iOS: The Best Word Processor You've Never UsedBe it a school paper or a blog post, all of us at some point find ourselves in the position of having to dump a bunch of characters into a text file. While cell phone...Read More version of it back in 2013 and it immediately became my writing application of choice. Why?
The app is markdown-based, so you can add formatting as you write without getting distracted or having your writing pane filled with superfluous toolbars and ribbons. It also allows you to focus on the writing, as it puts the text in the center of your screen and a simple, readable typeface contrasts with the austere, white background.
That’s the cheaper, non-pro version. I’ve since moved on to the professional version, and I’m convinced it too is an excellent choice for markdown aficionados tasked with academic writing.
iA Writer Pro comes all the same features of the cheaper version that allow you to focus on the writing, but brings with it a ‘night mode’ theme, which is great for late night work.
It also allows you to drill-down on your text and identify parts of your writing you can remove and refactor, such as adverbs, verbs, and prepositions. Given academic writing strongly emphasizes conciseness and precision, this is really helpful.
But iA Writer Pro is lacking some features that are helpful when it comes to academic writing. It doesn’t support third-party plugins, which makes it hard to import your citations in from Zotero, or any other reference manager. It also only lets you to work one document at a time, unlike Ulysses’s multi-sheet approach to document editing.
Despite those drawbacks, it’s only $20 and makes it easy to be focused and productive, and is therefore worth a consider.
Scrivener 2 ($45)
Scrivener is an inexpensive application with an excruciatingly steep learning curve. It’s commonly used by people working in the creative industries, and has found a niche as a tool for writing screenplays and scripts. But despite this pedigree, it is also worth considering for your next academic paper.
Scrivener, like Ulysses, lets you break your document into manageable chunks, and tackle them one at a time. Editing is done through a graphical interface, with formatting added through the application, rather than using Markdown syntax.
But perhaps the killer feature of Scrivener is its ‘cork board’. This allows you to manage, collect, and collate resources you might want to use in your paper, such as images, notes and references.
Scrivener supports a handful of popular third-party bibliography applications, which means you don’t have to adjust your system of managing citations and references. It also allows you to create snapshots – or versions – of your text, and revert back to them when you want to return to an earlier form of your work. This is similar to how Git worksWhat Is Git & Why You Should Use Version Control If You’re a DeveloperWhat Is Git & Why You Should Use Version Control If You’re a DeveloperAs web developers, a lot of the time we tend to work on local development sites then just upload everything when we’re done. This is fine when it’s just you and the changes are small,...Read More, which is a version control system used by programmers.
However, Scrivener lacks the sleek, distraction-free aesthetics of iA Writer and Ulysses, which makes it less than ideal for long writing sprints where your focus might wander. It’s also rather expensive, and takes a few hours (and a lot of reading) to fully get to grips with.
Microsoft Word 2016 Preview Edition (Free)
It’s hard not to talk about word processors, and not mention Microsoft Word. It’s the incumbent, and has been for a couple of decades now. Go to any university, and you’ll find Microsoft Word is the de-facto word processor. This due to that fact that it’s well understood, supported by Microsoft, and works well with other the packages in the Microsoft Office family.
Microsoft recently released the preview version of Word 2016, and is currently available as a free download before being publicly released.
This latest version represents the biggest change to Microsoft Word on OS X for almost 5 years. It comes with a sleek new aesthetic that makes it feel like the modern, premium word processor it is. For once, you’re going to want to write with Word.
But as a tool for writing Academic papers, how does it stand up? Well, it’s not a distraction-free editor like iA Writer is, but that’s fine. It makes up for that by being well-rounded and complete, boasting all the features any university student or academic could possibly need.
One of the most compelling features for any student is its built-in citation manager, which offers many of the features of Zotero, and can produce references in APA, MLM and Chicago style.
Unlike iA Writer Pro and Ulysses, Word allows you to insert and embed figures and graphics, and create charts that underscore the points you make.
This makes it one of the more compelling packages for academic writing. The only problem is that when it exits the beta phase, it will ultimately cost a good chunk of change. This free version will eventually cease to work, so you’ll have to purchase Word as part of the Office 2016 release if you want to keep the functionality you’ve gotten used to. In the Apple Store, Office 2011 costs $139.95, so expect Office 2016 to cost something approaching that.
It’s also worth noting that beta applications can ship with bugs that might end up destroying all your hard work. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to make regular backups if you decide to use it.
Pages is part of iWork, Apple’s flagship productivity suite. Apple made it available free of charge to anyone who purchased Mac on or after October 1, 2013. Everyone else can purchase it for $19.99 on the Mac App Store, which is pretty good for a fully-fledged word processor.
As a tool for getting words on a page, it’s solid. It comes with a number of templates for academic writing. However, these overwhelmingly are geared towards a style of academic writing that’s more common in the American university system, than in the British and Antipodean ones. That said, it’s easy enough to tweak a template, and formatting text in Pages is simple enough for this not to be too much of a barrier.
Pages also supports academic citations through EndNote, a perfectly competent though expensive reference manager, with a license costing around $250. The closest free alternative, Zotero, hasn’t released a plugin for iWork and given the niche status of Apple’s iWork when it comes to productivity software, I doubt they ever will.
Pages can also produce incredible graphics and charts with a button’s press. This makes it ideal for those writing papers with a somewhat data-driven emphasis.
For those on a tight budget, it remains the best option, and poses a serious challenge to the likes of Scrivener and Ulysses.
No Surprises Here
It should come as absolutely no surprise that the two packages I’m ultimately going to recommend are ones made by Microsoft and Apple; both giants in what they do. Pages and Word are just too complete and functional to not recommend, and offer the most value for money (at least while Word is free).
As a close second, I’d also recommend iA Writer Pro, which despite lacking a number of killer features like EndNote integration and bibliography management, offers the best writing experience of any application listed in my opinion.
What do you use to write your academic papers? Leave me a comment below and we’ll chat.
Image Credits: student with laptop Via Shutterstock
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