A possibly blasphemous writing application show down

If you Google “Best writing apps for Mac,” three names will inevitably appear at the top of the list:

And with good reason. Those are all terrific applications.

But being someone who often roots for the underdog, I want to explore one alternative for each of those three superstar writing apps.

Highland 2 vs. Scrivener

Highland started life as a screen-writing app, but with version 2, the developer made it possible to use Highland for long-form writing of most any kind.

Highland is a markdown editor. Instead of giving you the ability to write short sections in separate pieces (as Scrivener does), you write your work in one document. Technically you can write shorter documents, separate files, that you can stitch together later. They call this “Assemble.”

Highland 2 provides a clean, simple interface for writing long-form pieces.

The left sidebar gives you a set of tools for working with your document.

  • Navigator shows your document by heading. It is essentially the outline of your piece as you create it.
  • Bin holds text snippets. Drag frequently used text in and out as necessary.
  • Statistics is where you can view document stats as well as setting a writing goal.
  • Assets are files you have imported into your piece.
  • Scratchpad is where you can jot down notes that you don’t know what to do with at the time the thoughts came to you.

Switch to Revision Mode to make your current edits a different color, so you can easily see what you’ve done. When you clear revisions, your latest work is accepted into your document.

Add reference or end notes for light scholarly works.

And when your writing is done, you can render your markdown to a number of set themes, and export to a number of file formats.

Scrivener replacement?

I am recommending Highland as a Scrivener alternative because in each of these apps you access one project at a time.

The truth is, Scrivener is loaded with far more features, and the annual subscription for the pro version of Highland is about the same as a one-time purchase of Scrivener.

So why would you choose Highland over Scrivener. Personally, I find the features of Scrivener distracting. Highland lets me focus on my writing. I am writing this article in Highland.

Effie vs. Ulysses

Effie is a markdown writing app that allows you to see your work as a diagram. It is also available for Windows and syncs your writing cross-platform.

Effie’s editor is optimized for outlining. Use headings and sub-headings, bullets and sub-bullets. The structure you create will be visible in the diagram. Any edits to the diagram, including structural changes, are reflected in the editor.

You can also fold and unfold nested items.

Diagrams can be viewed from headers downward, or from the top bulleted item.

With Effie you can view sections of your document in a diagram. See the next screen shot.

Like Highland, Effie offers several export options.

Ulysses replacement?

All your Effie notes and documents are available at all times through the Library sidebar. In this way, it mimics Ulysses. Effie has also adopted Ulysses’ name for pieces of your work, Sheets, so it practically begs to be compared to that app.

Ulysses is by far the more feature-rich writing environment of the two. Also, where you can use Ulysses offline, Effie’s developers recommend that you do not do so. Ulysses also has an excellent iOS app.

So why would you choose Effie over Ulysses? Effie’s annual subscription is $29.99, which is 30% less expensive than Ulysses. But that’s a superficial reason. There are two main reasons:

  1. You want to be able to view sections of your sheets as diagrams.
  2. You want to be able to write in the same application on Apple devices and on a Windows PC. (If this is your main reason, check out Typora or iA Writer.)

Additionally, Ulysses, like Scrivener, has so many features it can be a distraction in itself. Effie has a cleaner interface, one I find more conducive to writing.

Typora vs. iA Writer

Typora may be the most beautiful markdown editor on the planet. Heck, even off the planet I bet there isn’t a more beautiful editor. It renders markdown immediately, so you don’t have to view the syntax. And it renders your words very elegantly.

Typora is elegant. But the elegance belies the bountiful features hidden amongst its menus.

The left side panel can be switched between a list of available Articles or an outline of the current article. You can also switch to search view and view articles in a tree. And, of course, you can turn the panel off to focus just on the editor.

Typora has many additional features, but they are not in-your-face distracting.

Like iA Writer, Typora is available in both MacOS and Windows editions. iA Writer is also available in Android and iOS.

iA Writer replacement?

Of the three pairs of apps discussed in this article, iA Writer and Typora have the closest parity, although Typora does not have the kit of grammatical tools that iA Writer has — which to me is a plus for Typora.

iA Writer wants to help you fix your writing. Some people like this. Not me.

But if you find markdown syntax distracting, Typora will be a welcome breath of fresh air, and it is half the price of iA Writer.

Of course iA Writer might be considered the simpler contender to Scrivener or Ulysses. It’s all relative.

Conclusion

It is not my intention to convince happy users of Scrivener, Ulysses or iA Writer to switch to one of the challengers. But I sense that some people are disappointed with their experiences using the elite writing applications. I suspect that is because they would be better off with a simpler app. Sometimes less really is more.

Or maybe I’m just talking about myself.

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Stephen Zeoli

Stephen Zeoli

Carl Sagan and Edward Abbey are among my heroes.