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Note: Before you read this, you owe it to yourself to head over to Dropbox and sign up for a free account. It will be the best thing you’ve done on your computer all month. There is a video on the front page of Dropbox.com to explain why.
Besides straght use of its core feature—syncing your files and data between all your devices—my tip-top favoritest thing I can do with Dropbox is edit plain ol’ text files. Whether I start them on my iPad or Mac or iPhone, once they’re saved into Dropbox, they immediately show up everywhere else.
That may sound mundane, but trust me: this is cutting-edge stuff! Writers have always been chained to big clunky mechanisms. From ink-and-parchment to typewriters to the first massive “portable” computers (with their 5-inch screens) to modern laptops, we’ve never had true mobility, the liberty to change our writing environment at a whim. The archetype of the lonely author—in his favorite bathrobe, seated in his library pounding away at his keyboard—may go the way of the telegraph and the horse-drawn carriage.
My goal for my own writing life is to find my own perfect environment, not a physical one, but an undistracting digital space, where I can find all my drafts and finished pieces, no matter where I may find myself. Dropbox has become the key to that.
The right to write
Since finding this solution of plain text, synced with Dropbox, I’ve tried and recommended several different text-editor apps for the Mac and iPad. Elements, Nebulous Notes, OmmWriter, and Apple’s TextEdit have served me well (at least, when Elements wasn’t throwing frustrating error messages that forced me to quit and even reinstall the app). Meistergeek Brett Terpstra has supervised an insanely comprehensive matrix of all the text apps in iOS.
Just recently, however, my best writing app for the Mac has made it to iOS. Byword is just fantastic: clean, simple, and with just the right features to make me kick everything else to the curb, at least for the moment.
Byword’s default mode on the Mac is full-screen, hiding all other windows and toolbars behind a light-cream shade.
It behaves similarly on the iPad; the few buttons and controls are designed in faded grey, and the developer has included only the most important features and preferences, eliminating the urge to fiddle rather than write.
If I create a document on the Mac, which I can do in any text editor, I just save it in my Dropbox folder. I have linked my Dropbox account to Byword on iPhone and iPad, so it sees any text file in any folder there. Whatever edits I do get automatically synced. With Lion on the Mac, I don’t have to remember to hit Save.
This easy, no-save syncing is simply impossible with Microsoft Word. I haven’t used Word for writing in years.
When I’m ready to ship, I can just copy and paste, or email straight from the iOS app, or from the Mac file system, as an attachment, or as plain or formatted text.
The real magic
Wait, did I just say formatted? Indeed I did. For this is the big new tip for modern writer: you can format a plain-text file. Bold, italics, bullet lists, web links, even web images and footnotes…you can do it all.
The secret is Markdown. Markdown is a set of simple text codes you can use to indicate formatting. It takes just minutes to learn, and once you’ve got it, it’s yours forever.
One asterisk on either side of a *word*, for example, means italics. **Two asterisks** is bold.
Use asterisks or plus signs to make a bulleted list, so…
* my first item
* my next item
* my last item
my first item
my next item
my last item.
You can read the full set of syntax on Daring Fireball, the excellent web site of Markdown creator John Gruber. I recommend that you start with the basics. Everything after that is pure gravy.
Once you’ve finished writing and editing your doc, all that’s left is to ship it. I mentioned that you can email text directly out of Byword. BUT…if you format with Markdown, you can send email that’s all kinds of pretty, in ways that Apple’s Mail app just won’t do.
For bloggers, Markdown changes everything about generating a post, because it will convert all your formatting into sweet, sweet HTML code to be pasted into WordPress or your choice of platforms. My favorite CMS, Squarespace, even lets you edit in Markdown directly on your site.
Back to Byword: The biggest reason I landed on Byword as my go to composer is how super-smart it is about Markdown. There are quick shortcuts to the most common codes, and special behaviors to make the syntax even easier.
If, for example, I’m editing a numbered list with “1.,” “2.,” etc., I just hit return after each line and the next number is generated. Ditto for bulleted lists. Also, on the Mac, all the Markdown codes fade into the background, and keyboard shortcuts will insert codes for bold, italics, links, lists, and images.
Always-on preview: I have just one more Power Tip. Once you have started using Markdown, it is worth popping on over to the Mac App Store and picking up Marked for $3.99. Wen you open a Markdown file in Marked, you get a constantly updated preview of your formatted file. This is as opposed to hitting Preview in Byword every few minutes to see what your end result will look like. Marked also offers the best HTML and rich-text export for pasting into email or your blog.
The end result
I guarantee, if you follow these simple recommendations, the combo of Dropbox + Byword + Markdown will rock your writing world. I wish you a happy life of letters!