Annotate images on the Mac

In the announcement of Yosemite, Apple touted the new Markup feature in Mail. Users of Apple’s email app can now annotate images right in the New Message window. Nifty, but (wanh wanh) I don’t use Mail.

Preview can handle all kinds of image manipulation and annotation, but Preview is not by nature a tool for creation.

Poking around System Preferences, I found this section of the new Extensions pane:

What’s that about? Turns out that’s how Apple Mail gets its new Markup feature, wherein you can annotate and draw on a picture right in New Message window. And other apps, such as Pixelmator, can tack features onto other apps. This is the same thing Apple did for iOS, letting you edit an image in Photos, using tools provided by third-party apps.

On the Mac, that means that apps have a way to add functionality to other apps, without resorting to hacks. So, for example, I can put a photo in TextEdit…

…and cilck this little arrow that now appears at the corner…

Click Markup to get a window like this…

Wherein I can annotate the image with text, circles, arrows, what have you; and also in some surprising ways, including adding a loupe effect…

That has a lot of potential, and very easy to access. I don’t know why we don’t see more apps adding these extensions. Currently, the only additional one I have is a Repair Tool by Pixelmator…

…which I can use to make things disappear…

(Not the most artful job, but you get the picture, as it were.)

This is all in TextEdit, the modest word processor that comes with every Mac. Since I don’t use the Apple Mail program, I just tried pasting this entire article into Gmail, in a web browser, and it worked! 

Create contact information from copied text

I’ve been looking for a smooth way to add contact information from text I’ve copied from a web site. The key is to use Apple’s Data Detectors feature in TextEdit.

First, you want to set TextEdit to be always ready for this action:

  1. Open TextEdit.
  2. Go to TextEdit menu > Preferences…
  3. Turn on Data Detectors, at the very bottom of the New Document tab.
  4. (I also like to change my default document format to Plain Text, but that’s not necessary to this procedure.)
  5. Close the Preferences window.

OK, now you’re ready to do this anytime:

  1. Create a new TextEdit document.
  2. Paste in any kind of contact information, e.g. name, address, email, phone number.
  3. Hover over what you just pasted. See that little drop-down arrow? Click it.
  4. You’ll see what to do from there!

Here’s a quick screencast. Enjoy!

If You Write, You Should Have Byword

If you ever write anything longer than emails, do yourself a favor: Download [Byword]( on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad. 

A Boon to Writers

Byword logo

If you ever write anything longer than emails, do yourself a favor: Download Byword on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad.

Byword is built for editing text and Markdown files. It’s simple, pretty, and clean. It’s my favorite place to write.

As mentioned in Part I, text editors like Byword work best used in conjunction with a “cloud” service such as Dropbox or Apple’s iCloud. Syncing with the cloud lets you start a document on your iPhone, and finish it on your Mac. Or whatever device you have handy. Instant access to all your important text.

Byword is by no means your only option. But if you are just joining the Revolution in Text, I think it’s the best place to start.


Byword on the Mac is real straightforward: It’s just an app like Word or Pages. It’s job is to open and save plain text files from anywhere on your hard drive. But I would encourage you to start working in the Text folder you created in Part I.


Byword for iPhone and iPad is also easy. You just have to connect it Dropbox.

Open Byword, and tell it to connect to your Dropbox account.

Connect Byword to your Dropbox account

Then go back a level, and tap on Settings > Dropbox Setup > Folder, and choose the “Text” folder you created in Part I. Tap Done, and then tap on Dropbox to see all your text files.

Magic in an asterisk

But how do you make it look good? Look what a few well-placed asterisks can do:

Made-up Markdown example

Those characters use a really simple idea called Markdown. It’s easier to learn than making popcorn.

Links and images are also easy:

Made-up Markdown example

Here’s the kicker: Byword knows all these codes, and inserts them for you. Even on your iPhone. It’s as easy as any word processor, but without all the cruft — or the cost — of Microsoft Word.

Byword screen shot

What then?

“Great, fine,” you say, “but what do I do with that nicely formatted text?”

Easy magic! Byword automatically translates Markdown into formatted text (Rich Text Format or .rtf) and also HTML. You can copy formatted text straight from Byword into an email, or into Pages or Keynote. Bloggers can copy HTML to paste into a WordPress post. And if you use Squarespace (and you should totally use Squarespace), you can use Markdown directly in your web site and blog posts.

Markdown has gone viral among nerds, but I am here to tell you that it’s the writing tool for anyone at all.

Come to my presentation at BlogItSA! to learn more!

Revitalize Your Work With Plain Ol’ Text Files

With just a few clicks on your Mac, you can start making your life easier. Enter the new, simple, elegant world of synced text files.

A very quiet revolution began a couple of years ago among Apple users.

It started with Dropbox, the cloud service that turns a normal folder into a magic syncing carpet for all your files. Dropbox quickly became ubiquitous on Macs, iPhones, and iPads. (The rest of this article will assume you have Dropbox installed on your computer and mobile devices.)

Then some brilliant nerds wrote some elegant apps. These apps did one thing: They edited text files in Dropbox.

Why is this cool? Because text files are easy (for both human and machine), small, and workable on any computer ever created. And while syncing other kinds of stuff like contacts and calendars is hard for computers, syncing text files is relatively simple.

As the revolution was fomenting, David Sparks said, “Plain text: It’s timeless. My grandchildren will be able to read a text file I create today, long after anybody can remember what the heck a .dotx file is.”

So what can you do with text? Any kind of writing, notes, lists, or snippets. I use it instead of Apple’s Notes app. I write all my blog posts and newsletters in text, and also a lot of emails when I care about what they look like.

Start with TextEdit

There are growing options for text editors out there. But let’s start with Apple’s own TextEdit. This will go really fast, I promise.

TextEdit in Dock

You can find it in Spotlight or Applications.

Search for TextEdit

Open TextEdit > Preferences. Click here…

TextEdit menu

Then here…

TextEdit Preferences

Change the default format to plain text.

Format as plain text

Close the Preferences window.

That’s it. Just create and save files as you would any other document.

When you start, they’ll look like this:

Plain ol’ blank space, ready for you to fill it. And just like any other document, you should put them in Dropbox. Create a folder in Dropbox called Text.

Text folder

Open up Dropbox on your phone or tablet or another computer, and your file is there. You can refer to your notes, or copy text from them to paste into another app.

In Part II, I’ll show you how to edit that text on your iPhone and iPad.

The most awesome thing you can do with Dropbox

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 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.

Johnny Depp as the lonely writer in Secret Window

Johnny Depp as the lonely writer in Secret Window

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 in full-screen mode

Byword in full-screen mode

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.

Power editing

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.

Copy rich text from Marked

Copy rich text from Marked

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!