Byword – an ideal tool for plain text writing on a Mac

I often need to write a piece of text between 200 and 2000 words: an abstract of a talk, a blog post or an administrative memo. This is longer and more complicated than an occasional note but much simpler and shorter than, say, a full-length article. I do such writing in Byword, a beautiful Mac app which takes plain-text writing to an entirely new level.

I used to prepare such texts in Scrivener, but I found it far too complicated for simple one-piece texts. It takes time to open and its many bells and whistles easily distract your attention. In addition, you have to make a decision of how to organize your short disconnected writings. Scrivener is made for organizing texts, but all the choices it gives become a problem when you don’t want to think how to organize your files, you just want to write and send them away. Starting a separate Scrivener project for each small text is impractical and distracting. For example, I used to keep three separate Scrivener projects: for research, teaching and administrative texts, but it quickly became confusing, because I could not decide or remember whether a particular text is for research or for teaching. In addition, even on MacBook Air starting (and closing) Scrivener is a pretty slow business.

In the last several months, I have been using Byword for writing all my short texts. Byword is extremely simple and well-designed. As soon as I start I go into its Fullscreen mode (⌘-Enter) and type away. I normally use Markdown although I am not very good at it (and you don’t need to know what it is to use Byword). I really like Byword’s ability to complete brackets (of all shapes) and quotation marks. After finishing my writings I export the text into .RTF, Word, or HTML format or simply copy and paste it into a document or email. For bloggers or Web page editors Byword offers a possibility to copy HTML to Clipboard, which is very convenient. Byword for iOS devices has been recently released as well. Interestingly, it uses iCloud synchronization of your texts between your Mac and other devices (see review and screencast from MacSparky).

I like Byword so much that I have even started using it for initial stages of writing longer articles. Most of my texts are now “born” in Byword and only then transferred to Scrivener for subsequent re-organization, compiling etc. The arrival of Papers 2 makes it possible to insert citations in Byword. Bibliographies can then be automatically added either in Byword or in Scrivener or other later-stage applications.

I save my Byword files in the same directory where I save all my NValt notes. This is of course on the Dropbox and thus accessible from other computers and my iPhone. To make Byword files visible to NValt and Simplenote I make sure to add .txt extension to their names. Otherwise I simply follow my naming conventions (described here and updated here). This makes searching for these short texts (through NValt) lighting fast if I need them later. Sometimes I also add Open-meta tags to particularly frequently used texts.

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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy at Central European University and Associate Professor of Lund University. He is also the coordinator of MESPOM, an Erasmus Mundus Masters course operated by six Universities in Europe and North America.
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13 Responses to Byword – an ideal tool for plain text writing on a Mac

  1. Nice post. I think I’ll give Byword a try, it looks like a simple and elegant solution for drafting. I’ve been using Evernote for a couple of months and its search and tagging, along with syncing capabilities are superb, however the interface is not so much optimized for writing. What do you think about using Byword for writing drafts and Evernote as a repository?

    • Aleh Cherp says:

      I use NValt (or Notational velocity) coupled with SimpleNote as repository. Evernote is a bit too messy for me and I get tired of its constant updates. Most of my notes are plain text so I do not need many of the fine Evernote features. NValt makes searching very fast and simple. It allows using OpenMeta tags so my notes can be in the same “series” as my pdfs, images etc. Because I keep ByWord files in the same directory I can search for them in the same go as I search for my other notes. All in all, for all serious (i.e. academic) business I prefer NValt.
      I do use Evernote for non-text content that I need on my iPhone: most often local maps, pdfs of hotel reservations, sometimes photos that I need to have at hand.

    • Jeong says:

      Umm. I have a trouble to make massive outlines with evernote. Do I need to learn Markdown? Is it useful to make outline-drafts?

      • Aleh Cherp says:

        You can use Omni Outliner – in my view the best outline tool on Mac. Click on the OmniOutliner tag to see Macademic posts concerning outlines.

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  3. I’ve ended up with the same system although I’ve just started using Byword on iOS as my main note taking app there. SimpleNote kept crashing (seems to be only me it happens to…) and (worse) messing up my notes during syncs. I’d been using Notesy until Byword for iOS came out, which is also great. Keeping everything in the same Dropbox folder as you do means I can easily get notes into other apps if I want to. iA Writer’s also worth looking at. nvAlt is fantastic, as you say.

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  5. ubergooroo says:

    How did you “transfer” from Byword to Scrivener? Did you export from ByWord to import by Scrivener? Or, is there a way to link the two products together?

    • Aleh Cherp says:

      It depends on a number of things. If I have a bunch of byword files I simply import them to Scrivener. I keep all my Byword files in the same directory (together with my NValt files) so it would help to name them consistently so that you can easily select the right ones importing to Scrivener. (See the post on naming project files). If I need to transfer a single bit of text copy and paste may work as fast. If your Byword is formated as Multi-markdown document you can import it as Multimarkdown file and the Scrivener will break it accordingly. However, Markdown syntax in Byword will be preserved in Scrivener (i.e. you will see *bold* text marked by asterisks). This can either be manually corrected or fixed at the stage of exporting. Any idea how to address it differently is warmly welcome. Sorry for late response.

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