The Techie Scheky series offers tips and tactics for being more productive and creative through technology (especially with a Mac).
I’m a big believer in finding the right tool for the right job. That rather than seeking out one mythical “swiss army knife” app, you are better off finding several apps and tools that string together in order to create a better, more personalized workflow.
For those who have been following along with this series, you know that I’ve been using two apps on my Mac to handle most of my writing1. I use nvALT for capturing ideas and for freeform writing and Scrivener for more structured work like this very post (although ironically I’ll be talking more about nvALT). To date, I’ve been able to serve all of my writing needs.
Lately, I’ve been hearing several of my own personal web swamis, including Patrick Rhone and Merlin Mann, raving about Byword and decided to check it out. Despite my undying love for nvALT, it has a few shortcomings: its full screen leaves a lot to be desired; it is great for writing, yet not ideal for editing and the Markdown support is somewhat limited. Byword, on the other hand, is a drop-dead gorgeous. While I’ve never been a big fan of what are known as “distraction-free writing environments” but I have to admit that Byword is a beautiful environment to write in. It’s also ideal for editing (or at least my editor/wife likes it best) with its big, beautiful font and focus on easily readable text. It also has the best built-in support for Markdown that I’ve seen, but more on that in a minute. Byword is highly focused, very polished and a pleasure to use.
Better yet, Byword and nvALT play really nicely together. So nice, in fact, that it often feels like they are two parts of the same writing application. One of my favorite nvALT features is the ability to set an external text editor. Once you go to the preferences in nvALT and set this to Byword, you can quickly open whatever it is you are looking at in nvALT in Byword by hitting the keyboard command shift-command-e. Make whatever changes you want and when you close the window (you can do this by hitting command-w), the changes are automatically reflected back in nvALT. More and more, I find myself using nvALT as sort of an interactive file manager, a place where I can quickly create a new text file or make a minor edit to an existing piece. And Byword serves as my full screen writing mode, a great space for expanding, editing and formatting my ideas.
Byword also has the best built-in Markdown support that I’ve seen on a TextEditor. For those who don’t use it, Markdown is the easiest way to format your writing in a way that is 1) easily read by a human being and 2) easily converted to HTML in order to be posted to the web. It lets you quickly format your text to include bold, italic, headers, bullet and numbered lists, quotes and links. While it is already easy to read Markdown text, Byword offers inline formatting that makes it even easier to edit.
Sure you can get similar looking results in a program like Microsoft Word, but the benefits of Markdown and Byword are that they let you extract extremely clean HTML directly from the preview screen for posting on the web.
Is Byword a necessity? No. You could just as easily use TextExpander or Keyboard Maestro to handle a lot of the same formatting in any text editor and you can always live without a visually appealing full-screen mode. When it comes to getting words onto a screen in a way that they can quickly be formatted for the web, nvALT is sufficient for your needs. However, Byword sure makes things far simpler and a lot more enjoyable. For $10, it was a no-brainer purchase and a welcome addition to my writing workflow.
Geeky Quick Tip
Unlike overly complicated word processors like Microsoft Word, Byword (much like Markdown itself) wants to keep the focus on writing, rather than formatting your words. With this in mind, it really pays to take a few minutes to learn a few keyboard shortcuts that make formatting your document for Markdown faster. Here is a list of the Markdown keyboard shortcuts for Byword:
- Bold – Command-B
- Italic – Command-I
- Add a Header – Command – + (Simply hit it again to go down to another header level)
- Bulleted List – Command-L
- Numbered List – Command-Option-L
- Block Quote – Command – ‘
- Links – Command-K
This should dramatically speed up your formatting while keeping your focus on what really matters, the words on the screen.
I also find myself writing more and more on my iPhone ↩