There are very few certainties in life: death, taxes, and that, at some point, you’ll need to use a computer to write something. Whether you work in an office, run your own business, or volunteer in the Congo, there’s pretty much no escaping it.
Since you’re going to have to use your Mac to write, you might as well use the right app for it. Using the wrong tools is never fun.
In this article, we look at some of the best writing app options available on macOS. Not all these apps will be right for you, but one of them probably will.
What Makes a Good Word Processor for Mac?
Word processors and other writing apps have been around for decades now. There are very few bad ones left! Most writing apps will work for most things, but they sometimes won’t be very good at it. Microsoft Word is a really powerful word processor, but it’s overkill if you’re using it to write a blogpost.
This means that the number one thing that makes a good writing app is how well it fits your needs. I write a 1000 word article every day of the week; I also work on longer more heavily researched projects at the same time. This means that I’ve got some very specific needs. If you only need to write the occasional quarterly report or something for your personal blog, your needs are going to be very very different.
Besides fitting your needs, there are a few key features that any word processor software for Mac has to have for them even to be considered a good writing app:
- They need to be able to open and export multiple filetypes.
- Whatever file formats they use have to be open or widely supported.
- They need to offer some way for you to style your text.
- They need to allow you to work on more than one document at once.
- They need to be stable, bug free, and still supported on your Mac.
While this is hardly an exciting feature list, it does exclude a surprising number of apps. You just can’t have an app as crucial as your word processor crash on you because the developer isn’t supporting it any longer.
The Best Writing Apps for Mac
Now, let’s start digging into the best writing apps for your Mac. This list isn’t in order of best, but rather moves from most popular, most easily available, down to niche apps designed for specific purposes.
Full Word Processors for Mac
Full word processors are applications that do pretty much anything you could imagine with text. They’re things like Microsoft Word (and all of Microsoft Word’s main competitors). If you work in an office, you probably need a full word processor, but for some they can be a bit over the top. Let's look at detail on what makes these apps powerful options to work with:
1. Microsoft Word 2016 - For Use on Your Mac
While Microsoft Word isn’t as dominant as it once was, it’s still used in millions of offices around the world. If you work in any big company, the odds are this is the app you have to use. It might not be anyone’s favourite writing app, but it can do pretty much everything.
In fact, it’s deep feature set is almost a problem; for most people there’s just too much going on. If you have to use Word, then there’s nothing you can do about it, although given the price and quality of some of the other options, I’d recommend at least looking elsewhere if the decision is up to you.
- Microsoft Word is available for $69.99 a year (or $6.99 a month) as part of an Office 365 Personal subscription.
- It’s the most popular word processor in business so widely supported everywhere.
- There is also a companion iOS Word app so you can work on your documents from anywhere.
2. Google Docs - Accessible With Your Mac
Google Docs is the leading competitor in reach, if not necessarily in quality or features, to Word. It’s an online, collaborative word processor. While its feature set is more limited, for most uses, it’s possible to use Docs over Word.
3. Apple Pages - Mac Word Processor App
Pages is Apple’s Mac-native answer to Word. It takes full use of all the Mac’s native technologies and has a companion iOS app. It's a decent app with all the features you’d expect a professional word processor to have. You can even collaborate with PC users through Pages for iCloud.
- Pages is free for macOS and iOS users. PC users can also use the iCloud version for free.
- Pages is the best looking, and has the best looking templates, of all the full word processing suites available on Mac.
- Unfortunately, Pages just isn’t as popular as the other apps, so you might have a hard time convincing the people you want to collaborate with to use it as well.
4. Writer - Free Word Processor for Mac
Before Google Docs, the leading free competitor to Word was LibreOffice’s Writer. It’s still around, it’s still free, and, well, that’s about it.
Writer is a decent open-source word processor that, for the most part, has been replaced by other options. While you can still use it for your own personal use if you’re familiar with it, it doesn’t really have anything going for it that makes it stand apart.
If you desperately don’t want to use Microsoft, Google or Apple’s offerings, it’s there. Otherwise, it’s probably not the app for you.
General Writing Apps for Mac
These writing apps are less fully featured than a full word processor. Some are more suited to specific kinds of writing, like blogging, but they are all pretty flexible. For most people, one of these apps will give you the best balance between form, features, user friendliness, and price. They’re all a lot easier to get to grips with than a behemoth like Word.
Like Writer, TextEdit is getting a reference for completeness sake rather than because it is a truly amazing word processor. It comes with macOS and can create, edit and style simple text files. If you only need a very basic scratch pad for writing quick text documents, it’s perfect; but if you need something more fully featured, there are better options.
6. Ulysses - Pro Writing Software for Mac
I’m writing this article using Ulysses. It’s the app that, by far, best fits my needs. It’s great for writing longform content as well as keeping dozens of shorter articles organised. I know quite a few other writers who use Ulysses as well, and that’s the key. Ulysses is perfect for writers. If you are banging out hundreds of words on a daily basis, it will make your life easier. If, however, you only need something for occasional report writing, it will be a poor fit.
- Ulysses costs $44.99 for the Mac version and $24.99 for the fully-featured iOS version.
- Ulysses has full Markdown support.
- Ulysses is designed for writers so offers a lot of features to make it easy to outline, draft, write, edit, and rearrange longer works.
- You can also publish directly to your WordPress site or Medium account from Ulysses.
7. Byword - Simple Mac Writing Software
Before Ulysses, I used Byword. It’s a simple, beautiful text editor. If you just want to write a letter, a diary entry or a blog post, and not worry about much else, it’s great.
- Byword costs $11.99 on Mac and $5.99 on iOS.
- Byword is designed to be used with Markdown. In fact, it’s the app I used in my introduction to Markdown tutorial.
- With Byword, you can export your files to text, HTML, or PDF files. More usefully, you can publish them directly to Medium, WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, and Evernote.
8. iA Writer - Minimalist Writing App for Mac
iA Writer is a similar style of app to Byword: a simple, minimalist Markdown writer. Where Byword prioritises publishing to elsewhere, iA Writer offers better file exporting: you can use custom templates and even export to Microsoft Word files.
- iA Writer costs $9.99 on Mac and $3.99 on iOS.
Specific Writing Software for Mac
While you can write almost anything with Word (or Ulysses or Byword), they’re designed for pretty general work. Jacks of all trades but masters of none. If you want to do something really specific, like write a book or a screenplay, then you need to use a writing app that’s able to handle all the special formatting that’s required.
9. Scrivener 2 - Long Form Mac Writing Software
Scrivener is designed for writing longform documents. Things like novels and theses. If you’re writing something that’s less than 20,000 words, Scrivener is complete overkill. On the other hand, if you are writing the next great American novel, then Scrivener is perfect.
- Scrivener is $45 for the macOS app and $19.99 for the iOS app.
- It’s a “complete writing studio”. There’s a virtual corkboard so you can outline and organise your ideas, rearrange entire segments, and much more. Here’s our guide to getting started with Scrivener to help you find your way.
- Scrivener takes a non-linear approach. You can just start writing anywhere and move it into place later. Want to jump from working on chapter 15 to chapter 22? Go right ahead.
- Scrivener also has a file browser/research tab so you can keep all your research in the app as well.
10. Storyist - Robust Mac Book Writing App
Storyist, like Scrivener, is designed for writing books. The biggest difference isn’t in the feature set but in the interface. There is very little one can do that the other can’t. Both have free trials so, if you’re writing a book, the best thing to do is try them both out before settling on one.
- Storyist is $59 on Mac and $14.99 on iOS.
- Storyist has a more modern and clean interface than Scrivener which may appeal to some people.
11. Final Draft 10 - Powerful Screenwriting Mac Writing App
While Scrivener is the go to for writing novels, Final Draft 10 is the industry standard for screenwriting. The developers claim it’s used in 95% of film and television productions.
More than most other forms of writing, screenplays have very strict formatting conventions: everything is written in 12pt Courier on US letter paper with everything laid out in a certain way. Fail to stick to these conventions and you’ll just look like an amateur. Final Draft makes it easy write your next screenplay professionally.
- Final Draft is $249.99 for Mac.
12. Slugline - Simple Screenwriting Writing App for Mac
Final Draft is undeniably a professional app with a professional price tag. If you’re just looking to get to work on your first screenplay, it’s understandable that you’d want something that’s a little less expensive. This is where Slugline comes in.
For $39.99 you get a beautiful screenwriting app that’s designed just for the Mac. A printed screenplay written in Slugline will look identical to one written in Final Draft. It might not have as wide a use in the film industry, but it is being used in more and more productions.
As I said at the start, the biggest factor you need to consider when choosing a writing app is what you need. Slugline is awesome if you’re writing a movie, but it’s not very useful if you just want to publish an occasional blog post. Word is still the de facto standard, but Google Docs and Pages are decent, free competitors. Look at what you want to do and pick the app that suits you best. Many also offer free trials, so don’t be afraid to download a few different ones before you buy.
Whether you are tentatively planning your first ever blog post or are a best-selling novelist working on your latest blockbuster, there are plenty of apps out there designed for writers. But as writers are sometimes known for their procrastination techniques, and choosing the right app could be the excuse for putting off work on your Great American Novel for several days, we thought it would be helpful to provide a few pointers.
All of the apps featured are available for both Mac and iOS, as I feel it’s important that you can work on the move as well as at a desk. In my comments, though, I’m focusing on the Mac versions as that’s the platform on which most people are likely to do the bulk of their writing.
The obvious starting point, of course, is the app Apple gives you for free: Pages. In fact, some might question why you would ever need anything else, so let’s start with this before considering some of the alternatives …
Pages is a deceptively powerful app on both platforms with a superbly-designed user-interface. That’s because the app is intended to look simple and non-intimidating to new users, while offering plenty of features under the hood for power users. It achieves this by keeping the bells and whistles tucked away out of sight until you need them.
For example, create a new blank document and you’ll see a pretty clean view (below). By default, none of the formatting or page setup features are shown, just a single row of buttons with largely intuitive functions.
But as soon as you want to apply formatting, for example, clicking the Format button opens up a column offering everything from bold and italics through line-spacing, justification, indents, bullets, links, columns and borders – through to more advanced features like widow & orphan control (ensuring that a single word or line from a paragraph doesn’t end up on a new page). If you want to add tables, illustrations or photos, you can.
Pages uses iCloud by default, so you can create a document on your Mac, continue writing it on your iPad and add the finishing touches on your iPhone. That functionality is baked right in, so you don’t need to do anything special to take advantage of it.
If you’re writing for publication, you can export your manuscript to Word to send it to agents and publishers, or choose ePub to turn it into an iBook. Pages doesn’t, though, support other ebook formats like Kindle’s .mobi – which is one of several reasons I recommend using a more sophisticated app for a novel. But if you’re writing shorter pieces, and want to get to work straight away, Pages is a solid choice.
If you’re one of those people who seems to spend more time choosing your typeface and tweaking app settings than you do actually writing, iA Writer may be your saviour. The app has a super-minimalist UI designed to give a typewriter-style feel.
While you are actually typing, everything else disappears from the screen. No toolbar, no status bar, not even the header strip with close, minimize and maximize buttons. All you see is your virtual sheet of paper and your words.
If you want an even more typewriter-like feel, you can select typewriter mode, in which the text you’re typing stays centred on the virtual page and previous text scrolls upwards. This mode has an additional feature designed specifically for those writers who can’t resist going back to rewrite the paragraph they’ve just finished: text grays out as it scrolls up and away. I know some writers for whom this would be a godsend!
The minimalism of iA Writer continues under the hood: the file format is plain text, and the default location to save files is on iCloud. There are no decisions to make unless you specifically want to store the file elsewhere.
If you love the approach but can’t bring yourself to part with basic formatting, like italics, iA Writer supports Markdown. This allows codes to be used to indicate things like **bold** and *italics* while retaining a plain text format. If you’re not comfortable with Markdown, you do have the option of using the usual CMD-B and CMD-I keyboard shortcuts, and you can also select formatting from a status bar that appears when you mouseover the bottom of the page. (The top bar, too, appears only when you mouseover it.) However, the plain text format means that your Markdown codes will be visible.
The status bar additionally holds a wordcount, that you can change to characters, sentences or read-time.
Markdown supports HTML-style structures, so you also have the option of using things like multi-level headers, bullet-points and so on – with sensible keyboard shortcuts for each – but these are all tucked away out of sight.
By default, you see only the document on which you’re working, but you can show a sidebar with other documents if you need to switch back and forth between them – for example, between different chapters of a novel. But really iA Writer is all about that single-page view, with no distractions in sight.
In my view, if you aren’t writing things with complex structures or which require lots of formatting, and you are easily distracted, then iA Writer is the perfect writing app. It’s you, the words and very little else.
iA Writer costs $3.99 on iOS and $9.99 on Mac.
If you like the core idea of iA Writer but are working on more complex documents or are someone who likes to see an overview of their work – such as a series of novels – then Ulysses is well worth a look. This is essentially a more sophisticated version of iA Writer with asignificantly steeper price: $24.99 on iOS and $44.99 on Mac.
Like iA Writer, it is essentially based on plain text with Markdown – though it actually uses a proprietary file format – and offers many of the same features. It has typewriter mode, for example, but in a more configurable form. For example, you can decide whether or not you want the previous text to gray-out. If you do want this, you can choose between having the current line, sentence or paragraph highlighted. And so on.
That proprietary file format isn’t a big deal, by the way, as Ulysses allows you to export your work to HTML, docx (for compatibility with Word and Pages), PDF and ePub.
Ulysses offers three different views when writing. In the screenshot at the top, I have all three panes showing: Library, Sheets and Editor. You can see under iCloud, I have two different books listed, and I’m editing book 1, 2184. Pane 2 shows two chapters of that book, while pane shows the chapter I’m working on. But switching panes on or off is as simple as CMD-1, -2 or -3. This makes it really easy to jump between different chapters or sections while still retaining a clean, uncluttered view while actually writing.
The app can do pretty much everything iA Writer can do, so I won’t repeat features here, but it offers a lot more configurability. Whether this is a good or bad thing, of course, depends on your viewpoint!
For example, Ulysses supports multiple versions of Markdown, so if you have a preferred one, you can either select it from the choices offered – or even configure your own. If you choose one of the standard Markdown versions, you can customize it. For example, a hash mark (#) is the standard way to indicate heading level 1, but if you want to use a different character instead, you can.
You can also use various different themes and templates.
Ulysses automatically creates versioned backups of your work: hourly for the last 12 hours, daily for the last seven days and weekly for the past six months. This could be a life-saver if you do something silly like delete a chapter of your novel after deciding against it, then realizing that it would be the perfect event to happen later in the story.
If you are writing for a WordPress or Medium blog, Ulysses can be configured to allow direct publishing in either or both.
You can set wordcount goals and be notified when you hit them – something I find really useful when working on a novel and setting myself a goal of 2000 words per writing session. You can also tag text with keywords, enabling you to search for them later, as well as attaching notes or images.
In short, Ulysses is the app you want if you like the ‘text with markup’ philosophy of iA Writer but are working on more complex documents or want greater customization options.
Ulysses costs $24.99 on iOS and $44.99 on Mac.
I’ve saved my favorite writing app for last! I’ve written two technothriller novels (11/9 and The Billion Dollar Heist), a rom-com (not yet available in ebook form), a travel guide and – most recently – the first two books in an SF novella series, 2184 (which will be free next week) and Replicate. All of these were written in Scrivener, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t even consider writing a novel in anything else.
I’ve written full reviews of both the Mac app and the iOS one, so I’ll simply summarise the key benefits here.
To me, Scrivener is the app that does it all. Want an iA Writer-like distraction-free interface? Scrivener can do that. I have my Composition Mode set to white paper on a black background.
But the beauty of Scrivener is it can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Here are all the available preferences for this mode.
As you can see, you can set foreground color, background color, left & right margins, choose the type of scrolling (normal, typewriter, with or without fading) and more.
The configurability of Scrivener is unmatched by anything else I’ve ever seen. I consider myself a power user of the app, but I doubt that even I have ever delved into more than about 10% of the available settings.
One of the things I love about Scrivener is that it’s as useful for planning and editing as it is for writing. For example, when planning a novel, the app offers a corkboard view. You can write notes on virtual index cards, rearrange the cards, stack them, unstack them and so on until you have a plan.
By default, the corkboard looks like one, with a texture background and lined cards. I’m not a fan of either, but Scrivener’s famed configurability comes to the rescue and with a few clicks I have plain white cards on a plain grey background.
Once you’re ready to begin writing, those corkboard cards can be viewed as binder entries:
Again, I’ve changed the default appearance. I use color-coding to indicate the status of each chapter: green for written, orange for in progress, yellow for planned but not written, white for not planned and red for a problem I need to resolve or research I need to conduct. Once I’ve completed the first draft, I set everything back to yellow and then use the colors to indicate editing status.
You can also assign keywords to do things like bring up all the chapters in which a particular character is present, or which takes place at a particular location.
My technothrillers have multiple viewpoints, and I switch rapidly back-and-forth between them. Each time I switch viewpoint, I need to be able to see exactly where I left things. Scrivener makes it simple to do so, either clicking back and forth in the binder, or placing two chapters or sections side-by-side. Or one above the other. Or one free-floating. Again, customization options for the win.
Like Ulysses, Scrivener allows me to set wordcount targets – and it will by now come as no surprise to learn that these can be as simple or as complex as you like. Want a wordcount target for your current session? Go ahead. Want to complete your novel by 26th of April, writing on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons? Give Scrivener your target wordcount and it will automatically calculate targets for each writing session, adjusting them as required.
Need to refer to reference materials while you’re writing? You can have free-floating documents off to the side as you right. Same with graphics, be it a blueprint or a photo you’ve downloaded as inspiration for a character.
Researching things on the web? You can save offline copies of webpages and have them to hand as you write.
Oh, and don’t look for a Save button in Scrivener. The app does allow you to do a CMD-S just to make you feel happy, but by default it automatically saves your work each time you pause in your typing, and it also automatically creates versioned backups.
Once your manuscript is finally complete, Scrivener can output to just about every file format imaginable – including ebooks. Again, you can choose between the simplicity of output templates, or an insane degree of configurable options.
Check out the full reviews of Mac and iOS versions for more. But if you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the apps available to you and just want a single recommendation, mine would be: buy Scrivener.
Scrivener costs $19.99 on iOS and $45 on Mac.
If you have your own favorite writing apps, do share them in the comments.