Review: Byword

I love to write on a clean slate. Despite how far technology has and will continue to evolve, I still find something incredibly organic about the simple act of picking up a pen and putting it to paper. I feel as if – even for a split second – there’s an absolute focus. That everything else can fade away while you take down whatever thought might be inside your head.

It’s a simple inevitability that the digital shift will continue. When it comes to writing, one sense of frustration I have always found is that my brain thinks of what I want to write several times faster than what I am physically able to write with a pen and paper. My typing, on the other hand, is much faster. Because of this, I’ve long been searching for an elegant, minimal writing application which lets me – as much as is possible – recreate the feeling I get when putting pen to paper in a digital context.

Byword would have to be that app.

I first became aware of Byword due to their company, Metaclassy, being an RSS sponsor for a week on Shawn Blanc’s site. For someone who is as good a writer as Shawn, to say that Byword “is one of my favorite apps to write in” was more than enough to get me curious. This took me through to Byword’s page on the Mac App Store. I was instantly intrigued at how minimalistic the interface is:

Screenshot of Byword

On their site, Metaclassy describe Byword as “a writing app that gives you just the tools you need to write Markdown and rich text with as less friction as possible.” They use familiar marketing expressions such as “beautiful” and “comprehensive.” A tall order, certainly. But let me assure you that there’s no hyperbole here. Byword lives up to these promises by knowing its limits – it does only what it needs to do, and it does that very well.

Anyone who’s ever used a more-advanced text editor1 should be able to figure out what Metaclassy mean when they say “less friction,” and I would argue that “little distraction” is perhaps more accurate. Byword’s not short on features. You can apply basic formatting (in either Rich Text or Markdown – which you can also preview and export). You can export what you’ve written to .pdf, .html, .rtf, Word and LaTeX if you wish; you can check spelling and grammar; you can automatically replace smart quotes, smart dashes and hyphenation. And, of course, you’ve got an abundance of keyboard shortcuts to achieve all of this.

I think you get the idea – Byword’s not short on features. However, here’s a screenshot of what appears on my screen when I open a new document in Byword:

New document in Byword

A blinking cursor on a blank screen.2 That’s it. And, to be honest, that’s all you actually need to write. All those features I mentioned above are hidden, allowing you to write with focus, free of distraction. This is where Byword truly excels.

I think this is best exemplified by the Format Popover. It can be invoked at any time with a simple key command (⌘-T). If you’re not using it, it’s not there. You don’t see it. This is far better than having a formatting toolbar constantly sitting at the top of your screen which you may actually only use a small fraction of the time. After all, if it can’t be hidden when you’re not using it, then isn’t it just another distraction from writing?

You’ll notice that my default mode is white text on a black background. By default it’s the opposite, and that’s likely to be what you’re used to seeing in a text editing application. For the first couple of weeks, I kept Byword in its default black-text-on-white-background mode, for no other reason than that was the default, and what I was familiar with. But, on a whim, I switched to white-on-black. I absolutely love it. It’s so much easier on my eyes, and I couldn’t go back.

Preferences Window

Unsurprisingly, Byword’s elegant simplicity extends to its preferences pane – allowing you to customise no more than you really need to, without giving you the opportunity to waste time fiddling with settings.

I’ve been in touch with Metaclassy several times – both before and after purchasing Byword – and they’ve always responded very quickly. Not only that, but they’ve been exceptionally helpful and eager to hear feedback. Metaclassy seem genuinely interested in building a rapport with their customers, and I can’t praise them enough for this. And, because they have done this, I feel confident that if I need to contact Metaclassy in the future, I’ll get fast, helpful support. Byword itself is wonderful, but combined with the excellent support I’ve received from Metaclassy it’s nothing short of exceptional.

I wasn’t aware of this until I googled it, but Byword means a person or thing cited as a notorious and outstanding example or embodiment of something. And Byword certainly is an outstanding example of a text editor. Byword has helped make my writing more focused, which in turn has made me feel much more productive.

Byword is absolute simplicity at its best.

  1. Microsoft Word, I’m looking at you. 

  2. While Byword certainly looks good as a window, it looks amazing in full-screen mode in Lion. If you’re on a Mac but you’re not using Lion, you’re really missing out.