Software & Apps

Type Different: Text Editors for the Mac

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Text Editors for the Mac

Everyone who uses a Mac types words; sometimes in an email app, other times on Facebook, and often in a word processor. You may write in the ubiquitous Microsoft Word, or in Apple’s Pages, which is provided free on your Mac. You may even use a different word processor—there are several options available.

You may recall that Microsoft announced the end of support for Office 2011, and if you don’t use the app often, you may not want to pay a monthly subscription fee for Office 365. And Pages may be too complex for what you write. While it’s easy to use, it has a lot of features that can get in the way if you just want to write something simple.

Many people have shifted to using text editors to write on their Macs. These are apps that generally don’t offer any formatting, just plain text. They free you from the hassle of styles and fonts and let you focus on what you write. Instead of working around a complex app that wants to do more than you need, a text editor lets you focus on writing text.

In this article, you’ll learn why you might want to use a text editor for the Mac, and I’ll even recommend some favorite apps for you to try.

Why a Text Editor?

Depending on what you write, you may need to use complex styles that someone has prepared in a template, such as for Microsoft Word, or you may be writing for a website, where styles and formatting don’t exist. (Well, they do, but in HTML and CSS, not in the texts you write for them.)

Text editors were created as tools for developers, people who write code, who need certain features, such as syntax coloring (different types of code show up in different colors), regular spacing and indents, and more. The granddaddy of Mac text editors is BBedit, and this app is one of the most powerful tools for this type of text.

If you need to use complex styles, you don’t have many choices, and if you need to write code, there are a number of options. But if you just want a blank page to type your text, there are many excellent Mac apps.

I use a text editor for much of my writing (including this article). It’s slimmed down, fast, and there are no toolbars or inspectors to distract me. If I do need formatting—bold, italic, etc.—I use Markdown, a simple way of indicating formatting with text characters only. I can then paste the text into a web page, send it by email, or convert the file to HTML if necessary.

Text Editors for Mac

Below are some text editor options you should consider for your Mac.

iA Writer

The $29.99 iA Writer is my tool of choice. It’s fast and lean, and it has the simplest design of Mac text editors. Like many text editors, it handles Markdown formatting, offering a preview view so you can see how your text will look with bold, italics, lists, and more. It has a full-screen mode, where I can hide everything but what I’m typing, and a focus mode, so I can highlight the paragraph I’m working on. (The rest of the text shows up in a light gray.) And, while it only offers one font, I love the the specially designed Nitti Sans typeface it uses. I wish I could use that font in other apps…

iA Writer displays your files in its Library, which can include folders on your Mac, on iCloud, Dropbox, and more. This lets you organize files and access them easily. It lets you publish directly to Medium or WordPress, and also has companion apps for iOS, allowing me to continue writing on my iPad or iPhone when needed. It stores files in iCloud, or Dropbox, so it’s a truly versatile solution.


Focused is an attractive, uncluttered app with an interesting feature set. It takes a slightly different approach from the others. Its intent is providing a writing environment that blocks out distractions. In addition to handling Markdown, with inline formatting, it has a nifty typewriter mode (which keeps your cursor at the vertical center of your window as you type), and a sentence and paragraph focus mode, which, like iA Writer, dims everything other than the current sentence or paragraph.

But it also has a “Zen Mode,” which goes full screen, and offers a few soothing musical soundtracks. I generally choose my own music, but Focused’s Zen Mode may be the thing for people who need help concentrating.


Your Mac comes with a text editor: TextEdit. You’ll find it in the Applications folder. This app allows you to write in two ways: in RTF (rich text format), which allows you to apply standard formatting, and even add images to files, and plain text. By default, it launches in RTF mode, but you can change this in the app’s preferences, or in the Format menu (Make Plain Text).

TextEdit is not very pretty in plain text mode; the text sits nearly flush with the left edge of your window and the top toolbar, but if you just need to write something occasionally, it may work for you.

It has the advantage of being fast and lithe, but there is no corresponding app for iOS. So if you use this to write on your Mac, and need an equivalent on iOS, you’ll have to find another app.

Other Options

There are a number of other text editors for Mac, but you may already be using an app that can double as a basic writing tool. Apple’s Notes is essentially a simple text editor, with the advantage that it syncs across your devices via iCloud. You don’t even have to save your work; just type and go.

While you can change the font in a new note, you cannot set a default font, which might be a problem if you don’t like typing with the system font, San Francisco. And you can’t export your notes in any format other than PDF, so if you want to save them as text files, you’ll need to open another app, copy your text, then paste it.

Evernote is another app that includes a text editor feature in its information and note gathering interface. If you already use Evernote, you can leverage this tool for writing just about anything. On the surface, it’s a basic text editor, but it’s more like TextEdit in rich text mode. As you can see in this screenshot, the toolbar offers a number of formatting options, including font and size, bold, italic, lists, and more. You can also add graphics and voice notes.

Like Apple Notes, Evernote syncs to the cloud. So if you do use this service, you can start writing on your Mac, pick up on your iPad, and finish on your iPhone. Unfortunately, you can’t export a note as a plain text file; only Evernote’s own XML format or HTML. So if you do need to send a text file to someone, then you’ll need to pass through another app.

Whatever you choose, you may find, like I do, that you can do much of your writing in a text editor. It’s simple, fast, and less cluttered than a word processor. And you’ll be able to record all your words, just with fewer formatting options. Try one out and see if it works for you.

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About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Apple products and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast, as well as several other podcasts, and is a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than two dozen books, including Take Control books about Apple's media apps, Scrivener, and LaunchBar. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →