Essay: Writing for the Web on the iPad

Typing on the iPad is somewhat of a mixed blessing. Sure, you can hammer out a quick email or two, or maybe edit a quick document, but can you really use it to write a full article?

Well, I’m about to find out. That’s because right now, I’m writing this article in Essay, a word processing program for the iPad. But what makes this app different from the others is that it doesn’t focus on using Microsoft Word or Pages format, it uses HTML instead.

See how the experiment works by hitting that more link.

The Basics

Chances are pretty good that you’ve used a word processor before, and if so, then you’ve got the basics of Essay down already.

Well, let me clarify that a little bit: If you’ve written in WordPress before, then Essay should seem familiar. That’s because Essay is based in HTML, so the options work the same way. There’s your regular underline, italics and strikeout, but instead of changing font sizes, you assign a sentence or paragraph a type, such as a Section or a Subsection.

The basic screen displays your font settings on the right.

The basic screen displays your font settings on the right.

It also supports Markdown, a plain text markup language that many web writers love, making the app ideal for those who frequently publish their work online. And since it is so web friendly, when I’m done with this article I’m just going to email it to myself, and all of the web copy will be pre-formatted for me.

Sharing Options

Email isn’t the only way to get your files shared between different locations. Essay also has Dropbox sync, one of my favorite ways to move files between machines. You can also print out the doc if need be, and there’s an iTunes sync option as well. Or simply open up files sent to you in Mail or stored on your Dropbox folder using Essay, which allows you to edit them on the go, then send them back if need be.

Setting up Dropbox sync is as simple as signing into your account.

Setting up Dropbox sync is as simple as signing into your account.

What Sets It Apart From the Rest?

Well, this is where things get a bit more complicated. Other than the HTML thing, Essay functions just like any other word processor. Of course, that “HTML thing” is exactly what sets it apart.

Take the linking situation, for example. With Essay, you can link documents on your iPad to each other, which lets you create an internal Wiki of sorts to organize your thoughts and information. Imagine how great that would be to have if you were writing a book, and wanted to link a character’s name to their bio. Or maybe you’re putting together a term paper, and you want to link your research to the document itself, it’s no problem.

Although the interface is simple, moving around can be tricky.

Although the interface is simple, moving around can be tricky.

The other standout feature is Snipbox. Think of Snipbox the way you think of Instapaper; Click on a bookmarklet in mobile Safari, then the highlighted item is sent off to Snipbox. This item can be dropped into the text, either as a link or otherwise, making things like research papers that much easier.

What Doesn’t Work?

On Essay’s iTunes page, the first quote is one from, extolling the virtues of the interface and how great it is. I don’t see it.

Emailing a file is simple and quick.

Emailing a file is simple and quick.

There are two boxes on either side of the screen that expand or contract depending on what you want to show. To open the box on the right, you put your finger in the top right corner, then drag it to the center of the screen, and you do the opposite for the box on the left.

This is a gesture completely foreign to me and the iPad, and I don’t find it intuitive at all; In fact, it caused me to pause anytime I wanted to open or close one of those dialogue boxes. Switching into full screen mode was as simple as pinching or zooming out, just like you do with an image, but it all seemed superfluous in a word processor.

Final Thoughts

After spending an hour or so with the program, I started to realize that I may not be the target demographic. Yes, I’m a writer, and yes, I’m a writer for the web. But I’m also not familiar with Markup, nor do I have a real need to use it for the type of work that I do. For one of those people, a program like Essay would work out really well, and stand head and shoulders above iAWriter or Pages.

Overall, and despite the interface, I do find it a good program to use. I don’t think it’s my favorite word processing program on the iPad, but I do enjoy using it more than some others that I’ve tried, including Pages. Plus, the internal linking feature is just great, and something I may use on a future project. It’s not the word processor app for everyone, but I did enjoy using it, and maybe you will too.


Write on your iPad just like you would on your computer, with the resulting files optimized for web work.

  • Julia Altermann

    Hi Kevin,

    I’ve been using Essay on both iPhone and iPad for quite a while now and it’s become my favorite editor, replacing Plain Text which until then was my app of choice.

    I don’t use Markup at all, I don’t even know how it works, but the HTML “thing”, as you rightly called it, makes the app worthwhile for me. I can write most of my articles in Essay, sync to Dropbox and then copy and paste it right into my WordPress account without losing any of the formatting. GREAT time saver.

    About the user interface: I think once you understand how to work it (sliding your finger left and right to reveal/hide the additional options) I find it very easy to use. Especially on the iPad I think it’s very comfortable to hide all areas except the ones you need and then have a lot of room to write.

    But I guess, as you pointed out, it’s a matter of taste. :)

    BTW: The developers name is Dirk Holtwick; you switched his name and surname around 😉

  • Brad

    Too bad it’s not available in the States yet, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for.

    • ahmed

      Actually, I don’t think it’s available at all. The dev and the app have mysteriously gone AWOL.

  • Japh

    I’m curious to try this app… but you don’t link to it in the article, and I can’t seem to find it on the iTunes App Store. Also, the official site ( ) is rather sparse too. Any clues on how I can get hold of it?

    • cherienat

      If you click on his name when you go to it will take you to his blog… but you’re right the app is missing from store!

  • Ahmed

    This is a mystery. The developer was quite active before (he even has a couple of youtube videos from a while back), and he used to update his blog fairly regularly. But now the app is no longer available on the App Store, the blog is down, and there is no response from the dev even if you contact him via the in-app feedback function/email. Strange…

    • Hammy Havoc

      That was exactly what I was thinking. I came to the conclusion that he moved onto bigger and better things.

  • Ahmed

    Aside from the mysterious absence of the developer (I hope things are OK), the app is definitely one of my favourites. With all respect to Kevin, I think the score is quite harsh compared to what iA writer for example received. To me, Essay gets just the right balance between a minimalist writing interface and the needed functions of a word processor. When you need a clean and empty slate free of distractions, it’s easily achieved by just moving into full screen. But once you’ve got your words down, you do need to do some basic formatting and this is where Essay gives you those basic formatting functions with ease, without being too cluttered and complex.

    My one major gripe was with the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a way to delete the contents of the snippet box. So everything you ever copied and pasted gets stored there forever (?), which is raises a whole load of objections.

    But overall, in my personal use, it is the perfect balance between the minimalist relatively feature-lacking apps like iA writer and others. Yes, iA writer does have some interesting features, but in my experience, they aren’t as useful as made out to be in the end (in my use). That extra row of keys above seemed very handy initially, but then I realised that if I got used that extra top row, it would disrupt how I type in other applications using the standard stock keyboard as I would have become accustomed to certain important keys being on the top instead of where they were originally put.

    So the Essay app is a great word processor that hangs out with the best up there in my opinion. But anyone who hasn’t got this app can’t yet download it due to the absence of the app from the store, as well as the absence of the developer.

  • Hiram

    The developer’s disappearance is a bit worrying. I am writing a book using Essay, and if the app is no longer supported, that’s not as good an idea as it was before… I hope he’s fine. It seems strange to just vanish, without an explanation. And Essay wasn’t finished yet; it could be improved. A month or so ago, the developer did answer my email about future improvements.