How iWork Works: The Basics of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote

Have you always dismissed Apple’s productivity apps as unsuitable for your office needs? I did, ever since I bought my first Mac a couple of years ago.

The unfamiliar interface and features of the iWork apps represented a learning curve that I didn’t have the time or the inclination to navigate. Until recently.

As part of my attempt to create a minimalist and more efficient Mac experience , I’m exploring various first party macOS apps such as Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. I invite you to explore them along with me. You might just discover that iWork has the potential to be your go-to office suite after all.

What’s in a Name?

Apple’s office productivity apps were collectively known as iWork. That changed (or so it seems) once the applications in the suite — Pages, Numbers, and Keynote — made an appearance as individual apps on the Mac App Store. But the “iWork” name persists on the Apple website, so we’ll stick with that name in the interest of clarity and simplicity.

iwork webpage

To be clear, Pages is for word processing, Numbers is for creating spreadsheets, and Keynote is for creating presentations.

Get Pages, Numbers, and Keynote on Your Mac

If you bought a Mac on or after October 1, 2013, it probably came with Pages, Numbers, and Keynote pre-installed. In any case, it qualifies for a free installation of the iWork apps, and you can download them from the Mac App Store anytime.

For a 30-day window after your Mac purchase, you can also get the iWork apps for free via Apple’s Up-To-Date program. Conditions apply! iWork’s zero-dollar price tag is not the only reason you should install the suite though.

If you have a pre-2013 Mac, which doesn’t qualify for free installation of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, downloading them will set you back $19.99 per app.

If you already have the iWork apps installed on your Mac, upgrade them to their latest versions: Pages 6, Numbers 4, and Keynote 7.

Although Apple has improved the iWork apps over the years and introduced a few much-needed features, it has also removed some good features in the process. At least that’s what some seasoned iWork users have reported on the web. Some of the popular old features are making a comeback though.

What You Can Do With iWork Apps

If your office requirements are basic, Microsoft Office-like applications can feel like too much work to figure out. Speaking of their interface, the number and variety of menus, toolbars, buttons, tabs, and links dotting the screen can be overwhelming.

In contrast, the clean and clutter-free interface of Apple’s office applications can be comforting. Don’t equate the lack of visual elements with a lack of features though. Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are full of features to help you create stunning word documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Password-protected ones at that.

Let’s see what we can do across any and all three iWork apps. I’ll leave the application-specific features for you to discover on your own.

Set Up a Distraction-Free Screen

Pages, Numbers, and Keynote have similar interfaces and present their features in an easy-to-digest format. Options and settings stay hidden until you need them. They appear based on context, such as when you select a certain element on the page or click on a specific toolbar button.

All formatting options are accessible from the menu bar, which isn’t much of a distraction because you can hide the macOS menu bar system wide .

In each iWork application, there’s one primary toolbar and one primary sidebar (called Inspector) to deal with. You can hide both via the View menu to create a distraction-free interface. It’s a pity those two elements don’t disappear automatically when you switch to full screen mode.

pages main toolbar

Of course, the layout changes a little depending on the iWork application you’re in. For example, Pages gets a word count display, Numbers gets an extra set of tabs for sheets, and Keynote gets an extra sidebar for slide thumbnails. Keep in mind that some these elements won’t show up by default.

keynote sidebar

All in all, iWork makes for a soothing (I would say enjoyable) experience. Memorize the keyboard shortcuts for toggling the toolbar (Cmd + Option + T), Inspector (Cmd + Option + I), and Full Screen mode (Ctrl + Cmd + F) and you can have a distraction-free setup super quick any time you wish.

Work From a Template

Templates are a sensible way to start working on any document. They take away the fear of the blank page and save you time you would otherwise have spent on setting up a document from scratch and making it pretty.

All three iWork apps give you a decent set of starter templates covering a wide range of requirements, not something slapped together haphazardly either. The templates are beautiful and loo professional. They’ll pop up whenever you open an iWork app and choose to create a new document.

Pages has templates for resumes, flyers, business cards, newsletters, birthday cards, and so on.

pages templates

Numbers covers everything from personal finance to education to business. You’ll find templates for net worth calculations, invoices, travel planning, loan comparison, recipes, and grade books.

numbers templates

Keynote’s templates are more like visual themes that will set the tone of your presentation.

keynote themes

Of course, you don’t have to start with a template. You can start with a blank document and build it up as you go along, and maybe even turn that into a custom template for future use. You can even create new or download other templates shared online.

Style Content

In a few clicks you can change the look and feel of anything you put into an iWork document. You get enough options to tweak the size, color, and arrangement of text and other elements. To reveal the formatting options, click on the Format button (paintbrush icon) in the top right section of any iWork app.

pages open format button

Now, what you see in the fly-out Format menu will vary depending on the application you’re in and the element you have selected in the document.

For example, in Pages, if you have selected a bit of text, you’ll see options to change the text style, add borders, remove ligatures, and so on. If you have selected an image, you’ll see options to enhance it, replace it, make bits of the image transparent, and so on. In Keynote, you can add effects and edit the master slide via the formatting sidebar.

pages open format menu

Insert Graphics

Information is easier to grasp at a glance when you distill it into a graphic like an image, table, or a chart. You can insert any or all of those three elements in an iWork document via the Table, Chart, and Media buttons placed in the central section of the toolbar.

chart table media buttons

With the Media button you can add not only images, but also audio and video files. The Chart button gives you many 2D and 3D charts to pick from, and some interactive ones too!

pages chart options

If you want to add shapes and lines to the document, click on the Shape button to get started. It includes a pen tool to create custom shapes.

pages draw options

Consider the graphic elements as mere starting points or templates. You can transform their look via the Format sidebar menu like you would do for text and images.

graphics options

Work With Microsoft Office Files

iWork saves files in Apple’s proprietary file formats by default. Text documents get saved with the extension .PAGES, spreadsheets with .NUMBERS, and presentations with .KEY. The good news is that you can also work with Microsoft Office files in iWork, whether it’s importing .DOCX/.XLSX/.PPTX (or .DOC/.XLS/.PPT) files into iWork or exporting them in one of those formats.

Apart from the usual Office file formats , you can export files to other formats including PDF, EPUB, CSV, HTML, and QuickTime, depending on the application you’re exporting from.

You might come across the odd formatting problem with imported Office files, but it won’t seem “unfixable” once you have a better idea of how iWork works.

Open Multiple Documents Side by Side

Starting with macOS Sierra , many stock apps including Pages, Numbers, and Keynote support tabs.

Opening, closing, and switching tabs in iWork apps works like it does in Safari and other mainstream browsers, so you’ll likely already be used to the feature. A tabbed interface means you don’t need frenzied three-finger slides on the trackpad to switch between multiple documents. A simple point-and-click action or a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl + Tab) will do.

I would recommend hiding the tab bar from the View menu to get a little more screen space. That bar will show up by itself anyway when you open multiple documents. You could also use the shortcut Shift + Cmd + T to toggle the tab bar.

Add Comments

Adding comments to specific portions of a document is a great way to leave notes for yourself and/or others. Whether you want to ask a question, highlight a correction, or add a suggestion, placing a comment in the relevant location works as an effective reminder to take action.

To add a comment to an iWork document, select any element within it and click on the Comment button in the toolbar. A small yellow box pops up near the selected element for you to enter your comment.

comment box

Using the navigational arrows in the comment box you can go back and forth among all the comments in the document. As you do, the relevant section of the document appears highlighted. You’ll find a Delete button for each comment, and you can get rid of any of the comments from a single comment box.

If you want to see all the comments in a neater format, click on View > Show Comments Pane. This shows the comments in a sidebar list.

pages comments pane

Use iWork Apps Online

If you log in with your Apple ID at, you can work with the iWork apps right from your browser. The apps are similar to their desktop counterparts, if a little less colorful and a tad slow to respond.

You’ll have to deal with a few limitations when you’re working on documents on Despite those, iWork for iCloud is a handy solution for creating office documents from anywhere, anytime. When you have an active internet connection that is.

numbers online

You don’t even need an Apple device to access and use the web-based iWork apps. As long as you have an Apple ID, you’re in. Head to to get started — even from a Windows PC. login

Collaborate in Real-Time

A real-time collaboration setup is a common feature in productivity apps these days, and now Apple has added it to iWork. To use the collaboration feature in any iWork app, you’ll have to upgrade the app to its latest version.

To invite others to collaborate on a document, click on Share > Collaborate With Others… or on the Collaborate button in the toolbar and follow the on-screen instructions.

You’ll get a prompt to add people and set permissions for the document. You’ll also get the option to copy a link to the document in case you want to share the link with someone via an email, a message, or a different medium.

iwork collaborate

I’ll leave it to this detailed Apple support page to explain the intricacies of collaboration in iWork apps. Don’t forget the feature isn’t quite finished yet, so you may encounter some bugs until the feature leaves the beta stage.

Collaborating on an iWork document with a Windows user is possible, but that user will need an Apple ID. can be your meeting point, as we discussed in the section above.

Back Up to iCloud Drive

The way iCloud Drive functions can seem confusing at times. To avoid data loss , keep your documents backed up to a USB drive or a different location on your Mac before you experiment with cloud backup for iWork documents.

If you have set up iCloud Drive on your Mac, when you save any iWork document as is, it gets backed up to iCloud Drive automatically. You’ll find the document in the appropriate iCloud Drive folder (Pages, Numbers, or Keynote).

iwork icloud drive

Remember, you can choose to bypass the default “save” location and pick a different one, within or outside iCloud Drive.

Say you don’t want macOS to back up documents from Pages to the cloud. Tell it so by hopping over to System Preferences > iCloud > iCloud Drive > Options… and unchecking the box next to Pages. After you tweak this setting and head back to iCloud Drive in Finder, you’ll notice that the Pages folder has disappeared.

iCloud Drive is also available on Windows.

icloud drive for windows

Work on Mobile

Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are available for the iPhone and iPad, once again for the attractive price of free — that is, if you activated your iOS device on or after September 1, 2013. For devices older than that, you’ll have to pay $9.99 for each of the mobile apps.

keynote ios

Once you have acquainted yourself with the iWork desktop apps, you’ll have no trouble finding your way around their mobile counterparts. Even if you aren’t all that familiar with the former, you’ll figure out the mobile workflow in no time.

You can access iWork documents stored in iCloud Drive from your iOS device. The sync works both ways, meaning you can also back up new documents and changes to existing documents to iCloud Drive from your iOS device. It’s a convenient way to access and edit documents on the go.

Focus on the Pros

Generic comparisons of iWork (or any other office suite for that matter) with Microsoft Office are inevitable, but probably pointless. That’s because what you need from an office suite will have a major impact on whether you think iWork is good, or at least good enough.

If, like me, you want to use iWork mainly to organize your life or create beautiful stationery , the missing features may not bother you too much.

If you’ll be dealing with research papers, manuscripts, advanced data systems, and so on, iWork might not work for you. That’s not to say you can’t create complex documents with iWork, but you might run into a few hurdles — some of them insurmountable — while adapting to iWork’s way of doing things.

In case you find that iWork isn’t right for the kind of documents you want to create, you can always fall back on Microsoft Office for Mac or one of its alternatives , or keep both Office and iWork. Who’s to say you can’t use them side by side on your Mac?

I would say focus on what you can do with the available features in iWork and you’ll get more satisfying results than you thought possible. If the apps are already sitting on your devices, free of charge, what have you got to lose?

What Do You Think of iWork?

Before you launch Microsoft Office on your Mac or switch to one of the apps from Google’s trusty office suite, take a look at Apple’s own effort, iWork. Really look. You just might end up agreeing with me that some of the best Mac software comes pre-installed .

Have you experimented with iWork? Are you wary of using it more? Do you think it has the potential to be your primary office suite?

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