Three months with Ulysses

I reflect on three months of using Ulysses, pony up for the annual subscription, and ponder if I’ll ever use it for writing fiction.


Three months ago I made something of a switch to Ulysses. Back then my motivation was to streamline the way I drafted and published blog posts. Yet, in the intervening time, the app's functionality and aesthetics have lured me deeper and deeper into its web. Now, everything I write that involves markdown — notes, blog posts, tutorials, reviews, my newsletter, world-building and more — is all done in Ulysses.

The reasons for this are simple. Ulysses has a unique blend of focus, simplicity, features and aesthetics. The more I use it, the more I appreciate it, and the less I tolerate needless complexity and friction.

In for the long haul

When Australia’s financial year ticked over in July, I ponied up the cash and changed my subscription to Ulysses’ yearly plan. The yearly plan saves me quite a bit, and since I write for a living, software such as this is tax deductible.

The change is a testament to my faith in the application, which has already been updated twice with new features since I started paying for it.

Syncing

Scrivener does a commendable job in trying to keep its highly complex project structure synchronised between devices. Indeed, its developer is to be saluted. Yet, I’ve said before Scrivener's file format is a millstone — around the developer's neck, and mine as a writer. I've had conflicts…some of which are my fault (leaving Scrivener running while I switch devices) and some of which are Dropbox's fault. When a conflict occurs, Scrivener has no built-in mechanism to compare and contrast and accept and reject.

Because Scrivener’s synching sucks, I avoid it unless necessary on my mobile devices. On the Mac, with Dropbox running as a background process, it’s seamless. But on mobile, I have a press a button and pray I don’t get a conflict. The idea of pressing a button to sync should have died out with Palm Pilots 15 years ago. Although I make an effort to sync with my iPad, I seldom sync with my iPhone which is a bummer because it’s the one device I always have with me.

I have never had a conflict with Ulysses.

I have never had to initiate a sync with Ulysses.

When I type, off my text goes, appearing on my phone/iPad/Mac in seconds. It’s marvellous!

Export

I used to love — and defend — Scrivener's compiling feature. I told myself, and anyone who listened, that it was excellent for power users. And it is, no doubt…yet, I've had enough of being a power user. I. Just. Want. To. Write.

When I'm done writing, I need the ability to export quickly to a format that meets the needs of the moment — TextBundle for my blog, Word for my editor, PDF for printing, ePub for tablets/readers.

Export in Ulysses is terrific.

Export in Ulysses is built on a workflow I understand, a workflow similar to what I use as a technical writer in my day job. It begins with plain text, and that plain text is merged and compiled into the format of my choice using an easy-to-understand template system that's similar to CSS.

It's incredibly fast and it behaves exactly the same way on iOS and macOS.

That said, I’ve encountered a few niggles. The main one being I haven’t found a way to select combinations of sheets within a nested group. My blog requires a metadata block for articles, but Ulysses unhelpfully attempts to export this block into an HTML document. So, as a solution I thought of including the block in a second sheet, but alas on export Ulysses will still pick up and add the sheet where I don’t want it.

As a workaround, I’ve considered adding the block after I export in MultiMarkdown Composer. Still, as black marks go, it’s more light grey.

The elephant with the typewriter

My last holdout was and remains the writing of fiction. Scrivener still has Ulysses pegged in many ways for creating huge books. Its strength is its organisational power — it has an outliner, corkboard, the Binder, a flexible panelling system, custom metadata and about 52 ways to create and add notes to your project. But it's bloated, its manual is a whopping 849 pages — it's turned into MS Word, trying to be all things to all people from novelists to screenwriters to specialised non-fiction authors in every imaginable field. Regarding features, Scrivener gives the $1648 MadCap Flare a run for its money. And, that’s awesome, but for writing anything smaller than a novella, it’s a massive exercise in overkill.

Ironically, where Scrivener is concerned, I've come to prefer drafting with its limited iOS companion because it does a good job dialling back on the clutter and complexity of its desktop counterpart.

Rich and plain text

I generally prefer rich text for writing fiction, and somehow I’ve convinced myself rich text is connected to the creative parts of my brain. This is bullshit — text is text. I've written in plain text for years, including an entire novel in Markdown back when I was using Linux exclusively.

This is bullshit — text is text.

Ulysses is a plain text editor at heart, but it supports inline formatting and smart quotes. With only a few tweaks in the settings, I’ve made the Ulysses editor mirror my preferences in Scrivener, including my favourite writing font, size and leading1. I can even set a first line indent, which I use for fiction but not for non-fiction.

Ulysses general seetings tweaked to my preference
Ulysses general seetings tweaked to my preference

Still no outlining solution

I recently ran an experiment to see if I could use OmniOutliner in tandem with Ulysses, but the experience left me wanting. However, something much more promising would be to use Aeon Timeline, which as I noted in my OmniOutliner review, does talk directly to Ulysses. Since I already own Aeon Timeline, it’s an experiment I’m looking forward to conducting later on.

Another reason why I haven’t written any fiction in Ulysses is my current project — The Lords of Skeinhold — is all contained within a single Scrivener project, and I see no reason to change.

Concluding remarks

So, to say I’ve been happy with Ulysses is an understatement. It’s more than improved my blogging workflow and is a much nicer place in which to write than all the other markdown-oriented writing apps I’ve tested. Its export feature has enabled me to easily transform articles into different formats, allowing me to conduct my first content upgrade experiments.

Writing fiction as yet remains out of its domain for me. I’m still more than happy with Scrivener. At some point, I think it’s inevitable that I’ll try it, but I really need a solid outlining system that integrates well before I attempt anything as structurally complex as a novel.

I don’t see this as a problem. I’ve no time for fanboyism — although I’m a Mac user, I have a Windows box for gaming. I see no issue with using Scrivener for fiction and Ulysses for articles.

While I’m still not enamoured with subscription pricing, the yearly plan and the fact its a tax-deductible expense for me means the cost is negligible. If it assures the developer stays in business longer, all the better. If not, well there’s always iA Writer!


  1. Aka line height 

Comments

Avatar
Steven Luotto

Posted on

I do all my scribe work (I translate screenplays, treatments and synopses) on handhelds (iPad Mini). No external keyboard. I tried and appreciated Ulysses, but for my editing intensive line of work (read original, tap in translation, forward delete old) I had to give it up in disgust... the deletion is all done with finger painting. Far better Notebooks 8.

1 touch to zap a word (also consecutive action)

1 touch to zap a paragraph (also consecutive action)

1 touch to cancel anywhere from within a paragraph to the end of the selfsame.

1 touch to cancel to the first instance of a period, a comma or a question mark.

2 touches to cancel to the first instance of any other punctuation mark or symbol (particularly useful with Markdown (I use Fountain for screenplays) "X" amount of touches to cancel to any word but way the hell faster than Ulysses (that requires keen eye to guide pudgy finger over tiny text).

Then, once you're through editing, I might agree that Ulysses is great (for saving in all kinds of formats), but for the actual meat and potatoes of editing... well, on a handheld, it's stuck with the same method used for tweets and WhatsApp's when instead... editing on a handheld IS (not could be, but already IS) snappier than what's normal on a regular computer... and you can be slouching, lying in bed, sitting in the park...

Murphy's Law.... now that editing has become so powerful on a handheld, Apple kills the iPad Mini... ahh, if only Ulysses had implemented connective editing!


Avatar
Chris Rosser

Posted on

Thanks the comment Steven!

I agree that Ulysses isn’t going to solve everyone’s problem nor work perfectly with everyone’s workflow. Yours certainly sounds interested and I hadn't really thought about a translator's needs before.

Ah, the iPad mini. Certainly my favourite device and it’s what I use when I’m on the move. When I draft on the iPad, I use it with an external keyboard, which Ulysses supports very well.

Thanks for mentioning Notebooks 8, I’ll check it out!

Avatar
brookter

Posted on

An interesting article, thank you!

Just a comment on using Ulysses for writing a blog. I use Wordpress and include custom CSS at the top of every post (I never use the 'visual' editor, everything is in the plain text side because the visual editor is rubbish...), and have a standard Acknowledgements block using Hide/Show at the bottom.

I have a low-tech way of getting round the problem you highlight of not being able to include documents from different folders, which is simply to have a 'Current' folder and an 'Archive' folder. The Current folder is just three documents:

  1. the CSS header (all contained in a 'Raw Source Block' — which is essential.
  2. the text I'm working on.
  3. the Acknowledgement block — again in a Raw Source Block.

When the time comes to submit, all I need to do is choose all three and cmd-6 and it's done.

The Raw Source is necessary for the CSS block, of course, to pass all the angle brackets in the CSS through, otherwise they get mangled into > etc. I do the same for embedded Getty Image blocks etc in the actual text.

When the time comes for another post, I drag the middle sheet into Archive, create a new one in Current and it's done. There’s no need to archive the CSS etc because it’s all repeating stuff.

I'm sure there are cleverer ways, but this seems to work without any fuss. I don't know if this would help your particular 'niggle', but just in case...


Avatar
Chris Rosser

Posted on

Hi Brookter,

Thanks very much for the comment and the suggestion. For the most part, I've settled on creating one sheet per article -- even on the longer reviews and blocking out the metadata as raw source. Not ideal, but I've learnt to live with it.

Thanks again! CR

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