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.

| Reviews | 5 min read

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 

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