Writing With Ulysses

In recent weeks there has been a good deal of discussion around the release of the updated Mac version of this writing app from developer The Soulmen, which also coincided with the release of an iPad version to go with it.

Ulysses-Mac-128x128
Ulysses – Mac

As I have written about previously, I am a recent convert to the Mac app, and earlier this year began using the iPad beta version prior to the full release (affording little value to the developer during the bata period mind you). What follows should be taken as it is intended, simply a few thoughts on how I find both the Mac and iPad applications (certainly not an exhaustive review), and why I enjoy writing with them — from a somewhat less than power user of both.

Ulysses-iOS-120x120
Ulysses – iPad

It is certainly not to sell you on Ulysses – after all, writing is writing — a keyboard and (hopefully) output. There are many other apps out there which may suit your particular needs far better than this one, and I suspect those who are entrenched in something like Scrivener might read these words and be quite happy they already have everything covered. Of course if that is the case there remains the iPad to consider, depending on where your writing occurs.

Other writing apps

A point to note here is that I have been an avid iOS user for around three and a half to four years now (both iPad and iPhone), and a Mac user for two, during which time, most of my writing has occurred in Byword on both the iPad and Mac. Over time I moved to Editorial on my iPad mini, although continued with Byword on the Mac, syncing both through Dropbox.

Although I do have the iPhone versions of both Byword and Editorial, I have never really taken to longer form writing on my phone,  preferring the iPad — and more often than not an external keyboard, which remains the case today.

I find much of Editorial’s more powerful workflows remain under utilised in my writing, and although Editorial continued to serve my iPad writing needs well until the release of the Ulysses iPad beta earlier this year, since that time I have not ventured outside Ulysses for writing on either platform.

Why Ulysses?

In all honesty — no particular reason in the first instance. Going backwards and forwards in my mind last October as to whether I would embark on NaNoWriMo, I came across the offer of a free 30 day Ulysses trial (available for the Mac through the developer’s website). The promise of regular email follow-up as part of the NaNoWriMo group of Ulysses users along with an extract of (the recently updated) David Hewson’s: Writing a Novel With Ulysses eBook.

I think at that point in time, having finally committed myself to the 50,000 word challenge I was looking for all the help I could get! Upon thinking more about this — credit where credit is due to Ulysses here. Had the app imposed more friction to set up, write in, and generally manage over that month, I would most likely have exported what I had written to another app and never looked back.

Retrospectively, undertaking my first NaNoWriMo and learning the features of a new app at the same time was probably not the smartest decision, however it certainly paid off this time. So as you can see, I came across Ulysses through the lure of the free trial and “extras” — am I really so shallow? Evidently yes.

My particular uses

Here we find I again under utilise the power of Ulysses and its potential as — particularly a longer form — writing app. Looking back, to date my use has consisted of the following:

  • my 55,000 word NaNoWriMo effort;
  • 5 months (31 posts) of blogging (approximately 3 months also using the Ulysses iPad app);
  • a few email drafts;
  • reviewing and commenting on some of my daughters’ high school essays

That is it — apart from the NaNo effort, utilising the “sheets” in Ulysses as book chapters – I largely use it as an app to write blog posts. It is here I see most of my future uses also occurring, however I do plan on tackling some longer form writing again in the future.

My favourite aspects and features

In no particular order, there are indeed some features of the app (on both iOS and OS X) which I use more heavily:

iCloud

I am all in with iCloud syncing in my current Ulysses set up. Having used the External Folders option with Dropbox syncing for my initial NaNoWriMo foray, I think iCloud suits Ulysses perfectly — particularly the file and folder structures, and now with both Mac and iPad options available.

It is certainly no crime to choose iCloud as the preferred method of syncing, however there have been a couple of misdemeanours on iClouds part (I believe) which unfortunately for the developer occurred around the same time as the Mac update and release of the full iPad version of the app. Although needing a restart of my iPad or Mac at varying times (no data loss — simply to trigger the sync), after this initial week or so it has been rock solid, and of course it is fantastic to have everything updated with no effort from myself when I next pick up writing — on whether device.

One particular feature I do love are the status indicators which appear on launching the app — on either platform, indicating iCloud is updating. There is nothing worse than opening an iCloud connected app, knowing a sync should be occurring, yet never really being sure it is — not until updated data suddenly appears.

IMG_0888
Two pane view on iPad with iCloud status indicators at left

 

All of my writing, templates, and planning are therefore kept in the iCloud folders within Ulysses. For those still perhaps a little wary who also use the iPad app, there is a nice use of the iOS Workflow App to semi automate a back up of these iCloud folders to Dropbox.

 

Three pane view on Mac - folder structure at left.
Three pane view on Mac – folder structure at left.

Add to the above one of the best laid out document history/version controls (Mac only), and you have the perfect way to recover or revise should the need arise.

Mac view of version screen - date scroll marker far right
Mac view of version screen – date scroll marker far right

 

Organisation

Whilst I am not obsessive about file organisation, I do like the fact my writing is kept nicely laid out within Ulysses itself, and easily accessible in the customisable three pane layout.

Pane one has my current folders contained within iCloud , and within each folder lie the “sheets” — viewable in the second pane, which, in my current way of working are the individual blog posts for example. Although currently absent from the folders after been exported upon completion — the first draft of my NaNoWriMo novel will soon return for revision. For the novel, each sheet was a chapter with keywords added, allowing filtering of specific sheets (or chapters as it were) to follow through a particular plot line relating to a particular character.

Overall, I think a useful analogy here is to consider the iCloud folders as the bookshelf; each project as a loose leaf binder; and the sheets as just that — individual sheets of paper able to be rearranged within the binder with the utmost ease.

Sheets can be duplicated (hence my use of templates), glued, split, merged, rearranged or opened in a new window — handy for referring back to previous chapters or drafts while writing the current one. Note at the current time these features are limited to duplicating and rearranging sheets on the iPad version. The third pane is the editor, where all of your writing occurs.

For my needs, everything is here.

The structure of these folders within iCloud does not place them within view in the iCloud Drive folders, as they are proprietary folders within Ulysses itself — perfect for my needs, and with the amount of export options available you can send and backup your files anywhere you wish, or use the Open In option should you wish to continue in another App. Personally I use this feature to proofread in Marked 2 when on the Mac.

A recent post on the Ulysses blog outlines a new Open Files feature, allowing any .txt or .md file to be opened in Ulysses and edited – with the output saved in the original file location on your Mac. Handy for those times where a full import of a file or files is not necessary.

Layout and style

Navigation pop up on Mac.
Navigation pop up on Mac.

I’ve touched on the layout a little above, and switching between views is as simple as the shortcuts CMD+1, 2 or 3 for three pane, two pane or editor only. Various other shortcuts are available, including CMD+9 for a Markdown cheat sheet, and CMD+4 for the Attachments bar — a key feature allowing images, notes, goals and keywords to the sheet — all which sync to the iPad version with ease.

On the iPad, panes are accessed or hidden by swiping left or right, with tapping in the editor pane bringing it into full view with the onscreen keyboard at the ready. There is also full support for external keyboards.

For longer form writing, another handy feature is the quick access to the Navigation pop-up with the shortcut CMD+8, providing a list of headings — all of which are clickable to jump to their location within the sheet.

There are endless tweaks possible through preferences to create “themes” for the overall colour layout, which can be shared or downloaded from the Ulysses style exchange. These are simple to download for use or duplication and further customisation. Dark mode or theme options are also an option from the menu or shortcuts — handy for my pre-dawn writing.

Style and theme options in preferences on Mac.
Style and theme options in preferences on Mac.

Although reducing Ulysses to the single Editor pane does provide the “distraction free experience” that seems to have been the buzzword with writing apps for some time now — for this purpose alone you will find it similar to other writing apps. Although viewing a blinking cursor and nothing else is available to you — this is not necessarily a point of difference to many other apps, though of course is an essential feature.

Writing

At the end of the day — ultimately all that matters is it not? Well, to me — yes and no. If it were all that mattered, I could be writing in the default TextEdit app, nvAlt, Byword (the list goes on) and the default Notes app or Byword on my iPad.

If I could try to sum things up — it is the power of what this app can do (and do simply and easily), combined with some nice touches and minimalism which combine to give the “Ulysses experience”. That is why I like it.

If we refer back to my particular uses for Ulysses mentioned above, they are fairly limited in scope, yet repeated often (the blog posts anyway). Lets look at what occurs here — text, links, bold, italic, and lists. Formatted in Markdown.

Markdown XL.
Markdown XL.

Also a point to note is Ulysses makes use of Markdown XL, which is where unique markup and other notations reside through comment blocks; comments and strikethrough deletions for example (each with unique characters). Unless iCloud or local Mac storage options are used, upon export, these will be included in the output as plain text. Another incentive to use iCloud, with any markup also syncing nicely with the iPad, and are also available through the enhanced keyboard row there as well.

Images are added once I have exported the piece to the WordPress interface. In Ulysses, CMD+SHIFT+P does give an instant live preview which I probably should utilise more, however habit usually sends me to Marked 2.

Could this all be done in just about any other text editor? Absolutely. But of those I have tried – I prefer to do it here — in Ulysses. A few of the writing features I really enjoy:

  • placing a URL in the clipboard, highlighting text in Ulysses and pasting to instantly insert links (a couple of taps required on iPad)
Adding links on iPad.
Adding links on iPad.
  • statistics and word count goals
  • adding keywords (effectively tags in sheets) for longer writing organisation and sheet filtering
Attachments bar and with word count goal far right.
Attachments bar and with word count goal far right.

 

  • the ability to “tear off” and move around the pop up windows containing Quick Export, Statistics, Navigation and Markup information (Mac only)
  • text selection on the iPad (perhaps one of my favourites) requires one finger swipe anywhere on the keyboard to move the cursor, a two finger swipe will then select text, again making link insertion on the iPad a breeze
  • the enhanced iPad keyboard row, though not a unique feature and used in apps like Drafts or Editorial, is one of the best laid out and easiest to use when writing in Markdown
  • footnotes – probably my favourite feature – select footnote from the menu on the Mac or enhanced keyboard key on iPad; add text in the popup box and you’re done (these also work on exporting HTML to WordPress – something I have had great difficulty with in the past)
  • customisable statistics are also nicely included in a footer type bar on the iPad layout
  • plays well on iPad with an external keyboard, though I guess this is expected these days
Enhanced keyboard features.
Enhanced keyboard features.

I mentioned Editorial again in the above list — overall I find Ulysses on the iPad plenty powerful enough for my needs, yet a little more efficient to navigate and use in comparison.

To sum up the Ulysses writing experience? If you need it — its there, and if you don’t — you won’t feel like you have to actively step around it. Whatever your “it” is of course.

Exporting

Of course once written, we will be doing something with the end product. My NaNo draft was exported as plain text, Markdown, ePub and PDF (not taking any chances with that one) and ultimately tweaked in iBooks author as well.

 

ePub and HTML exporting options.
ePub and HTML exporting options.

With Ulysses, exporting your writing is an absolute breeze through the Quick Export/Live Preview popup. Also,  if you do have any concerns around the robustness and reliability of iCloud, or even the proprietary format of Ulysses, exporting your writing at the end of a session is so simple I can certainly understand those who may choose to do so (select text format from Quick Export; save to Dropbox or anywhere else).

A few other things

As I mentioned earlier, my gateway to Ulysses was the NaNoWriMo tie in, and having since purchased and read the full version of David Hewson’s Writing a Novel with Ulysses – I can highly recommend it as a fantastic way to learn some writing strategies and to organise your next big project, along with some great tips for using the iPad and Mac versions of this great app.

Developer The Soulmen also regularly publish great tips and tricks through a newsletter, which are also accessible on the Ulysses blog. As a user, I find these extremely helpful, and can certainly see how my writing will grow as I begin to utilise more of the available features. To that end, I must add the developer website does a great job of showcasing the app, and is worth checking out if you are interested in either the iPad or Mac App versions.

Also, there are far more technically minded and better writers than myself who have reviewed this app if you wish to dive a little deeper:

In conclusion

I mentioned above I was not out to try to sell you on Ulysses as a system for writing — yet in some ways I hope this post has at least been helpful enough to encourage you to try it out. That is of course if any of the above sounds like something you can relate to.

At times I have succumbed to fiddling about with the newest, latest and greatest or apps used by prominent figures on the internet. To my detriment? Maybe – maybe not. I’d like to think this time I have tried the app, liked it, and found my own way.

It has — albeit by pure coincidence — been nice to come into Ulysses at a time where active (you might even say aggressive) development was occurring, with the iPad release a joy to behold, given at least 50% of my writing is done on my iPad mini 2 with an external keyboard.

My advice to anyone considering Ulysses, is to download the free trial on the Mac and give it a try. The bonus here is that you can expect the iPad version to behave in much the same way, at least as far as writing, layout and organisation go (though I acknowledge the obvious differences between iOS and OS X).

In the end, I think you can see I am very satisfied with these two great apps which allow me to get all of my writing done — both efficiently, and wherever I choose to do it. I am confident in the fact my usual pre-workday Mac writing session will be ready and waiting for revision or addition at my lunch time iPad session — and I couldn’t be happier.

To quote the developer’s tagline for the app: Do you write?

If you do, you owe it would be worth at least taking a look.

Ulysses is available on the app store for Mac ($AU56.99) or iPad ($AU24.99); with the free trial available for Mac from the developer website.


 

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10 thoughts on “Writing With Ulysses

  1. How do you blog using Ulysses? How do you get images in the post? I can copy the HTML by exporting to HTML (snippet). But images get lost in the process.

    Like

    1. Hi HS,

      While I most often add images after I have exported the text from Ulysses, I use “select all” then “copy as HTML” from the Edit dropdown, and have found images are maintained when I paste into WordPress. Perhaps this might work for you as well.

      Regards

      Pete

      Like

  2. Hi Pete

    Have you done much with exporting from Ulysses to Microsoft Word DOCX format?

    I do my best to avoid using Word, but it’s hard to avoid in the corporate world. I used Scrivener for a while but it has no concept of styles in the export. The effort in reformatting the exported document just isn’t worth it.

    Ulysses isn’t perfect, but seems much better in this regard. I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences if you’ve used the DOCX export — particularly in regards to how well it plays with Word’s style-based formatting.

    Thanks

    John

    Like

    1. Hi John, I have done a little bit with the DOCX export but not a lot to speak of. AS you suggest, I have found it reasonably good with in terms of tweaking the format after exporting.
      My use of Ulysses and my life in the corporate world have never come in contact with each other, so I have never had to give the exporting a real test. From the sounds of it you’ve already perhaps tested this out more than I have. I certainly enjoy writing in it though.

      Cheers,
      Pete

      Like

      1. Pete

        I’m only playing with the trial version at the moment, but I like working in Ulysses. Less complex than Scrivener without sacrificing much in the way of features, and Ulysses has much better markdown support.

        I think the way to go is to do as much work as you can in Ulysses before exporting to Word. Once you start fooling around in Word it’s pretty well impossible to go back.

        Cheers

        John

        Like

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