Ulysses is a Heroic Writer’s Application

| In-Depth Review

Ulysses from The Blue Technologies Group is an ambitious, complex, capable writer's tool that has emphasis on the free flow of the writer's thoughts as opposed to the distracting task of deciding how the text should appear as it's written. In some respects, it has the look and feel of Scrivener, but has additional tools for the organization of documents and the export of a project. This is the third review in a series looking at writing tools.

One of the pitfalls of writing, say, fiction is that the author can be distracted by the additional task of being the typesetter. In the old days of the typewriter, with fixed typewriter fonts, it was left as a post-production chore to annotate the text with proofreading symbols for underline, italic, etc. That was after the author had finished the creative task.

Main Browser-1

The Main Browser, Text Entry

To this end, Ulysses does something that appears, at first to be a throwback to the days of WordStar in which printer commands were actually embedded in the text. For example, by default, if I want to define emphasis for a word, in Ulysses, I place it inside pre-defined tags, like ++this++. The advantage of such a system is that the author can tag certain words for emphasis without having to worry about the technical details of how that will be executed later. [As I just did myself.]

All too often the author starts with a notion of how the document will be output for an editor, but often that changes. For example, one might make a hasty, unwise decision to write an entire novel in Microsoft Word, before having approached a publisher, and then find out later that the publisher wants the novel in a very different format. Now, all that MS Word specific formating is useless.

The developer says it bluntly but accurately:

Funny thing is that an "Output format" is actually a format for later output and not, as apparently and primarily thought in Redmond, for input...

I'm spending some time on this concept because it's an important one, key to the concept of Ulysses, and one that many writers don't think about when they launch a novel or book writing project. Ulysses, in its export function, provides very detailed control of the final appearance of the document. That leaves the writer free to focus on the semantic content of the document, the meaning of the words, not the application specific, technically derived appearance or formatting of the document -- something we pay typesetters to do.

Features

Ulysses uses a three pane structure very similar to Scrivener. However, there is more capability in the display of the organizational structure of a project in Ulysses. Documents, think of them as chapters, can become part of "collections". For example, just the chapters can be in the "Chapters" collection while a different collection can contain the Chapters plus all the character definitions. In addition, there is the concept of a Group, which is a different way of organizing, and filters which can dictate how the organization is displayed. For large projects, these tools provide a handy way to display alternate views and find specific documents quickly.

That said, the rules for creating and organizing documents, collections, groups and filters can be somewhat of a challenge, and that's probably not a area for extensive exploitation until the user is much more familiar with the program. The documentation, which is sparse in this area, also makes it a challenge.

Main Browser-2

Document for Defining Characters

Ulysses has these notable features:

  • Coherent previews of documents
  • Tabbed browsing of documents
  • Filters, collections and groups (mentioned above)
  • Console or full-screen mode
  • Very customizable interface
  • Semantic editing (mentioned above)
  • Rich text notes, drag and drop
  • Lots of counters and document statistics
  • Every Project is a Mac OS X Package for easy transport
  • Multiple backups and auto-save
  • Plug-ins for project export
  • Colored labels and date stamps for documents
  • Typewriter-like scrolling with fixed cursor.

Ulysses was written with Xcode, using mainly the Cocoa framework and mostly Objective-C. I reviewed version 1.6r2.

One thing I liked about Ulysses was the logical and technical organization of the preferences. Rather than put a lot of options on a single pane, Ulysses uses a hierarchical listing of major areas, with sub-items, and then tabs to further define the preference setting. However, when came to actually understanding and implementing those beautifully laid out preferences, Ulysses fell short. I'll give an example later.

Prefs

Preferences: Beautifully Laid Out, Hard to Use

Another thing I liked was the selection of themes for the working space, some very tasteful, pale pastel colors that provide a pleasing demarcation of the work without being garish.

In addition, when text is pasted in, by default, it takes on the font of the existing text, previously defined in the preferences. Anyone who has worked with MS Word for a time will appreciate this.

Full screen mode doesn't have the facility to be transparent, like Scrivener, but is still very customizable. Simply hitting the ESC key, as expected, returns to what's called the Browser, the main working area.

Export

Robust Control of Exported Document

Export can be into LaTeX, rich text, plain text, MS Word (.doc but not .docx), or PDF.  Also, selected documents can be exported into a new Ulysses project.

If I were to characterize the applications reviewed so far, I would summarize by saying that StoryMill is strong on the global strategy of structuring a novel, Scrivener is strong on the detailed mechanics of manipulating text, and Ulysses is strong on the writing focus combined with detailed control of the output product. That's not to say that they all don't manage text well, but these seems to the principal areas of focus.

Some Major Problems

This is the section I reserve for nits, but in the case of Ulysses, the nits grew into more serious problems. I should preface by saying that Ulysses has the capacity to become great. It is heroic in its ambitions. However, its very ambition leads to its difficulties.

First of all, while the app has a pleasing Mac look and feel, there are some oddities in the application of preferences. For example, to change a theme, one must select the theme, check the box for the browser, console, preview, etc, then click the "Load" button and then click Save. It's a process that is not typically used by many developers, and can be frustrating.

Second, the concept of Scrivener's Binder is simple and straightforward. However, Ulysses adds layers of abstraction and complexity with its filters, groups, and collections. While that's certainly more powerful, the responsibility is on the developer to exploit that power with extraordinary visual cues, ease of use, and brilliant documentation. Power without insanely a great user experience combined with pleasing, understandable documentation is rendered less useful.

Console mode

Full Screen, "Console," Mode

Third, I found the documentation to be minimalist and no match the ambition and power of the application. This app sells for €79.99 which is about US$105 at today's exchange rate. For that amount of money, the documentation should be first class, and it is not. That's because it just doesn't go into the required detail to fully understand how to exploit the multitude of features. In that respect, StoryMill and Scrivener's documentation was complete enough to dig in and ultimately understand the software. The ambition of the program may suggest a higher price, but in the final analysis, it falls roughly in the same class as Scrivener. In order to justify more than twice the price, greater functionality must be combined with a vision for harnessing the power with intuitive design, great documentation, and it must be just about crash proof. Ulysses didn't meet that standard.

During my extensive time with Ulysses, I grew to appreciate how powerful and great the program could be if it had actually reduced the choices available. After all, if the purpose of software is to allow the writer to focus on the creative part, then nuclear reactor level of detail in the preferences should be avoided.

Finally, the application crashed on me six times doing seeming simple tasks like launching a new project or deleting a document from the notes. Subsequent discussion with the author suggested that I may have had some software installed that conflicts, and we're continuing to look into it. Most importantly, no data was lost. Even so, one's confidence in the product and faith in the pricing is easily shaken by those crashes when they never occurred in competing products -- or any other app I use daily.

Summary

In the discussion above, I've tried to be quantitative. The facts speak for themselves. However, in the summary of these applications, I have reserved space for my personal feelings as a writer and guidance for the reader.

Ulysses took me to great heights of joy, then deep despair and finally great hope. I wanted this to be the ultimate writer's tool, and I admired the unusual approach of handling the deferred formatting of text. I love the look, I came to finally understand collections, and I felt very comfortable in the browser.

Unfortunately, in the final analysis, Ulysses doesn't reach its full potential. The high price, lack of first class documentation, even if in electronic format, mysterious crashes, non-intuitive preferences, even if beautifully laid out, detract from what could be the greatest program for writing I've seen to date. My overall reaction was -- if only the app had been tighter, less ambitious, less complicated, more focused -- just as the intended user must be.

Our TMO guidelines for level 3, "Good" essentially say that the program is solid, won't dazzle, and meets expectations. My own expectations, from reviewing StoryMill and Scrivener were high, and Ulysses didn't meet them. And yet... and yet ... with some extensive work, it could eventually become the very best of the best. Even the Scrivener Website says that you owe it to yourself to checkout Ulysses, and I agree.

Product: Ulysses 1.6

Company: The Blue Technologies Group

List Price: €79.99

Pros:

Strong on semantic editing, creative focus, organization of documents, detailed control of output, ambitious to a fault.

Cons:

Non-intuitive management of preferences, expensive, inadequate documentation.

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Comments

M

Ulysses is pretty good, but I found Scrivener and StoryMill to be far better, and a huge step up from Ulysses. I haven’t used Ulysses since.

Dave Hamilton

Just testing a review comment

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