Tools for Writers: Ulysses

| Dr. Mac's Rants and Raves

Dr. Mac’s Rants & Raves
Episode #177

I’ve been typing stories on a Mac since before at least some of you were born and I have a confession: I hate word processors.

I’ll explain in a moment, but first, a bit of backstory… I composed my earliest columns and books using Microsoft Word version 1.0. Since then, I’ve used one version or another of Microsoft Word for every one of my 75 books and many other projects. I started using it because it offered advanced features that weren’t in MacWrite. I’m still using it today (Microsoft Word 2016), but it’s not because I like it. I didn’t like it back in the day and I still don’t—it’s more bloated, sluggish, unreliable, and confusing than ever.

I only use Word today because my book publishers insists. And while I still use Word for my books because I have to, I’ve found an app I like much better for almost every kind of non-book writing. It’s called Ulysses, and while it is, at its heart, a text editor (as opposed to a word processor), it’s also much more.

Before I get to the much more part, some of you may be asking, “what’s the difference between a word processor and a text editor?” In a nutshell, text editors create pure, unformatted text; word processors create fully-styled text. Text editors aren’t WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get), and include none of the frou-frou formatting options found in word processors—which means no styles, rulers, tabs, or columns, to name a few. In a text editor, the words you type appear onscreen in a single font and size. And I must say it's refreshing to write and focus on the words with no annoying formatting toolbars, dialog boxes, or Format menus to distract me.

So, I prefer writing in a text editor whenever possible. Now here's why I think Ulysses is much more than just a text editor, and why I use it for almost everything I write these days.

First, since it uses its own cloud or disk-based library, you don’t Open or Save files with Ulysses. Instead, everything you type is saved automatically as you type it, and available right in Ulysses streamlined three-column interface. You can organize your Ulysses documents into folders (as shown on the far left in the figure below), but everything you write is contained within Ulysses single window.

A simple, straightforward, single-window—nice!
(Click or tap for a larger image)

And here’s another thing that makes it more than just a text editor: Ulysses has its own Time Machine-like backup built right in so it’s easy to retrieve an earlier version of anything you’ve written. That’s slick.

Like Time Machine, Ulysses lets you browse and restore previous versions quickly and easily. 

Another bit of Ulysses awesomeness is that there’s an iPad/iPhone version of the app that looks and acts almost exactly like the Mac version. The awesomeness comes when you store your Ulysses library in iCloud (as I do), so everything I write is available (almost) instantly on all of many devices.

The iPad version looks and feels almost exactly like the Mac version. 
(Click or tap for a larger image)

That’s huge. That means I can begin on a project on my Mac and continue where I left off on my iPad, all without worrying about whether I have all the files I might need on my iPad. Because everything I’ve ever written in Ulysses is available on all of my devices all of the time, I can start writing on my iPad, iPhone, or Mac, and pick up where I left off on a different device at any time. I am loving it.

And, Ulysses final killer feature is that I can format text using typed codes, such as # for a heading; - for a bulleted list, and - — - for a divider line. I know it’s old-school, but it’s easy to use and works beautifully for my purposes. Of course, formatting codes aren’t mandatory, but they're there if you need them. And I do love adding any formatting I need without having to remove my fingers from the keys.

Although you don't see the effect of your codes on screen while you're writing, you can preview them at any time. Which brings up another cool feature: You can preview and export documents as .TEXT, .HTML, .PDF, .ePub, or .DOCX (Microsoft Word). So, here are a few codes as I typed them (left) and as they appear in an HTML preview (right):

What I typed (left) and a preview of it as HTML (right).
(Click or tap for a larger image)

By the way, you don't have to type codes; you can also apply formatting from the Markup menu, which is shown the figure above. 

I have been using Ulysses every day for several months now and it’s absolutely my go-to tool for any kind of writing except books. If undistracted writing makes sense to you—and I assure you it makes total sense—you should definitely check out Ulysses’ free trial.

And that's all he wrote…

Ulysses. The Soulmen GbR. $44.99.

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Comments

geoduck

Thank you for reviewing Ulysses.
I do a lot of writing and have tried a number of different Word Processors over the years. People kept recommending Ulysses but the price kept putting me off. With this review I now know that Ulysses is NOT what I’m looking for. It’s great to focus on the words and not formatting, but I’m just neurotic enough that if it isn’t in paragraphs, in Times New Roman, and the words I Bold or Italicize aren’t rendered so in the screen it bugs me. I want a word processor.
Thank you for clearing that up.

laROQUE

Geoduck: just wanted to clarify that you do indeed see italics and bold characters in Ulysses. In fact you have control over how any of those tags render as you type, along with how everything else looks in the editor. All of this can be saved as a style that will also sync over to the iOS version (these can only be created on a Mac for now). You can also see paragraphs and choose whichever font you want. You can’t however use different fonts simultaneously…so that would be a killer wink

No interest in Ulysses btw, but I’ve been using it a few months now and I echo Bob’s enthusiasm. It’s a joy to work with and I wouldn’t go back.

Bob LeVitus

That’s true…  I probably should have said something about styles and templates… I may write more about it another time, but for now, I agree with laROQUE: It’s a joy to work with and I like it a lot better than Word.

geoduck

I will agree with you on Word. The ribbon was the final straw. Worst interface ever. My systems are happily MS free. Right now I bounce between Pages, and OpenOffice Write. I suppose I’ve been working with Word Processors for so long it’s what I’m used to.

The screen shots make Ulysses look very Spartan. Which come to think of it is a bit Ironic. But anyway I like to format as I go.

Eolake Stobblehouse 1

Dear Bob,
I expect that when you say “except for books”, you mean technical books, not novels, yes?  Since technical books often require a lot of formatting.

Bob LeVitus

Dear Eolake,
Yes. You’re right—I did mean technical books. But I have only ever written technical books, so it never occurred to me that Ulysses might be ideal for novels.

If I were going to write a novel, I’d probably write it in Ulysses (though I’d want to look at Scrivener again before deciding).

evansb2

How reliable was the syncing? I’ve tried several different apps for writing and using Markdown, and so far, Evernote has been the only one that syncs on a consistent, reliable basis with no data lost. The thing I don’t like about Evernote is the lack of Markdown support. So, I’ve been using Text Expander to make the Markdown formatting visible.

I suppose I could give Ulysses a try, but before I do, I’d love your feedback.

Bob LeVitus

Evansb2: So far the syncing has been flawless, Markdown and all.

Jacob Marshall

Ulysses is great, but do you know that programming text editors can be used for writing as well. I use sublime text for managing documents and information. You an also check the list of best text editors and use anyone of them for your writing purposes. [http://blog.livecoding.tv/2016/05/23/10-best-text-editors-programming-2016/]

 

Bob LeVitus

Jacob: I know. I’ve used many text editors before, and while there is probably a better one for programmers, Ulysses offers the best combination of features—especially seamless Mac-to-iPad-and-back syncing—for the kinds of writing I do.

Dirt Road

For the same money, I went with Scrivener for my fiction writing and never looked back. It supports MultiMarkdown for technical documents as well, but I haven’t really sunk my teeth into that part of it. (MultiMarkdown is probably the only flavor of Markdown suited for technical documents.)

As a tech writer for the last 30+ years, I do know you often need complex formatting capabilities to get the job done. On the other hand, mobile devices are putting increasing pressure on us to re-think how we format technical docs—especially tables. I’ve found that HTML is adequate to express most of what we need, and it does have the added advantage of being mobile-ready without further conversion. So maybe something like Ulysses, or possibly Adobe Brackets (Free software at brackets.io) with the Markdown plugin, could be a future authoring environment.

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