Tools for Writers: Ulysses

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!
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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. 
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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).
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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.