Introduction to Writing with Ulysses

Writing on iPad
Writing on iPad

I’m writing this piece on my iPad. The reason this warrants a mention relates to two new arrivals in my life.

The first arrival was my daughter. She turned up almost a year ago and trails the most delightful chaos everywhere she goes. This past year has been as exhilarating as it has been exhausting. Of course, a newborn brings many changes — and not just nappy changes. Everything changes. How you eat, how you sleep, how you work.

And how you write.

Gone are the days when I could settle in for a few hours of writing in the study. Gone is the study, for that matter. But that’s another story. My current WIP sat neglected on my laptop as weeks slipped by in a haze of sleep deprivation.

After a few months (three? four? six?) I realised that the only writing I was going to do was in snatches. A paragraph here. A snippet there. A note jotted down on my phone for later reference, only to be forgotten and lie undiscovered for weeks.

That brings me, indirectly, to the more recent arrival in my life.

“I realised that the only writing I was going to do was in snatches.”

For years, I’ve been a great fan and advocate of Scrivener, the impressive writing software by Literature and Latte. I like so much about Scrivener. The distraction-free writing environment. The cork board and index cards for planning. The ability to set and monitor goals. The way you can export your writing to a number of different formats.

But in my new world of bite-sized moments of concentration there is something missing. It dawned on me in the depths of winter that the only writing I was going to get done was the writing I could take with me everywhere, so I could write anytime. I need to be able to write on my ever-present iPad. And Scrivener doesn’t have an iPad version.

Then I found Ulysses.

Ulysses iconUlysses is a minimalist, plain text editor, by German software developers The Soulmen. It uses a style of markup (ironically called markdown) for things like emphasis, headings and lists. And it has a fully-featured iPad version which syncs over iCloud with the desktop Mac version. (Currently there is no Windows or Linux support.)

Every Sunday in November I’ve been taking part in a series of write-ins organised by the marvellous author and trainer PD Martin to support her NaNoWriMo course. After a brief play with Ulysses on the iPad I decided to give the Mac version a real workout last weekend. 8 hours straight, with only 15 minute breaks to swig coffee and fuel up on delicious catering. I figured it would be a real-world test to see if Ulysses and I were a good fit.

The results are in, and they are very positive.

Ulysses has a familiar three-pane layout, with your library of projects on the left, the documents (called sheets in Ulysses) for a selected project in the next pane, and finally the editor pane itself — a beautifully uncluttered writing space.

Ulysses - Three Pane View
Ulysses has a familar three-pane layout.

Best of all, with a quick swipe on the trackpad you can hide the library and the collections of sheets, leaving only your words on a blank page. The other panes are there when you need them, either by swiping them back into place or using a keyboard shortcut. But for the most part they stay out of your way. Even the bar at the top of the editor vanishes by default, appearing when you mouse over the top of the page.

Ulysses with the Library pane closed, leaving the Sheets and Editor panes open.
Ulysses with the Library pane closed, leaving the Sheets and Editor panes open.
Ulysses in single-pane mode, with just the Editor visible.
Ulysses in single-pane mode, with just the Editor visible.
Once you start typing, the toolbar at the top of the editor just fades away.
Once you start typing, the toolbar at the top of the editor just fades away, leaving you alone with your thoughts and your words.

There are other nice touches, like typewriter scrolling with line highlighting — something I didn’t realise I’d missed until I tried it. (Though this feature isn’t available on the iPad version. Yet.) And the tiny icon in the corner to tell you when you have reached the goal you set for a given document, be it characters or words.

There are also quirks, the most obvious being the markdown itself. By default words you would normally set in italics are enclosed in underscore tags, _like this_. It put me off at first, but you can choose a theme that minimises the obtrusiveness of the markdown tags for _italics_ and **bold** (or emphasis and strong, as semantic HTML folk would point out). And I realised that in my normal writing I hardly ever use italics or bold. So the handful of markdown tags scattered through my text are a small price to pay for the ability to scratch out some words in my lunch break without dragging my laptop around with me.

The end result is that I’m a convert. I’m enjoying writing again in what little pockets of spare time I can find, and I’m definitely enjoying Ulysses. I’ll add a few posts about specific features or tricks as I discover them. Until then, if you’ve got half an hour to spare I’d highly recommend the Introduction to Ulysses webinar the Soulmen gave at the start of NaNoWriMo. They manage to rattle through enough of the features of Ulysses to show why it is becoming so popular. And it will give you a feel for the clean, minimalist interface that brings you back in touch with your words.