Back again for Part 3 of my series on software for writers. If you missed the first two instalments, they covered Scrivener and Evernote. My aim is to help you decide which application is best suited to your own writing process.
Today I’m going to focus on my current writing tool of choice, Ulysses. For me, right now, it comes closest to meeting my most pressing needs as a writer. Read on to discover if it would be a good fit for you too.
Ulysses is produced by the German software development house The Soulmen. Like Scrivener, it’s aimed squarely at writers. It’s available exclusively through Apple’s App Store for Mac ($44.99 US) and iOS devices ($24.99 US).
What’s great about Ulysses?
Ulysses is a minimalist writing environment focussed very much on your text. It provides all the features you need to write an article, a blog post, a thesis, or even a novel, with a minimum of fuss and clutter. The tools are there when you need them, and then they vanish like magic leaving you with nothing but your words on the screen.
The Ulysses philosophy is that all your writing is available to you anywhere, anytime. Your documents (which Ulysses calls sheets) are all stored in a single Library, which you can organise however you like by grouping sheets together. You can nest groups within groups, and give each group its own icon to make them easier to remember. Switching between different projects can be as simple as selecting a different group of sheets in your Library.
Another neat feature of the Library is that you can sort your sheets manually. If you prefer to order by date or title, that’s fine too. But if you’re writing a novel and want to be able to move scenes around, it’s as easy as dragging a sheet into its new location.
You can use the handy comment feature to insert notes to yourself that won’t end up in the final document when you export from Ulysses. It could be a reminder to look something up, or a suggested edit on a friend’s manuscript. And if you put a scene synopsis at the top of each sheet as a comment, you can see an outline of your novel by selecting the group of sheets in your library.
Ulysses has a clean, three-pane interface with your Library on the left, the sheet list for your selected group next, and then contents of the current sheet. But a swipe on the trackpad or hitting a simple keyboard shortcut will banish the side panels and leave you with a full-screen editor pane. Even the toolbar at the top of the editor vanishes as soon as you start writing. It’s the ultimate distraction-free writing environment.
You can configure the look and feel of the editor by setting the font, line height, and even the line width. And Ulysses comes with a selection of themes to give you a range of colour palettes to choose from (or customise if you are a bit of a tinkerer).
I’ve already written about the way Ulysses handles goals and targets, but it’s worth revisiting for a moment. If you’re aiming to hit a minimum word count on a manuscript or trying to squeeze under a word limit for a feature article, Ulysses is there to help. You set your goal in the attachments pane, and then watch as an unobtrusive circle tracks your progress up in the corner of your screen.
Once you’ve hit your target, getting your writing out of Ulysses and into the world is a breeze. It has a simple export feature that will take your selected sheets and stitch them together into a single Word document, PDF, or ePub file. You can also export HTML to use in an online publishing platform. You can even switch between different export styles on the fly to see how your document looks with different formatting. Also, if you write on medium.com you can publish from Ulysses directly to your Medium account. (According to recent tweets from The Soulmen this kind of direct integration is also coming for WordPress.)
Documents in your Library are synced using iCloud, which means they are available to you from any computer or device with Ulysses installed. If you happen to be offline, that’s okay too. When you connect again your documents will sync, and any changes will be pushed out to your other devices.
This is where the iOS and the Mac versions play brilliantly well together. You can start working on a blog post on your iPhone while you wait for the train, pick it up on your iPad over coffee, and then polish it on your MacBook that evening — all without skipping a beat. The sync also carries over system settings, so any changes you make to the theme or editor on your Mac will be reflected when you open up the iOS version.
In fact, the iOS version looks and behaves almost identically to the Mac version. There are a couple of options missing (see below), but for the most part switching between Ulysses on the Mac and the iPad is seamless. And with the latest version of the iOS app, you can do serious writing on your iPhone. At last.
What’s not so great.
The biggest limitation of Ulysses is that it’s only available for the Apple ecosystem. If you have a Windows PC or tablet, or an Android tablet or phone, you’re plum out of luck. The Soulmen are Apple developers, and that seems to be all there is to it. If you like the look of Ulysses, better start saving up for the MacBook to go with it.
Another thing that may be seen as a limitation by some is that Ulysses doesn’t use a WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) editor. In most writing applications you set text to be bold or in italics, and it just shows up that way. Not Ulysses. Instead, Ulysses uses a style of markup (called markdown) to indicate which parts of your text have special meaning. Anybody who has written on older bulletin boards or online forums will recognise it. A single # means a first level heading, two ## means a second level heading, and so on. You can also indicate sections that should be _emphasised_ or **strong**. How these are rendered will depend on the stylesheet you apply to the output.
“If you like the look of Ulysses, better start saving up for the MacBook to go with it.”
If you’re scratching your head right now, you can see why markdown isn’t for everybody. Once you get used to it you’ll see the many benefits it offers. But if you are used to styling text in your editor exactly as it will appear in your final document it can come as a bit of a shock. And it can take a while to get used to seeing the markdown tags in your text.
Another limitation of Ulysses revolves around export. Yes, the export feature is very simple and flexible, but the trade-off is the number of formats available. For instance, there is no option to export into formats used by popular screenwriting software like Final Draft or Fountain Screenplay.
Who is Ulysses good for?
- You write on a Mac.
As discussed above, Ulysses is only available for Mac OSX and iOS. If you write on a Mac, you’re all good.
- You think in words more than pictures.
Ulysses does support images, but they are stored tucked away as attachments rather than placed in the flow of your text. Of course they appear in place when you export your work, but while you are writing all you see is words, words, words.
- You work on several different projects at once.
The flexible structure of the Ulysses Library is brilliant for keeping different writing projects separate. You can have a section for feature articles, one for blog posts, and another for the novel you’ve been meaning to write. Or you could have a section for letters, another for school assignments, and one for fanfic. It’s up to you. Go nuts.
- You work across several different devices.
Wake up in the middle of the night with the perfect ending to your short story? Jot it down on your iPhone. Need to get the most out of your daily commute? Write on the train on your iPad. Prefer writing in a cafe on your MacBook Air? Ulysses has you covered. Anywhere, anytime.
- You sometimes find yourself without an internet connection.
Because Ulysses syncs over iCloud, your entire Library is stored on each of your devices. That means you can work while you are offline without worrying that your changes will be lost — they will just sync when you reach your next WiFi hotspot.
Looking for more Ulysses goodness?
One of the best introductions to Ulysses I’ve seen is a short video The Soulmen made at the start of NaNoWriMo in 2015. If you’re wondering whether Ulysses might be right for you I’d strongly recommend giving it a watch. It will be 30 minutes well spent.
The Ulysses blog also has a section for tutorials and another for tips & tricks, both of which are treasure troves of useful information. Finally, I’ve written about Ulysses a few times myself, which you’re welcome to check out here.