Writing With Ulysses for iPhone

Writing With Ulysses for iphoneI’m sitting on my couch with a coffee in one hand, writing this on my iPhone in the other. I have maybe five minutes before the Tiny One wakes up. But with the shiny new version of Ulysses for iPhone, that’s long enough. As the promotional video says, I can write anything, anywhere.

And I’d add anytime.

I’ve been beta testing the iPhone version for a while now, and it’s everything I’ve wanted in a go-everywhere writing app. I switched from Scrivener to Ulysses on the strength of the iPad app. It let me write on my lunch breaks, or at the laundromat, without having to lug my laptop around. The new iOS release, which covers all form factors from iPhone to iPad Pro, takes that portability to the next level.

Ulysses app on the iphoneI could tell you about the slick user interface, the clever use of markdown to support all the formatting I need, or the brilliant way features hide until exactly the moment you need them, saving precious screen real estate for your words. But I won’t. Plenty of others are reviewing the nuts and bolts of the new iPhone version. Instead I want to focus on my experience, and the reasons why I write with Ulysses on my phone.

1. I can take notes on the run

I’ve tried before to harness the in-between times. Lost moments in my day, waiting in a queue, sitting on hold. All those moments add up.

I’m often thinking about writing at those times. The novel I’m working on, or an article or a blog post like this one. With such a powerful writing app on my phone I can use those thoughts instead of losing them. I can capture the phrase or idea or paragraph, knowing I can return to it later.

2. It makes writing comfortable on a small device

I can write with the Tiny One asleep on my shoulder because I can switch to the theme’s dark mode. In fact, I can tweak everything about how the interface looks, from which font I like (Courier Prime), to how big I need it to be (bifocals – just say no!), to how I want the markdown to appear in my text.

It’s great for editing, too. I can banish the keyboard and toolbar, leaving nothing but my words in a crisp, clean layout. I can see more of my text as I scroll, and when I see something I want to tweak – hey presto! – the keyboard and toolbar reappear like magic.

Ulysses interface modes
Ulysses for iPhone, in light mode, dark mode, and minimal mode.

This is the first time I’ve felt as though I could do serious writing on such a small screen, typing with my thumb.

3. Seamless syncing between devices

Anything I write on my iPhone is there waiting for me when I manage to find time to sit at my computer, or take my iPad to a cafe. And that’s a killer app feature for me.

I don’t need to email anything to myself, then copy it from gmail into my word processor. I don’t need to save my text into another app, or transfer it to Dropbox. I don’t need to do anything. The magic of iCloud sync means that anything I write on one device appears on all my other devices almost instantaneously.

4. All my writing in one place

This seemed odd at first, especially coming from Scrivener with its individual projects. I couldn’t understand why I’d want my blog posts in the same place as my current manuscript and any pieces of writing I was working on for my day job. The idea of all your writing in a single library just seemed messy. And to be fair, it can be as messy or as neat as you can be bothered to make it.

It was only when I had a sudden inspiration for a new final scene to my manuscript while I was in the middle of writing a blog post that it made sense. All I had to do was open a new sheet in the Manuscript collection, jot down my idea for the scene so that I wouldn’t forget it, then go straight back to my blog post.

Simple as that.

What’s missing?

So far the iOS app doesn’t have typewriter scrolling, which the Mac version has. It’s a bit more noticeable on the iPad I think, but it would still be a nice feature to have for the iPhone. (I’m told it’s coming.)

Far more annoying to me is the fact that quote marks aren’t automatically converted to smart quotes the way they are in the Mac version. There’s a neat button on the toolbar that lets you choose smart quotes when you are typing, but to be honest that’s still a pain. If I’m writing a scene with lots of dialogue I don’t want to have to keep reaching for a special character. I’d much rather see an option I can set that will do the transformation silently in the background. It’s the one downfall of the on-screen keyboard.

UPDATE: After a conversation with the developers on Twitter I should point out that the smart quotes issue is actually a system-level one, not an issue with the Ulysses iOS app. It needs to be supported by iOS before Ulysses is able to take advantage of it. I’m hoping that with the release of the iPad Pro with its fancy external keyboard the Apple developers will start looking at this.

Should you buy Ulysses for iOS?

Only if you’ve ever wished you could steal back those moments in your day that seem to vanish without you noticing, and use that time for writing. Anything. Anywhere. Anytime.