Finish Your First Draft Faster with Filters in Ulysses

One piece of writing advice I often see is to power through your first draft as quickly as possible. Don’t edit as you go, don’t stop to look things up. Just write. Stephen King calls it writing “with the door closed”.

If you’re like me, that means your first draft is filled with things like “XXXXXX”. Can’t remember what kind of car somebody is supposed to drive? Worried that peripatetic mightn’t mean what you think it means? Need to research how to tie an alpine butterfly climbing knot? Easy. XXXXXX, and figure it out later.

The XXXXXX technique certainly helps maintain forward momentum in a first draft. But once that draft was finished I had to spend hours searching my manuscript for Xs. I’d scratch my head, trying to figure out what each XXXXXX was supposed to mean. Was it a simple look-up job, like a minor character whose name I’d forgotten? Or a reminder that I needed to spend a day googling how to dispose of a body?

I don’t know about you, but I fit my writing into stolen moments. I have a full-time job and a full-time family with a full-time toddler. When I get a few moments to write, I need to make them count. One of the great things about writing a novel in Ulysses is the way you can use filters and inline comments to help spend your precious writing time wisely.

Let me explain.

What are filters?

In my previous post on plotting your novel with Ulysses I described how you can create groups in your Library and place sheets into that group. Well, a filter is like a virtual group that holds the results of a set of search terms. Sheets that match the search terms you define will show up in the sheet list for that filter.

New Filter menu item (Ulysses for Mac)
New Filter menu item (Ulysses for Mac)

Creating a filter is dead easy. On the Mac you select the group where you want your filter to apply. In the context menu (right click on a mouse, or two-finger-tap on the touch pad) you’ll see the New Group option. The very next option is New Filter.

In the iOS version you see the same menu by tapping on the + at the bottom of the Library screen.

Creating a new filter (Ulysses for Mac)
Creating a new filter (Ulysses for Mac)

Once you’ve created a new filter you get to name it, and change the icon if you like. Then comes the actual filtering part. You choose what the filter is going to operate on, like the creation date, a keyword assigned to the sheet, or specific text in the sheet itself. If you choose the text option you can set what words the filter is searching for, and also limit the search to specific kinds of text within the sheet — say, headings or block quotes.

To give you an example I’ve created a filter for the Manuscript subgroup of My Amazing Novel, which I’ve named Check. I decided on a magnifying glass icon because this filter will be about looking things up. Then I set it to be a text filter searching for “check“. I have a specific purpose in mind for this filter — I don’t want it to just select any old sheet that happens to contain the word check. So I limit the text search to inline comments. Don’t worry. I’ll get to those next.

What are inline comments?

You may remember in my previous Ulysses post I mentioned one style of comment Ulysses supports — the comment block. This is a paragraph of text starting with %%. Ulysses also supports inline comments. An inline comment begins and ends with ++, and sits within the flow of your text. ++ This is an example of an inline comment. ++ Like block comments, inline comments aren’t included in your word count, or exported when you create a Word document or whatever.

One use for inline comments is to make notes to yourself that you wouldn’t want anyone else to see. It’s the equivalent of my old XXXXXX trick, but neater because it doesn’t mess up my word count. And if I want to get feedback from a beta reader or critique partner, I don’t have to worry about XXXXXXs scattered throughout my document.

Filters and comments – a productive combination

Let’s have a look at my Check filter in action. When I’m writing my first draft and come across something I need to research or verify, I make an inline comment starting with the search term for my filter.

Example of inline comments (Ulysses for Mac)
Example of inline comments (Ulysses for Mac)

Then I forge ahead. I don’t pause to look up whatever it is I don’t know or can’t remember — I just keep writing.

A filter with its sheet list (Ulysses for Mac)
A filter with its sheet list (Ulysses for Mac)

I don’t have to worry that I’ll forget to go back and fix the detail I’ve skipped. My filter acts like a to-do list, keeping track of all the notes to myself.

This filter also helps me to be more productive in another way. In my post about salvaging time to write I mentioned the usefulness of keeping a list of short tasks you can complete in any spare minutes you come across in your day. My Check filter manages this list for me automatically as I write. Five minutes waiting for a train? Look up the character’s name, make the edit, then delete the inline comment. That task vanishes from the list.

There are other filters you might want to create and pair with inline comments. I know a couple of writers who tend to under-write their first drafts. In that case, you could use an inline comment like ++ expand ++ and set up a matching filter. Then when you’ve got a spare half hour you can go back through your draft and flesh out those scenes.

Perhaps you’re writing a mystery or thriller. You might want to use a system of ++ clue ++ comments and a matching filter to keep track of your plants and payoffs.

But wait, there’s more!

You can see how inline comments and filters work hand in hand to speed up your first draft and help you squeeze more out of your writing time. It doesn’t end there. I’m editing a manuscript at the moment, and I’ve found comments useful at this stage as well.

I like to read through at least a few scenes at a time to get a sense of how things are flowing, then go back and make the actual edits later. If I’m editing printed pages I make notes with my red pen. If I’m editing In Ulysses, inline comments are my red pen. So I’ll jot down ++ edit: cut ++ when I think a section needs to go, or ++ edit: awk ++ if I come across a clumsy phrase or sentence that needs to be recast. Then I use an Edit filter to keep track of scenes I know need work.

One last way I use filters is worth mentioning. Remember I said you could set a filter to search for keywords? If you’re following my advice and using keywords to flag scenes as being from a particular point of view, or belonging to a certain sub-plot, you can collect all of these scenes with a filter. When you’re editing you can work through the relevant scenes in sequence and make sure you haven’t introduced any continuity problems in the intervening scenes.


How do you tackle your first drafts? Do you plough on through, or research and edit as you go? Do you have any tips you can share? Leave a comment below, or reach out on Twitter or Facebook.