AAR professional photo 2jpg.jpg

Ulysses is a Massive Writing Rethink

What If

Ulysses is a brave, massive rethink of text and writing.

What if all your writing projects were in one place, searchable, viewable, and in sync across all devices? It means that, instead of endless Word documents in various folders (that you have to open and skim to find what you’re looking for), everything would be a simple, clean text file, instantly searchable, in one central place. You can use folders and tags to organize the files.

What if you weren’t tempted to fiddle with fonts, spacing, and formatting, but just worked in simple, unformatted text? Then you couldn’t be distracted by creating paragraph and text styles, and applying them. You could apply a text style with a simple code and keystroke, and move on.

# This could be a header.

> This could be a block quote.

All my various writing projects: class notes, manuscripts, sermons, blog posts – could be in one place. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Ulysses has a way around this. With nested folders and keywords, the database can grow with time while still being manageable. (Over time, it may get a bit crufty with all the files, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ulysses adds some archive sections and capabilities in the future.)

A Clear Focus

What I love about Ulysses is the careful thought that went into it. Many useful things have been rejected, because they aren’t part of the app’s clear purpose. Ulysses isn’t an everything storage system (like Evernote and others). You aren’t going to put PDFs in there, or extensive research notes, or to-do lists. This is just your writing, all in one place, with simple formatting codes. The only thing it’s missing is TextExpander support. For those intimidated by Markdown, Ulysses has simple instructions on the characters and syntax of the system. It also has a dropdown menu to help you if you need a gentle reminder. Do note that Ulysses has its own flavor of Markdown (as do many other applications and systems), so it’s not going to copy into or out of another system in the same way. You may need to learn Ulysses’ slightly altered system.

What about Scrivener?

Scrivener is so great, so powerful, and I truly love it. But Ulysses shows its brilliance in eliminating the distractions. Scrivener is so powerful, and so fiddly, that it’s very easy to get distracted. Further, the rich text editor can get a bit annoying with style changes, highlights, and so on. I find that I have problems with line spacing, or finding features, or having too many document and project notes that create chaos. While Scrivener is more powerful, Ulysses is more focused.

A few years ago, Ulysses didn’t seem appropriate for academic writing because it didn’t support footnotes. But now it does, and I think it will work fine for manuscripts and articles (if you need tables or fancy arithmetic formulas, then you need to look elsewhere). Ulysses’ sync is far superior to Scrivener. I have found Ulysses to be solid with synchronizing everything, despite iCloud’s previous bad reputation. While Scrivener uses the more respected and robust Dropbox sync, it’s also a bit ornery: “do you want to sync now, or later?” it asks, and then shows a sync progress bar that you must wait for. I have had 2 sync errors pop up. While Scrivener did a great job of notifying me and setting the conflicting files in a folder, it meant I had to go and compare the questionable files to the original ones, which is tedious and unnerving. Plus, I couldn’t find any differences! (I have had the same problem with OmniOutliner, which has reported sync conflicts, saved and named the questionable files, and yet I could find no differences). While Scrivener’s system sounds more reputable (since it auto-reports and saves conflicts), it actually feels a bit more stressful, since you are alerted to problems that require comparison. If it ran the comparison for me and highlighted the differences I would feel more confident, but it seems to put the onus on me to find the problems.

Scrivener does have a great research section in its database, which is a feature that Ulysses is missing. But I respect that Ulysses simply refuses to even deal with that. It’s so easy to pile on in Scrivener all these things that require later sorting and evaluating, and Ulysses simply says, like Bartleby, “I would prefer not to.” You can have sheet notes and attachments, but that’s about it. Ulysses keeps it simple, and expects you to figure out your own system for research, which could include many different solutions.

Buying and Learning Ulysses

Ulysses is part of the recent movement to paid software subscriptions, like Microsoft Office, TextExpander, 1Password, and DayOne. Ulysses is forcing a subscription, even for those who bought the app in the past (those customers are offered a discount on the subscription). While a cognitive shift for consumers, it’s a sensible response to an era of cheap software. As a child of the 1980s, I remember software being hundreds of dollars per application. The idea of great apps that are easy to find, purchase, and install online for less than $5 (less, given inflation) would have seemed ludicrous back then. Paid subscriptions, while adding a tremendous cost over the lifetime of an application, is the only clear way forward for programmers and designers.

I did enjoy The Sweet Setup’s online class. Like Ulysses, it is tremendously focused and clear. There’s nothing in the class that you can’t discover yourself, but the presentation and production are so high quality and crystal clear, as well as inspiring, that I do recommend it. I found it invaluable; it felt like I was cutting to the front of the line in terms of understanding Ulysses.

Knowledge is more than a Google search

Massive Writing Apps