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Scrivener 3 and Ulysses 12

I continue to find Scrivener and Ulysses so interesting, as they solve the same problem of long-form writing in different ways: how to work on a large and complex project, but in smaller chunks? These two applications address this in different ways. Scrivener uses rich text, Dropbox syncing, and powerful (but fiddly) options, while Ulysses uses plain text, iCloud syncing, and far fewer options. Scrivener is very mature (in fact, the recent version pruned some things), while Ulysses is still young.

Dropbox sync is renowned for its power and reliability, while iCloud sync has had a bad reputation in the past. For various reasons, Scrivener uses Dropbox to sync projects across devices (if you have one device, you can totally ignore this). But the Scrivener sync via Dropbox is a bit painful. You must always quit Scrivener so as to not have multiple instances open at once, and you have to wait for the sync at the beginning and end of launch. This is especially noticeable on iOS, where there’s a good 15 second launch and sync wait, which feels interminable in today’s computing world. Part of this is Scrivener’s ability to store many file types. Ulysses only uses and syncs plain text, and it’s instantaneous. Total win for Ulysses.

Ulysses’ plain text is also much simpler, in that all your text looks exactly the same. There are no mis-matched fonts, for example (I wish Scrivener had the option to force this, so that only one font was permitted, ever). But this font unanimity in Ulysses does lose a bit of functionality, especially for academic writing. You just don’t want to see a book title with asterisks around it, it’s a bit annoying. For blogs and things it’s fine, but it does hide a bit too much of the final product. So this is a draw; I like Ulysses’ simplicity and clarity, but I do like Scrivener’s rich text power. (What I would really like is something in-between, a rich text that forced one font and font size on the project).

Scrivener is more robust in footnotes, compiling, and options. Although it can get fiddly, it is so powerful. It is rare to want an option in Scrivener and not be able to find it, and the app does try to hide the options in many ways. But it’s still tempting to mess with options instead of write. For example, you can work with the project in terms of a cork board and notecards, an outline, or as a list of documents, which is powerful but also distracting. I think Scrivener wins here, but with a bit of a caveat.

Ulysses has a wonderful search and jump to feature – command-O lets you search and go. This is incredibly useful. If you think of something, or want to check something, You can very quickly jump to it with a small sub-menu search result (it’s a bit like Google, Sherlock or Launchbar in terms of returning results). Scrivener has a more traditional approach like a Finder search, with part of the window pane turning into a list of results. This is powerful in many ways, but also a bit more slow and daunting. Yet Scrivener does have a back-arrow feature, where you can go back to a recent file, manipulate it, and then go forward to where you were. (The main benefit to these kinds of apps is being able to work on a long document in pieces, and move quickly among these pieces). Ulysses lacks this, and I miss it.

Scrivener also tracks your progress in some powerful ways. I like being able to see my word count for today, for example, and Ulysses oddly omits this. Ulysses does have a cheesy goal setting for a document’s word length, displayed as a weird kind of circle (sort of like the Activity app on the iPhone), but that’s it.

There’s a certain indie developer feel with Scrivener; it has the fingerprint of a thoughtful, dedicated programmer. The program is delightful in many ways, as is the manual. Keith Blount, the mind behind Scrivener, wants to get it totally right, and I really admire that. Ulysses feels a bit more of a committee project. It’s great, beautiful, powerful, it works and has unity, but doesn’t have the compassionate intensity that Scrivener does.

As I’ve noted before, the mistake with both apps is to create lots of sheets or documents. It’s very tempting to have also sorts of placeholders for things you think you will include, and then the project becomes way too unwieldy. I’ve spent far too much time condensing and pruning.

Having used both apps for 6 months or so (I actually put 3 chapters in Scrivener, and 3 different chapters in Ulysses), I do think Scrivener is more mature, and is better for academic writing. But Ulysses is great too, and can work for academic writing, and in some ways excels. But Ulysses is a better platform for blog posts, class notes, and presentation notes that don’t have footnotes don’t need more complex exporting. So I have moved everything back to Scrivener for my book project, but I’m writing this blog post in Ulysses. Whatever you choose, happy writing.

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