Why I finally settled on Ulysses

How I came to realize why one particular creative writing app was a better fit for me as compared to its chief rival.


As I write this in late September, 2018, it’s a little over a year since I began writing a novel I really, truly thought I’d have finished by now.

Well, that hasn’t happened, but at least now I really think I’ve got all my plot holes figured out. Still, that’s not why I’m writing this.

Holy wars? Holy . . .

There’s kind of a holy war out there involving a lot of writing apps, especially for us lucky Mac users, and I’ve been going back and forth between probably the two biggest combatants: Scrivener and Ulysses.

And, truth be known, it seems silly to call them “combatants” since, as nearly as I can tell, the two companies behind these apps have a lot of mutual respect for each other, as well they should. But, grant a tired old man his tired metaphor, will ya? Ah ’ppreciate it.

When I started writing the aforementioned novel in late August, 2017, it was only a few weeks since my joyful rejoining of the Mac universe after a painfully long time away, and, when I started to consider how I would write the book that had been bouncing around my head for quite a while (although it now is ’waaaay different from that original story), my initial search for the best app to do the job made it reasonably clear my best choice was something called Scrivener.

It was my first encounter with writing software that was designed to make it easy to move around scenes and chapters, much less do all the other cool things I have since learned exist among the numerous creative writing-targeted apps for both Macs and iOS.

There was also this thing out there called Ulysses, but that was back when it was receiving a ton of Internet hate for going to a subscription plan, and I didn’t pay it much mind. Honestly don’t recall if that was a factor, though.

Besides, this Scrivener app seemed to be all I could ever want, and it was going to be getting a major upgrade in just a few months after that which would address any lingering concerns about its design, which hadn’t changed much in the previous six years. Having not been following macOS née OS X software design Kewl Stuff for the aforementioned quite some time away, I didn’t see anything wrong with the appearance of v.2.x, but there was little question that v.3.x was definitely a major improvement and added many even cooler features along with the more updated look-’n’-feel.

Siren song

As the months went by, I kept toiling in Scrivener on my work in progress (WIP). Such as it was. [Sigh.] However, much as I had done in trying to figure out which mail client to use on Mac and iOS — yet another story for another day — I started to waver in my estimation of whether Scrivener was the wisest choice for me. This was troubling, especially considering how much I liked the care and thinking behind it and greatly admired how obviously it was a labor of love for the small but dedicated team behind it (especially Keith Blount, who taught himself to program so he could create it and is still its chief developer).

So, once again, I began researching writing software. But this time, I had a better idea of what I needed. The siren song of simplicity, in the form of Ulysses, wailed at me from the rocks. I knew I still needed most of the organizational power of Scrivener; but the Ulysses fans proclaimed that Scrivener simply had too many bells and whistles. Ulysses is pure. Just write. You don’t need all that other stuff. So, indeed, I downloaded Ulysses on my Mac and iOS devices, and subscribed well before the expiration of the trial period; it was so clearly a fit.

Do I regret having Scrivener? Absolutely not! I still use it from time to time, and occasionally have cast a longing eye back toward it and switched stuff from Ulysses to it. But — at least so far — I keep switching back. And I really think I’m gonna stick with Big U this time. I’ll explain why below. N.B.: I don’t give a flip one way or the other about subscriptions, so long as it’s something I need and will use. Ulysses easily passes that test. So I won’t engage in that holy war. Fought and done, as far as I’m concerned.

The curse of DTP, or why I need Ulysses

You can read oodles of reviews of Ulysses and its “beautiful” interface and all that. I won’t try to add to those, at least not at this time, although I may do so somewhere down the line. This is simply an explanation of how my particular mindset requires something like a Ulysses to do creative writing — and, for that matter, what you’re reading now.1

You see, in the end, I realized one fundamental, albeit annoying, truth about myself: when it comes to typing on a screen, I am easily distracted — particularly by typography, but by textual appearance in general.

I think that’s because I’ve spent the vast majority of my adult working life writing things that had to look good as well as read well. Thank you, desktop publishing. Indeed, when I briefly tried writing a novel back in the ’90s, I actually used Quark XPress, back then my daily driver where DTP was concerned, because I was nearly as concerned with the layout as I was the words. Bad, bad me. Fortunately, I also exported it to .doc format — the Word format of the time — or I’d now have no idea how it read except from my increasingly foggy memory of it. I can tell you I didn’t get too far with it in either XPress or Word, which was probably just as well.

To be sure, picking up web design in the mid-’90s as first a hobby and then a part of my daily working life didn’t help, either, especially once I discovered CSS.2

It turns out that this predilection toward how it looks also has a positive, if I decide to self-publish my novel as I’m increasingly inclined to do. That’s because my three decades of DTP taught me how to format professionally, and — if I do say so myself — I think I’ll be able to do a fairly nice cover design, too.

In any event, the ease with which typographical concerns can play Squirrel! with my fragile attention span pretty well leaves me with Ulysses rather than Scrivener.

And, yes, you can customize the Scrivener appearance quite a bit to make it less distracting. I definitely tried. But there’s one key problem in how Scrivener does things for which I can’t compensate successfully: it’s an RTF app, not a plain-text app. When it shows you a font, it’s really using that font; while, when Ulysses shows you a font, it’s just a pretend thing — e.g., “Today, I feel like writing in the Apple system font (or Times, or Hoefler Text, or iA Writer Duospace). Bingo.”

So what? Well, in an RTF app like Scrivener, there is no easy way to switch that view because it’s not a “view,” it’s the real thing. In Ulysses, it is just a view. Put it this way: if you decide you want to go out with purple hair today, you can either dye your hair purple or just wear a purple wig. Guess which is a bigger deal.

Once I realized this about myself, it was clear why my particular DTP-/typography-obsessed brain needed to get away from an RTF app and to a plain-text app. That would seem to leave me open to many apps, but in the end it was definitely Ulysses for the ease of organization, export (oh, my God, that’s a killer app in itself), and the little bit of customization I still need. Speaking of the export functionality: I should note that exporting from Ulysses to an SSG can be problematic, although you can get around this in many cases by using the Raw Source or Raw Source Block Markup features.

Ulysses probably isn’t where I’d want to write, say, another book the size of the James Joyce novel after which I presume it was named. At least, that’s what most reviewers say with almost an “And of course you know” sort of shrug. Since I’m more into writing stuff that ranges from short stories to, in the case of the current WIP, slightly-longer-than-novella novels, that’s not a problem for me. If you’re trying to write the twenty-first century version of War and Peace, well, then you’re probably better off in Scrivener.

I don’t mean to cast shade on Scrivener and the wonderful people at L&L. There are many authors who swear by Scrivener as the only way they can write. They clearly don’t have my problem with being distracted by the appearance of text. But, believe me, when you’ve spent most of your adult life having to make sure paragraphs and pages and websites both looked and read a certain way, you’re going to find it hard to divorce the text from the look of the text. Yet, that’s exactly what you have to do if you’re going to write.

As David Hewson puts it so well:

Ulysses is about text on the page. Yes, you can do lots of clever things with tagging and stuff if you want (and I do when it’s necessary). But at its heart Ulysses works like a very clever digital typewriter. Clear the decks of all the frills, the folders, the styles, the agonising over whether to write in Avenir or Helvetica. Get all that out of the way and just write. What you see is what the eventual reader will see. In essence Ulysses is extremely simple. Once you get your head around the basics you can forget about software and focus on the hard bit — saying what you want to say and saying it well. There are no distractions, and that’s a wonderful thing because writers tend to hunt for distractions all the time. It’s easier puzzling over them than getting down to the real job in hand.3

  1. I’ll save it from a Ulysses “sheet” to an .md file in an appropriate part of my Hugo site’s “posts” directory and, therefore, convert it into this web page. ↩︎

  2. By the way: if you don’t know CSS yet but you’re using Ulysses, learn it ASAP. It’s a delight to know how to customize the export styles in Ulysses using its CSS-derived styles language. If you’re concerned at all with the final appearance of whatever you export, it behooves you to know this schtuff. ↩︎

  3. Speaking of Mr. Hewson, his Writing a Novel With Ulysses is indispensable. Even if you already know Ulysses, you’ll find so many good nuggets of information about writing with Ulysses. And, if you don’t already know the app, you’ll find this book a fantastic way to get started. Consider it the user’s manual that The Soulmen didn’t write. ↩︎

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