Why I kept Ulysses

Renewing the subscription for another year.


Numbers don’t lie. Well, at least these numbers don’t.

They’re coming from two disparate sources which, originating from two completely different methods of gathering data, have no reason to agree. Yet, they do.

Data from both Google Search Console and Netlify Analytics make it clear that, while web traffic spikes come and go, the main reason why people visit this site has been its posts about one particular subject. And that subject is not related to static site generators (SSGs) or anything else similarly nerdy, despite the overall slant of most of the posts you’ll find here.

It’s Ulysses. Yep, to my surprise, this site consistently gets the most views, over time, for my articles that discuss that macOS/iOS creative writing app.

Or, then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Let’s face it: it’s reasonable to assume there are a lot more folks out there with a passion for writing, as compared to others who find getting down-and-dirty with SSGs a great way to spend one’s free time. (Blush.)

So I’d guess I’m about to welcome even more traffic with this piece about what I sometimes call “Big U.” Hello, folks. Good to see you. Please be nice to this old guy with Type A blood and keep your social distance but, otherwise, welcome (back?).


Oh, but wait: didn’t I say recently that I’d be letting my yearly Ulysses subscription lapse in May because I’d abandoned my years-long attempt to write a novel? After all, if there no longer was to be a work-in-progress (WIP), why keep paying for the main app I’d used to work on it?

Without the sub, Ulysses goes into a “read-only” mode. In this mode, it allows you to keep reading and, if desired, even exporting whatever Ulysses content you’d previously created.

As a result, the only reason to keep the sub would be if I’d decided to un-abandon the WIP. Right?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, I decided to work on it again. (It’s amazing how many fresh ideas come to your head when you drop a WIP for a while and then come back to it later.) No, I haven’t finally, utterly decided that I’ll go through with it.

However, because I did let the Ulysses sub lapse a few weeks back, my reactivating the sub yesterday restored the two-week trial everyone gets on first installation. That was an unexpected benefit: it gives me that amount of time to see if I can get the WIP back on track. If, within the two weeks, I figure I was right, after all, to stop working on the WIP, I simply cancel the sub again before the trial ends. (2020-06-20: See the update at the end.)

But, you may still wonder, why bother to keep Ulysses active even if I know I’ll go ahead with the WIP? Haven’t I made it clear in multiple past posts that I have great affinity also for Scrivener and iA Writer, both of which I already own outright? (The subscription-haters among you may be yelling, “Hell, yeah,” at this point.)

Well, it’s like this . . .

Why Ulysses is still my best choice

I made very clear back in this site’s second-ever post (and still one of its most popular), “Why I finally settled on Ulysses,” that the way my mind works simply meshes better with Ulysses than with Scrivener, however much I love good ol’ “Scriv.” That hasn’t changed, and — unless somebody reprograms me — isn’t going to change. If the WIP is to have a future, it will be in Ulysses.

(Of course, that was in the days before I’d spent much time with iA Writer and learned it was a better choice for writing this site’s posts. And that hasn’t changed, either, but only because iA Writer outputs SSG-friendly Markdown natively while you have to export it from Ulysses.1 If the Ulysses folks ever change that—well, I’m just sayin’.)

But I’ve tried numerous other writing apps, too, not just these three. For me, Ulysses wins on multiple counts.

Flexible, yet clean, UI

While iA Writer would claim to have the most distraction-free user interface for writers, the fact is that, compared to Ulysses, its less easily customizable look-and-feel just plain get in my “mental” way, for lack of a better phrase.

Oh, sure, I can use iA Writer to dash off stuff like what you’re reading now. But when it’s just me staring at a blank page and trying to decide what my WIP characters are going to do, see, or say next, give me the Ulysses UI every day and twice on Sunday.

Seamless flow between macOS and iOS

Scrivener isn’t even in the ballgame here because of certain and well-known shortcomings involving its inter-device sync, not to mention that its iOS app simply isn’t in the same class as its desktop app and, sadly, isn’t getting a lot of dev love these days while the parent company struggles to finish its long-anticipated Windows version of Scrivener 3.

However, this item is a much closer contest between Ulysses and iA Writer, at least where functionality is concerned. But, again, I find the cross-environment experience better in Ulysses than in iA Writer. The Ulysses Library, love it or hate it, is a good part of the reason for that. As Marcus Fehn of the Ulysses team said ’way back in 2014:

Writing is ubiquitous, we jot down notes, we draft, we rhyme, we do whole novels — and chances are that we’re not doing one of these exclusively. So we wanted our users to do all of this in one place, without having to worry about where they put, say, their notes. It’s just all there, in this very app. There are no file names, no Finder management, no “Project A new v2 no really new NEW.whatever” to worry about.

While I’m on the subject of the Ulysses Library: if you haven’t tried Ulysses and, thus, this way of managing your writing, it’s hard to explain how freeing it is. Since the two-week trial is free, I suggest you give that a shot and find out for yourself. There’s an excellent and, may I say, humorous tutorial that walks you through everything you’ll need to know.2

It was Ulysses I chose in the middle of a sleepless night when, in a darkened hotel room hundreds of miles from home and with only my iPhone to use, I found myself writing the eulogy for a beloved and gone-much-too-soon younger relative whose funeral I’d be attending in a few hours. Yeah, I could’ve done it in one of the other writing apps I had on my phone (which, yes, included both Scrivener and iA Writer), but I didn’t give it a second thought. I went to Ulysses. That’s how much I value the Ulysses writing experience, especially cross-platform.

It ain’t all roses: Ulysses and sync

One more thing I must mention, in the interests of full transparency, is what made me briefly abandon Ulysses last year before returning to it: its occasional issues with iCloud sync.

As I already explained, this is simply something that goes with “shoebox” apps like Ulysses. It’s also worth noting that, since the release of Ulysses 18 last September, the app has offered more transparent file storage options, although they still lack some of the advantages (and risks?) of keeping files in the native Ulysses Library.

That said: having weathered the storm and understood the limitations of the Ulysses Library approach, I still trust it enough to keep using it. Do I keep its contents thoroughly backed up and ported, just to be safe? Oh, yeah. But I’d do that anyway, and you should, too — regardless of the apps and/or data involved.

Something big from Leipzig?

There’s one additional thing that drew me back to Ulysses, and it has nothing to do with the WIP. It’s my lifelong weakness for New Shiny.

You see, Ulysses 20 is coming soon, and hints from the Ulysses team in Leipzig indicate it’ll be really cool, offering certain features the Ulysses community has wanted for a very long time.

With any luck at all, I — and a very-much-still-alive WIP — will be waiting eagerly for it when it arrives.

Update, 2020-06-20: I decided to stay with the annual renewal past that additional two weeks, having made enough renewed progress on the WIP that I considered another year’s worth of Ulysses a worthy investment.

  1. Mind you, export from Ulysses is easy enough to do, but you’re always one step removed from the file that the SSG requires. ↩︎

  2. If you’re a long-time Ulysses user who turned off the tutorial section some time back, you might want to give it an occasional look-see: app updates include updates to the tutorial, explaining new and revised features like the improved external-files support I mentioned before. ↩︎