There is a reason why I prefer to do my writing on Apple computers and devices — both platforms are full of fantastic, independent software programs such as Ulysses by The Soulmen.
I first discovered Ulysses a number of years ago when I was looking for some dedicated writing software. I was a Windows user back in those days and was eager to transition across to the Mac ecosystem. Wonderful pieces of software such as Literature and Latte’s Scrivener (another superb program which will get its own post in the near future) had convinced me that this was the way forward. And so I started saving for an Apple desktop machine. I got myself a Mac Mini and started using Scrivener. I have never gone back to Windows since.
Ulysses was a very different piece of software back in those days and for various reasons it didn’t suit my way of working. Then I heard that the developers of Ulysses, The Soulmen, had dramatically changed their software. They brought out Ulysses 3 and with it came the implementation of Markdown, the syntax based system of writing shortcuts to provide easy and quick formatting (more on this later). They also stripped down the user interface, focusing on the text being written and not on the kind of bloated feature sets some programs have. This made it lightweight, totally intuitive and extremely powerful all at the same time.
As most of you will know, I am in the middle of writing my debut novel, Stone Cold (working title). I am doing so in Ulysses, and since switching to the program a couple of months ago, my daily word count is increasing. I put this down to the way Ulysses fits into my workflow. I work full time in another profession, so need to be able to eke out every last minute of writing time in my busy day. Ulysses allows me to do this.
What follows isn’t really a review of Ulysses. It’s more of an overview of features I think make Ulysses great and why i find the program so useful for my own writing.
Inherently Beautiful, Distraction-Free Writing
This is an easy one. When I’m writing I don’t want to get distracted by unnecessary menus or options. In fullscreen mode Ulysses resembles apps like Writeroom which became well known for their beautiful writing experience. This means I can focus on what I’m writing and nothing else. I do my planning outside of my writing software anyway, in separate outlining and timeline software and my research is also held in separate content management software. So I only need Ulysses to do one thing well – writing.
Powerful and Intuitive Organisation Tools
One of the reasons I use dedicated writing software such as Scrivener and now Ulysses is because Microsoft’s Word just doesn’t cut it for longer pieces of writing such as a novel. A novel is made up of constituent parts – scenes and chapters and parts. When I tried to write using traditional word processing software packages I found them clunky and awkward. Say I wanted a scene to appear somewhere else in the text. I needed to copy and paste it carefully elsewhere and then reorder. Plus the text was one huge document. You would never try to climb a mountain in one go without a break. Writing a novel is a little like climbing a mountain. It makes more sense to tackle it in stages.
Ulysses’ Library – Groups and Sheets
In the above image you can see the way Ulysses deals with the component parts of writing. On the left are Groups – those are the containers for Sheets, which are the individual ‘files’. In simple terms you might have a Group titled Manuscript or Draft and then a lot of Sheets, which could be individual chapters or scenes within the Manuscript. Groups can be nested, maybe in order to get different parts of a novel. Sheets cannot be nested. On the right of the image is the writing area, where the text goes within each sheet.
Ulysses though never forces you to organise your novel in a specific manner. So Sheets could be single scenes or whole chapters with a number of scenes or even a series of chapters or the whole book. Although that wouldn’t make much sense as you might as well write the book in Word then (though you can spit text at the insertion point and create separate sheets). Multiple groups can exist for say writing one novel in one group, a blog in another, or even a group for random writing projects if you want. Ulysses allows you to keep all of your writing within its own library system if you so wish.
You can ‘glue’ sheets together, thereby linking them so they can be moved as one. I personally use a group for my Manuscript, one for Project Management information and one for as yet unplaced scenes. I use a single sheet for each scene and if there is more than one scene in a chapter then I glue them together.
Allowing Sheets to be moved around by dragging and dropping them within the overall Group or even to other Groups is huge for writers. No more cutting and pasting. You have ultimate control over the order of your book.
Attachments – Keywords, Goals, Notes and Images
All of these can be added to either Sheets, or within the text itself. You can add keywords for say a specific character/ characters or a location or maybe even a theme, so when you are reviewing your novel later you can group sections by these keywords. Goals help keep track of your progress and can be added both to Sheets and to Groups. Which means you have total control over your writing targets.
Notes could be useful for a long writing project like a novel, but I tend not to use them and images are more for other kinds of writing like blogs, or articles. Although because you can add images to sheets it might be useful to add an image of a location so when you are writing the image is there for reference.
The end result of all of the above of course is to get a finished document out of Ulysses. This is where the Export function comes in. Like Scrivener, Ulysses does something very clever when you export your documents. You select each sheet that you want to be included in the finished work and hit Export. It will then compile the overall finished piece of work by bringing all of the sheets selected into one continuous document.
You can export to a number of different formats – HTML (useful for bloggers mainly), plain text, EPub format for Kindle and iBooks, PDF and DocX Word format. The program used to support RTF but with the latest release this was removed – in line with Apple’s bizarre decision to remove RTF support in Pages. DocX format though means you can load your exported file direct into Word or Pages and edit it there. Of particular importance if you need to submit a manuscript in Word format to an agent or publisher.
Styles and Markdown
Ulysses uses Styles to know how the end document should be formatted. Styles can be downloaded from the Ulysses style exchange on the website. There are different styles there for novels, theses, manuscript review and so on. Styles are snippets of code which dictate fonts, line spacing, justification, hyphenation, margins and so on. Because they are snippets of code – effectively html style tags, they can be changed to suit individual needs. It isn’t difficult to do, but if you don’t want to mess around with coding there are plenty of styles available to download.
Markdown is used by Ulysses to provide formatting within the text itself. So there are syntax shortcuts to cover different types of headings, bold type and underlined type, as well as text separators to provide space between chunks of text (I use these to make sure there is adequate spacing between scenes when they are compiled together). Images are added using the code IMG but for me the true power of Ulysses lies in it’s ability to make inline changes to a document.
Let me explain. If I put a ++ mark into my text I can add an inline comment. This means I can make a note to check a date or if a character was in such a location at such a time for continuity purposes. When I export my text Ulysses knows not to display the comments so it doesn’t affect the text itself – it is there for my purposes only. Using a pair of || marks either side of a passage of text gives an inline delete function – telling Ulysses to ignore anything inside the || signs. It isn’t a permanent deletion and is a very useful way of revising texts. You can always change your mind later by removing the || signs.
All of this is dealt with by the style settings also. So If I want to show my deletions I can change the setting to hide them in the style codes.
Styles and their interaction with Markdown is a hugely powerful, quick and easy way of controlling how your writing is formatted and exported into its final form. Ulysses handles it all very well indeed and it is one of its best features.
iCloud integration and iPad
This is where Ulysses really comes into its own for me. I wrote an article on here a while back about Day One, in which I waxed lyrical about that app’s ability to sync over iCloud. I have a desktop Mac, a Macbook Pro and now an iPad. Day One allows me to see my work across all platforms because of it’s iCloud functionality. Ulysses works in exactly the same way.
In fact the iCloud integration in Ulysses is what attracted me to the app in the first place. It is so good that I even bought an iPad recently to take full advantage of it. Yes, this excellent piece of writing software from The Soulmen is also now available on iPad and it works as flawlessly on Apple’s handheld device as it does on the Mac.
I will post an article on how I use Ulysses as part of my overall workflow sometime soon but as a quick insight this is what works best for me.
I write a chapter in Ulysses on either my Mac Mini or Macbook Pro and allow the Manuscript to sync over iCloud. I then switch over to iPad and sync that device with the cloud. I then export it in PDF format using a style called Paperback (I have adjusted the style to not allow hyphenation and also changed the page numbering options and fonts by tweaking the style code). I then open the PDF document on my iPad in an app called PDF Expert 5 (again more on that app later). I review and annotate/ markup the chapter and send the marked PDF back to my Mac machines via email. Sometimes I will make the necessary changes to the text directly in Ulysses on the iPad, if there aren’t many changes, but more often than not I do the revision on my desktop or laptop.
It’s a system which works very well. I also do writing on the bus in the morning and evening on my way to work and back, thereby extending my writing day even further. I write on the iPad and then sync the writing back to the iCloud Drive once I hit a WiFi connection. iCloud integration means I can write whenever and wherever I want to and on any device. Especially if I add a bluetooth keyboard to my iPad. I like options and Ulysses and iCloud gives them aplenty.
Ulysses for Mac and iPad is an excellent piece of dedicated writing software. It does exactly what it needs to do -it allows me to focus on writing and not playing around with bells and whistles and useless features I will never use. And it does it all in a very powerful and flexible way. I would highly recommend it if you are serious about writing a novel and want to use software to do so. It is only available on Mac and iPad but I personally believe it is worth going down the Apple route simply because some of the best apps for writing exist on their platforms. And Ulysses is one of the apps I couldn’t do without.
Customer service and technical support is also excellent. I have emailed them on two occasions to query some technical aspects, not bugs, and they have always got back to me within a day or two. The Soulmen is a company who appears to care passionately about providing excellent software which works well and is designed with the end user in mind. Ulysses is in constant development and the community is understandably passionate about their products.
It is available for the Mac from the Mac App Store for £34.99 and on iPad for £14.99. Trial versions are also available to download from the website www.ulyssesapp.com