The Ulysses Writing App Markdown Versus Word Part 3

Ulysses ScreenAh Ulysses: in the context I write, neither Joycean nor Homeric. But within it—I do write (because I paid a lot of money for it and I might as well get something out of it; an odyssey it has been). 

Ulysses is a writing app covering all iterations of the Apple experience: Mac, iPad, and iPhone.

It’s not cheap; though not as over the top as competitors such as Scrivener and Final Draft. Using Australian Dollars as a benchmark, roughly 0.75 US Dollars as I write, you’re looking at $69 for the Mac version (unlimited number of computers) and a further $38 to include all your mobile devices.

The reason why you’d want mobile coverage is the platform’s seamless iCloud integration. I’ve tried it between Macs and it is a beautiful thing: type a sentence on Mac 1 with iCloud active. Wait a minute and there it is on Mac 2. Type on Mac 2 and ditto on Mac 1. It’s kinda like working one of those synthesiser banks in an 80s ELO concert.

Being able to type on your iPhone while at work, change to your iPad on your commute and then see the whole on your Desktop when you get home is the obvious rationale here. Complete writing freedom with hassle free synchronization. Write whenever you like.

But what is Ulysses really and is it a tool for the serious writer?

Let’s look at three types of writer

Category A: The amateur writer (amateur being the greatest proponent of all) who runs a blog or website where thoughts are shared and experimentation in form is carried out.

Category B: The pro writer (earns a living) who principally works online and either submits material straight to the Internet in blog or website form, or to publishers in DOCX or PDF context.

Category C: The pro writer who, in addition to category B’s output, publishes in print or collaborates directly with print designers using the Adobe Creative Suite.

So what is Ulysses?

It’s a plain text writing platform with powerful exporting options. When writing in plain text as we covered in the last post, you’re not formatting with your mouse as you go. Rather, you use Markdown language which consists of hashmarks and asterisks placed before and after words as you type to invoke the effects you desire. One asterisk around a word for italics; two asterisks around a word for bold etc.

As with nearly every other plain text app on the market, Ulysses gives you the option to go completely distraction-free with a blank black or white screen as your background. You can even invoke “typewriter” behavior determining where the focus of the screen lies and how its text scrolls. Honesty, there’s nothing new here. MS Word allows you to write full screen too. Personally, I don’t see the point, a screen is a screen.

What Ulysses does offer though, that many competitors don’t, is a fully integrated “Library” with note taking and comment keeping ability. Say you’re writing a book. Create folders and subfolders for chapters, scenes, outlines, character bios and the like. Then rename these folders, shift them about, merge and separate them as you desire.

Note: In Ulysses, unlike Word, you write on a “Sheet”. Pretty much like a Kerouacian rant, a Sheet can be as long or short as you like. A sheet ultimately can be an entire novel.

One doubt I had, was with the practice of some writers featured in Ulysses’ marketing, who boasted of keeping their entire life’s work in the Ulysses library. Well, not for me. The Cloud is by no means stable, iCloud included. Thankfully, you can also save your work to your hard drive, an external drive, even to a specific folder. Yet, of course, once there your multifaceted app sharing ability stops cold.

Ulysses’ other unique feature comes in the realm of export. A writing app is only as good as the work you’re able to get out.

Ulysses therefore, allows you to export as PDF, DOCX, Text, HTML, and ePUB. The app is firmly geared towards Internet and electronic writing (WordPress users will want to keep an eye on the next update due—for it boasts a seamless port to the WordPress blog format too).

Ulysses also offers a robust preview feature. Though Markdown is not “What You See is What You Get”, Preview gives a fairly exact peek at what your formatting looks like given a number of preset Themes—that you can fully customize given a twirl with CSS: Ulysses never fully relinquishes its realm to the non-geek.

Now, this is well and good but do note an obvious omission: there’s no direct export to the Adobe Creative Suite, ICML for example. I’ve chatted with The Soulmen (Ulysses’ creators) about this and though there is a workaround—it is a lot of work to get around to indeed.

So can Ulysses replace Word as a primary pro writing tool?

My answer is no. Ulysses is indeed the most polished plain text writing app I’ve used. There is some value in its relatively exorbitant price compared to say, iA Writer and Byword. It also offers much more functionality than another new kid on the block (and Mac Editor’s Choice), Focused, which provides neither typographer’s quotes or custom em dash keyboard recognition. Must haves for me.

Category A writers will find immense pleasure with Ulysses. I’m writing on it now though I tend to use Word more for my blogging needs. Ulysses is very easy to use. It has a learning curve of oh three minutes, and simply feels absolutely solid in all respects. Its exportability, themes, and other gimmicks I’ve not even covered will delight.

Category B writers will find Ulysses useful, but seeing they will still need to export as PDF or DOCX and possibly tidy up formatting there with variable page numbers, variable headers and footers, cover sheets, spacing and indentations per publisher requirements, Word may as well remain their primary workplace.

Category C writers, me included, face the greatest dilemma. Those of us who use InDesign will see little value swapping Word or InCopy for Ulysses in our workflow. Prudent InDesign workflow relies on theme matching; easy collaboration between writers, editors, and designers; and precise formatting. For these pro writers—power writers if you like—Ulysses may serve as a nice place to visit for a writing change: but the bulk of work will need to be conducted off app. I therefore, can’t see Ulysses as smooth as it is right now, being a daily work tool. The Ulysses-Word/InCopy-InDesign workflow makes little sense.

The one real benefit Ulysses has over Word though is a big one: it only takes 10 seconds for Ulysses to fire up for me; it takes 60 seconds for Word. Hence, if ever I want to get an idea down in pixels really quickly, Ulysses is now my “go to tool”.

In a nutshell

If you go out and download Ulysses right now you’ll find a sharp, reliable, and robust writing app. It will not replace Word for your every writing need, but just as Word is a proven tool, you’ll feel a definite comfort typing the Ulysses way.

Of great importance is the fact that Ulysses is very much a living tool. It’s creators are active online, their blog is alive, and they are an absolutely friendly bunch to talk to.

The Soulmen team I believe, truly cares about Ulysses. Unlike some apps, soon abandoned after release, Ulysses I feel is an app out to prove a point and will only get better in both features and coverage. My AUD $69 is an investment in that respect.

For me, Ulysses is ultimately this: a polished basic writing tool with the potential to scare the pants off Microsoft as soon as it finds an interface with the Adobe Creative Suite.

Because I tell you, there are many Mac and Windows users who’d like to dump Word at their earliest convenience.

Together with its new annual subscription.