Ulysses, an interesting, eccentric writing app for OS X

This is an old review of Ulysses that doesn’t reflect the fantastic current version out there. For something on that please see here. 

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be the first in your field. Scrivener started off as an innovative fledgling among writing apps back in 2007 and now is a piece of software used by writers, researchers and journalists around the globe. But as Keith Blount has freely conceded since Scrivener first appeared some of the inspiration for its approach to writing came from an app that’s still less well-known — Ulysses, now in its third incarnation from its German developers The Soulmen.

Being then minded to buy just about every writing app that appeared on OS X I picked up Ulysses 1 (at quite a price I seem to recall) when it first came out and then upgraded to Version 2 — and still never used it. From the start Ulysses has taken a very left field view of the writing process. It set out to be minimalist before minimalism was fashionable. It eschewed conventional word processing formatting in much the same way. Much as I was intrigued by this approach to writing the thing drove me nuts in its first two versions because the developers placed absolutely no store on such simple things as being able to make a word italic with any great ease.

Now version three is out — a completely new app, available on the Mac app store only (which means there’s no upgrade path for earlier users — though there is a demo version available too, details at the foot of this article). Happily Ulysses has seen some of the light. Italics are a doddle and many of my earlier misgivings have been addressed.

So what exactly is this curious piece of software? And should you be using it?

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A quick look at IA Writer Pro

There’s an update on this subject here — and I’ve now got an instant refund for this very unsatisfactory app

IA Writer was a pretty pivotal app for writing on the Mac when it came out a few years ago. There’d been simple writing apps before, including a couple that emulated old-fashioned DOS screens. But Writer wasn’t looking backwards. It wanted to reset the writing process altogether and do minimalism in a modern way. So you got one font, a very simple screen, ‘focus mode’ which allowed you to concentrate on a piece of work sentence-by-sentence, and an absence of formatting.

I buy all these things (which is why I ended up with Scrivener in the first place). So naturally I got a copy, just as I got Ulysses, Byword and lots I’ve forgotten. Of all of them IA seems to have taken off the most and now has a very capable iPad app which syncs with a Mac through iCloud.

But here’s the big question: have I ever really used it?

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Going on a software detox diet

A comment yesterday reminded me what a software junkie I used to be. Had I tried TextExpander instead of setting up auto-correct in Word? Of course. And Typinator. And probably lots else besides.

I started using computers in the Eighties, when most of them were as inadequate as they were expensive. True they could do things that nothing else was capable of. But there were always holes, glitches, things you needed that weren’t there out of the box.

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Building an office for writing – the computer

Some lucky people can survive on laptops alone. I’m not one of them. I get involved in a lot of work that involves a desktop and a big screen.

For most of the last thirty odd years I’ve been writing on a Mac. I daren’t think how much money I’ve put Apple’s way in all that time. That journey is now at end.

Here are a few good reasons for dumping the Mac.

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Building an office for writing – first choose your screen

Most of us think about software when we’re planning our writing process. That makes a lot of sense. But rethinking my own methods I decided to take one further step back. Whatever software you use, you end up running it on a screen. If you’re a professional writer you spend most of your working day staring at one of the things.

But how big? What kind? How do you choose?

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