Web/Tech, Writing

Ulysses gets even better… and an iPad app too

A new version of Ulysses is out today, a free update that makes what in my opinion is the best Mac fiction app even more amazing. Along with it comes a brand new companion iPad app, for $19.99. I’ll be revising Writing A Novel with Ulysses some time over the next week to reflect these changes, with a new chapter devoted to the iPad app. It will be a free update — just make sure you’re set up to receive them from your preferred ebook vendor.

AttachmentsI’ve been working with betas of both Mac and iPad versions for the last couple of months. The changes to the Mac version are wonderfully subtle, making it both easier to use and a touch more powerful too. I’ll cover them in more detail in the coming ebook but you can see one of my favourites here.

There’s a new panel that contains goals, keywords, notes and images for a sheet (or scene if you’re writing a novel). You get this using Command-4. So now you can effectively manage a whole project through four simple keystroke combinations. Command-1 takes you to your entire Ulysses library. Command-2 shows you the project part you’re working on. Command-3 is your main writing screen for an individual sheet — that glorious nothing-but-the-words view that makes Ulysses so productive. And with Command-4 you can get a quick glimpse of notes, statistics, keywords and any images you want attached.

It’s incredibly quick and very useful too. There’s more to the update than this, including a visual refresh to match Yosemite, but I’ll leave you to discover those delights for yourself. I’ve been using the beta so long now that to be honest I’ve forgotten what the previous version was like. But that Command-4 idea is probably the main new thing you have to learn. The rest of the changes are subtle improvements to routines you probably know already.

Now to the iPad app…

I have to be honest and say… I never really regarded the iPad as a proper writing tool. It is now — and a fantastic one. What’s really surprised me, though, is that Ulysses for iPad has actually extended the way I develop a project. This isn’t simply Ulysses for the Mac recreated on a different platform — though it is that as well. The app offers a new and very efficient way to write and edit easily and quickly on the move.

Here’s the first good news… if you know how to use Ulysses on the Mac, you know how to use it on an iPad. There are a few differences — OS X is not iOS. But they’re not huge and they are likely to diminish as Ulysses on the iPad matures. Here it is in action.

iPad app

The look is pretty much identical to Ulysses on the Mac. The command keys you use to hide and show the sidebars are replaced by simple two finger swipes to the left and right. If you hook up an external Bluetooth keyboard, though, you can use the command keys there just as you can on the Mac. Set up iCloud and your work will sync automatically. Just choose the sheet you want to work on and start typing.

Keyboard

I’ve never been a great fan of typing on the iPad but Ulysses has changed my opinion. This is very good for writing thanks to an extended keyboard. The best way to learn what this does is to play with it. First, get used to the very handy way it offers for moving through text. Just swipe right and left in the space bar and the cursor moves through your words. This is much easier than trying to click on the screen. There’s a configurable word count on the left followed by shortcuts above the letter keys for adding markup and common punctuation. The iPad won’t put smart quotes into text automatically but there’s a handy smart quote feature on the keyboard, for single and double quotes. When you need a smart quote just click that instead of a conventional keyboard character and it will generate the right one. You can also search within a sheet and add notes, keywords and images (though not goals).

You can tweak some features, such as the space bar sweeping and autocorrect, in the preferences available through the cog in the right hand corner. But I suspect the way they come out of the box will be fine for most of us. The best thing to do is just pick up your project from iCloud, choose the sheet you want to work on, hit the full screen button which is the first icon top right and get to work.

The app and its Mac equivalent also work with Apple’s Handoff feature which allows you to ‘hand off’ a file you’re editing on one device to another. This may be quicker than waiting for iCloud to sync though you need to set it up and have Bluetooth turned on. You can find the instructions for managing all this here.

There’s a bit more to be said than this but I’ll save that for the updated ebook. The short of it is that the iPad app is a true version of Ulysses that can handle the same projects you run on your Mac without any conversion or manual syncing. I’ve found it invaluable though not in the way I expected. Yes, it does turn the iPad into a kind of small laptop, especially if you hook up an external keyboard. For writing on the move it is a great MacBook Air alternative.

But it’s also more than that. I’ve found I’ve spent more time using it without an external keyboard, for revision not for writing. Without a keyboard you’re restricted to just a few lines of text from your manuscript. This means you look at them more closely than you tend to do on a desktop with a full page of type in front of you.

Seen this way, sentence by sentence, you get a closer focus on your work. I soon fell into the habit of carrying out an evening revise of something I’ve written through the day (occasionally, I have to admit, on a hotel bed). You spot little things you’d miss otherwise. The fact you’re reading your work in a different way reveals flaws that might otherwise be missed.

Congratulations all round to the visionaries at The Soulmen. They’ve turned the iPad from a toy into an incredibly powerful writing tool. One that’s instantly usable by anyone who knows Ulysses already. This is the best thing I know for writing on a Mac, a marvellous combination of power with simplicity. Love it…

You can download the iPad app for $19.99 here.

Ulysses costs $44.99 on the app store here.

You can browse my past posts on Ulysses here.