It’s no great secret that Ulysses is my writing tool of choice these days. I really can’t remember how I managed before I moved to it.
Today’s a big day for Ulysses users too. When the App Store swings into an action we’ll get an update of the Mac app to version 2.5. There’s also the release of a brand new version of the iOS app which makes it compatible with the biggest iOS device, the iPad Pro, and the smallest, any iPhone from the 4s up.
The Mac update is primarily under the bonnet stuff aimed at making iCloud sync faster and more efficient. One new feature is very welcome though — if you’re in the habit of splitting sheets there’s now a keyboard shortcut for the job: Command-Shift-B.
For iOS users the new version is very big news, much bigger than just compatibility with a broader range of devices. There are lots of new features and a fresh keyboard layout for writing and editing. All of this is covered in an update to my book Writing A Novel with Ulysses which has gone out on Kindle and iBooks today, with a new expanded section on iOS. It should be live soon though as ever the exact timing is beyond my control. You’ll be able to tell if it’s there since this edition has a new cover, above, and the version number 4.0
Which brings us to the perennial question I’m always asked when I do a free update to this book: how do you get it if you’re an existing buyer? If you bought it on iBooks the answer’s easy. You just follow these instructions and it should turn up automatically.
Unfortunately life’s a lot more complicated for Kindle users because Amazon refuse to send out automatic updates except in the case of books that contain technical errors. A comprehensive free upgrade isn’t enough. This explains everything. It’s daft but there’s nothing any author can do about it. The quickest way to get them to send you the update is to email them at email@example.com, mention the title, and ask for it.
But fret not. Below you will find a condensed version of the new iOS section from the book which covers most of the new features I think will be of interest to someone writing a novel, which is the focus of the book. Hope you find it useful — and as ever many thanks to the ever-helpful folk at The Soulmen for their assistance in bringing out this update.
Writing A Novel with Ulysses 2.5: iOS
If you own an iPad or an iPhone, or both, Ulysses can be your ever-present writing companion, an amazing tool that lets you take your work everywhere you go. The iOS version is a separate app — and needs to be bought separately too. But if you know Ulysses on the Mac you’ll get the hang of it very quickly. The concepts are much the same. Crucially, too, the iOS versions sync with iCloud just as effectively as the Mac app does.
What does that mean? This. You can work on your novel on your Mac then read, edit and annotate it on the move, on any iPad from the Mini to the iPad Pro and an iPhone too. Any changes you make tapping away on a train or plane will be synced back automatically to iCloud as soon as you have a network connection.
As we discussed in the previous chapter, this isn’t the blunt file syncing you may be familiar with through services such as Dropbox. It happens automatically so long as you’re set up to use iCloud as the place you store your work. Once you’ve done that everything is so quick and seamless it’s sometimes hard to believe.
Let me give you a real-life example. Most of the time I write on a retina iMac in full screen. But, as you’ve read already, I keep reference material in Ulysses under a Management group too. The most frequently-viewed sheet here is a cast list for the book in question — character names and descriptions.
It’s very easy to run these as a separate window on the iMac and switch to the sheet when I need it. In fact I invariably write with two full-screen windows on the same project whether I’m using the iMac or a MacBook on the road. But on my desk I also have my iPad with Ulysses on it — open at the character sheet. That way I can check descriptions and background instantly without having to move to another screen.
If you have an iPad it’s worth putting it to use this way rather than having the thing sit blank while you work. You might also want to check just how quickly Ulysses syncs between your Mac and your iPad. On your desktop go to the sheet you have open on your iOS device and type in a few words. Then sit back and see how long it takes Ulysses to upload the new text and download it on the iPad. You don’t need hit Command-S or anything. Just wait.
I’m on a fairly sluggish broadband connection but I usually find the iPad updates in a matter of seconds. That’s how slick it is and makes this a great way to see side information on your book without going out of the main manuscript.
With the release of the latest iOS version in March 2016 Ulysses has turned into what must surely be one of the most powerful writing apps around. There are plenty of simple text editors out there, and conventional word processors too. But Ulysses is unique in offering both simplicity and structural power, syncing your work through iCloud from desktop to laptop and iOS, and doing this all with no compromises whatsoever.
This is no cutdown, crippled version of the desktop app. The differences between the two are slight and mostly cosmetic. On iOS you can now import docx files, use 3D Touch actions if your device supports them, search using Spotlight and export to PDF, Word, Markdown, ePub and HTML, and share files through Dropbox. If you are a user of the publishing site Medium you can export an article draft straight to the web.
With tools such as writing goals, comprehensive text statistics, support for your entire iCloud library and a new share option which lets you send text, photos or links from other apps direct to Ulysses, iOS is now a close match for the Mac. The real differences are mostly to do with practical issues such as screen size and the keyboard you’re going to use.
Here, for example, we see Ulysses in action on the iPad.
And here is the same sheet on the iPhone.
The basic concepts — Markdown for text and inserting images for example — are still there. And just as on the Mac you will find yourself working with your iCloud library too. On the iPad it looks like this.
You can also use Dark Mode too, and here you can see the controls at the top of the page that manage some of the basic app functions.
Look at the icons on the right. The first gives you a full screen mode, nothing but text which is best for pure writing. The gear icon takes you to Settings where you can set the look and feel of the text and spacing on screen, the theme, Dark Mode, the items to be seen in the sheet previews you see on the left here, and some editing options such as auto-capitalisation, spelling and correction.
The box with the up arrow should be familiar to most iPad users. It lets you send a sheet or group to another app. It will bring up the option to export your work as text, HTML, ePub, PDF or docx, using a variety of templates, and send the results to other apps or as email attachments. The pencil icon will create a new sheet. The paper clip will let you attach files such as images or PDFs to a sheet.
The theme you use won’t sync with your desktop — you probably wouldn’t want it to since the screen sizes are so different. So set what you like for your particular device. The iOS and Simple themes work well for me with the same font I use on the Mac, San Francisco, listed on both as ‘System Font’.
Remember how we use Command-1 to see the entire library, Command-2 for the sheet list and Command-3 to access individual sheets? If you’re using an external keyboard with your iOS device you can do the same. But there’s a new and easier way. Just swipe left and right with your finger to do the same thing.
Let’s try some common tasks. First: how to move sheets around a document. Just go to the sheet list then Select.
Those drag handles will let you move the sheet up and down.
Select one or more and you can do a else besides, including adding keywords, duplicating, sharing and exporting.
Need to expand or collapse a project group in the Library? Swipe left on the name and you’ll see this.
More will let you create a new group or filter, export or share. Collapse will collapse the hierarchy in the sidebar. If it’s collapsed already you’ll be given the option to expand it instead. Detail will let you change the title, icon, sort order and parent group, and add a goal for the number of words it should contain.
Split, glue and merge are fantastic ways to tweak and manipulate scenes. To split an existing sheet just tap where you want to split and hold your finger there until you see the option (alongside Select, Select All and Paste). For Glue and Merge select the sheets you want to manipulate in the Sheet List and choose More; you’ll see the options there.
Now let’s take a closer look at the keyboard (which has changed from the initial iOS version of Ulysses). This has several tools to make writing easier on a small device. How they are presented will change depending on your screen size too. Here it is on the iPad.
Take a look at the shortcut buttons above the keyboard (if you don’t see them just hold down the globe icon on the keyboard and turn on shortcuts). The first is search. This does exactly what it says. Hit the gear icon and you can use it for replace too and ignore case and diacritics. This works in individual sheets only. If you want to search your entire library go to your device home screen, swipe right, and search using iOS Spotlight.
Next comes statistics. Usually this will be a standard word count. But you can tailor the results just as you can on the Mac to more sophisticated criteria. Just hit the icon to see these options.
Next along come undo and redo and cut, copy and paste. After that you will have any autocomplete suggestions the iOS text system has. Then to the right you first have access to common markup such as headings.
The next button gives you more markup options, including annotate, deleting and inserting images. To add a photo, for example, just choose the IMG tag and the app will prompt you to insert an image from the iPad itself or via a url.
Finally the Command key will offer quick access to special characters which can be fiddly to type using the standard keyboard. My most-used one is the ability to insert smart quotes. Just choose the one here and Ulysses will know whether to insert an opening or closing mark.
Here is the keyboard on the iPhone.
The idea is the same but everything is compressed for space. So that looping arrow, for example, will take you to undo and redo. These things are much better gathered through use than reading about them to be honest. If you have the hang of Ulysses already I’d just play around to get the hang of things.
Since iOS lacks a trackpad or mouse moving your cursor around among text can be awkward. On the iPad (not the iPhone) Apple have a very clever way round this. Just swipe right and left in the space bar with two fingers and the cursor moves through your words. This is much easier than trying to click on the screen. Do note though: this only works with the standard iOS keyboard. It won’t work with something like Swiftkey.
The app and its Mac equivalent support 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.
The short of it is that the iOS 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 your device into a kind of laptop, especially if you hook up an external keyboard.
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. The iPad’s virtual keyboard restricts your view 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.
So an evening revise goes into iCloud, syncs back to my desktop and replaces the earlier version there. You could use nothing but Ulysses on the iPad to write of course, and skip iCloud altogether. I have a 100,000-word book synced to my iPad and it runs very smoothly indeed. I’d still miss the power and convenience of the Mac though. But the choice is yours.
How does it stack up across the iOS range?
Apple’s biggest iPad is very much a laptop replacement when it comes to Ulysses. As well as all that space for text you can use Split View and Slide Over to access other apps without leaving Ulysses entirely: great if you want to look up a note or something in a browser.
In short — you are as good as using a laptop. Though I should point out that a Pro, keyboard and Apple Pencil may well set back you as much as my favourite portable writing machine, the MacBook Pro 13 retina. That may be a touch heavier but it’s not a behemoth, and it has a much better keyboard, an excellent trackpad and OSX too. And the Apple Pencil will do nothing in Ulysses except scroll the screen the same as your finger will. But each to their own…
I use an iPad Air 2 all the time with Ulysses. Hook up an external keyboard and you have the equivalent of a small laptop. Without a keyboard it’s an excellent light writing and editing device too.
This is one of the unsung heroes when it comes to Ulysses. I thought I’d find it just too small to be usable. In terms of standalone writing it probably is. But the Mini really excels as a revision device. Go full screen and then turn it upright. You’ll find your text looks very much like a book, making it a great way to read your draft from a very different perspective.
Ulysses works on the iPhone 4s and newer. Obviously the screen space is small and personally I’d struggle to write very much with it, though you may feel differently. As with the Mini though this makes the iPhone a great revision device.
For me, the March 2016 release for iOS makes Ulysses unbeatable as a novel-writing system for anyone using Macs, iPads and iPhones. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to writing a novel is being able to keep a project alive when you’re not at your desk. Now it’s as easy as firing up an app. Your work follows you everywhere and gets safely updated to iCloud every time you go online.