Five reasons I use Ulysses

The reaction to the news Ulysses is moving to a subscription basis has been pretty remarkable. After I said I thought it was a good idea for the reasons outlined here I had a few weird responses on Twitter calling me, among other things, a ‘fanboy’ (confession: when it comes to Ulysses I am) and a supporter or ‘extortion’. I have to admit if a piece of essential (to me) software is extortion for asking for the equivalent of half a pint of beer a month then something’s wrong with my dictionary.

I’m not going to go over those arguments again. If you don’t like subscriptions just don’t sign up. No one’s forcing you. But a number of people did come on through Twitter asking why I used Ulysses at all. It’s a while since I covered that topic and a while since I published my little book Writing A Novel with Ulysses. So let me explain the five big killer features that mean I base most of my writing life (except for scripts) in Ulysses.

One. Everything is in one place

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve started a piece of writing, abandoned it and then, a few years later, decided to take a look at it again. But where is it? In the documents folder of an old Mac I’ve abandoned? In Google Drive or Dropbox? Or OneDrive? And oh… look. There are three versions of it, one in each. Which one’s current? Can I trust the date stamp? And what if I’ve lost it altogether?

With Ulysses that simply doesn’t happen. Since I moved to the app three or four years ago everything I’ve written stays in the single Ulysses library, stored in the appropriate folders for completed work, archived, in progress, ideas, whatever. I can find something simply by remembering a word it contained, not the title. I can pick up abandoned work, abandon it again and come back to it later in a flash. I no longer lose a thing. So when my agent asks for a synopsis of a book from a few years back it’s there at my fingertips. When you’re as hopeless at filing as I am this is an absolute godsend.

Two. Everything syncs and syncs properly.

I like to work in different places and on different machines. An iMac desktop at home. A MacBook and an iPad when I’m travelling. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a work in progress. Sometimes I want to note it down immediately and have it in the story I’m working on when I go back to the desk the next day. Syncing work quickly, easily and reliably across machines and platforms is essential but lots of apps do it in a pretty clunky fashion.

Take that midnight note-taking for example. If I have a conventional file open on my desktop the app will usually shriek if I try to access it from somewhere else. Scrivener syncs well across Dropbox (and Dropbox only) but you have to follow the rules. Make sure the file is synced and then, if you’re cautious, you’ll close it too before opening it elsewhere. To try to access it simultaneously throws up a warning box and the probability of errors.

In Ulysses it doesn’t matter. I’m writing this on my desktop. But I could just as easily pick up the iPad and carry on there. The words I type on the iPad would pretty soon appear on the iMac screen as the two files kept in sync automatically with no effort on my part. The files are pretty small too. Even with years of work there my Ulysses library is only 95 mb in size on iCloud. So I could easily stay inside the free 5 gb iCloud storage plan if I wanted. Though since I keep photos there as well I subscribe to the 50gb plan which, horror of horrors, costs me 79p a month. Extortion!

Three. It makes writing a delight.

I don’t know why I’m making this number three because really it’s the most important reason of all. Over the years I’ve used pretty much every writing app there is. I somehow discovered a kind of mission to try stuff that’s out there and support smaller software companies in particular because they tend to be the ones who come up with the brightest ideas. For years my books were written in Word, then Pages, then Scrivener, then Ulysses. Writing is a very personal thing and what works for me doubtless won’t work for others. But I’ve never used anything that’s quite so delightful to work with as Ulysses.

Why? Simple. It’s about writing. There’s something I always used to say when I was giving talks at writing schools, an obvious point that’s all too often overlooked. You can have all the theory you want, the timelines, the reference material, the background and all that fancy meta stuff. But in the end your story will be a book, and a book, to readers, is simply the words they see. They don’t know or care about all that complex story building you may or may not have done behind the scenes. They just see the text on the page and judge you on that.

Ulysses is about text on the page. Yes, you can do lots of clever things with tagging and stuff if you want (and I do when it’s necessary). But at its heart Ulysses works like a very clever digital typewriter. Clear the decks of all the frills, the folders, the styles, the agonising over whether to write in Avenir or Helvetica. Get all that out of the way and just write. What you see is what the eventual reader will see. In essence Ulysses is extremely simple. Once you get your head around the basics you can forget about software and focus on the hard bit — saying what you want to say and saying it well. There are no distractions, and that’s a wonderful thing because writers tend to hunt for distractions all the time. It’s easier puzzling over them than getting down to the real job in hand.

My productivity went up by a significant and noticeable amount the moment I decided to write in Ulysses and nothing else. I no longer think software I think words.

Four. Merge, split and move.

Someone asked me on Twitter what the difference was between Ulysses and something like Google Docs. This is a really important question and goes to the heart of software made for creative writing. Google Docs, like Microsoft Word, is a serviceable conventional word processor. You can write a novel in it, no problem. But for me the most essential element in story building is flexibility in structure. As I develop a story I will outline a series of scenes. Then as I write them the idea will change. Maybe I’ll want to move something to another part of the story. Or I’ll realise one scene is actually two and needs to be split with the parts shifted around the narrative.

In conventional word processing that’s a chore usually involving cut and paste. In creative writing software like Ulysses and Scrivener it’s an integral part of the process, something you can do quickly and easily just by dragging scenes around. Without the ability to merge, split and move, story building is a tedious and time-consuming chore. Once you’ve come to understand that and embraced an app that does it well there is no going back.

Five. It’s a doddle to get it all out.

Whatever app you write in if you’re headed for commercial publishing you will, sooner or later, have to submit your manuscript as a Microsoft Word file. There’s no point complaining to a publisher that they should use the app you prefer. Word is the lingua franca of publishing as Final Draft is the standard format for most TV and movie scripts. You have to be able to get your work out to Word.

This isn’t always easy. Scrivener’s compile routine always throws me so much I often have to refer to my own book, Writing A Novel with Scrivener, to remember how to do it properly. In Ulysses it’s a doddle. There are lots of pre-written styles which output Word or PDF documents in an instant. It’s not hard to tinker with them to produce your own as well.

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And Ulysses now drives WordPress posts too. So I can write this in the app and then simply press the publish button to send it directly into WordPress, with images too.

If you write regularly this is a wonderful tool. Powerful yet simple, reliable and a joy to use. I use it for books but if I was still a journalist I’d be producing my copy in it too. Imagine being able to write an article on my desktop then proof it on an iPad and dispatch it from an iPhone.

In short I find Ulysses quite remarkable. It’s helped me write more effectively by taking software out of the equation and making me face up to the words on the page. If you write regularly and own a Mac I suggest you give it a try. The subscription model even means that you could, if you just wanted to write for three months, say, simply pay for it during that time at $4.99 a month then stop.

I’m not a huge fan of subscriptions. WordPress for this site. A TV service. Internet. Microsoft Office because I have to have it. All of them have one thing in common. They are essential. For me Ulysses is at the top of that list. I’m more than happy to pay a modest fee each year to make sure it sticks around.