Starting a novel with Ulysses

Since lots of people seem to be looking at Ulysses right now let me give a condensed starter guide to setting up a book project with the app. I do this in much fuller detail in my little guide Writing A Novel with Ulysses. But this should get you up and running.

All that follows based on using Ulysses on the Mac. I always do my setup there rather than on the iPad because it’s easier with a decent-sized keyboard. Once you’ve set up the basic parameters they will automatically sync to the iPad along with all your work. Then you can just think about writing (which is why we’re here).

Look and feel

All writers agonise over which font to use. Ulysses isn’t about formatting but you do have a choice about how things look while you write..font.png

Go to Preferences, General, pick a font, the line spacing, the paragraph indent if you want one, and the line length. Adjust until you’re comfortable with how it looks. Above are my usual settings which adopt the standard Apple system font. Note that you can make the text bigger and smaller using the zoom controls in View.


You can change the theme in Preferences. There’s quite a range of colours and styles to pick from, some bright, some more muted. I tend to go for muted.


Once you’re happy with your combination of font and theme forget about this completely. You’re here to write, not faff around with formatting.

Put everything in iCloud

Unless you’re near to busting your five gb free allowance you’ve nothing to worry about. Ulysses files are modest and won’t take up much room. I advise you keep all your work in that one place. It will make life a lot easier.


Note that you can hide the introduction files too which you should once you’ve absorbed their wisdom. Ulysses is about simplicity. Do not complicate matters for yourself. Don’t get overtaxed with filenames. All Ulysses documents live within that one library and can be found instantly, however buried or old they are. Just hit Command-0 and type any word you’re looking for.


Clever, isn’t it? When you’ve been using Ulysses for ages and have lots and lots of material in there this means you can find it in a flash.

Create a structure for your book

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Here we’re going to create groups (folders really) to contain the important parts of the work to come. I always use two top level groups: Manuscript and Management. So Manuscript will contain the book itself while Management will be for related material which I need but won’t be a part of the work itself.


The Manuscript part is pretty obvious. Here I’m imagining I’m going to write a three part book so under the main group I’ve created three sub groups for each part. Inside each sub group I’ll create sheets — text documents representing scenes, chapters, whatever piece of the narrative mosaic I wish to put there.


You can leap in and write your text straight away if you like. But I always outline loosely as I work and to do that I use comment blocks — text I use to set down what I intend to write. It won’t appear in the final document but it will stay there in the text as a reminder. Any paragraph which begins with two percentage marks %% will be treated as a comment block. I like to put them at the beginning of sheets and sometimes the end. Also while I’m writing I like to end the day by creating a new sheet for the scene to come and putting a rough idea of what it contains in a comment block. That way I can start the next morning by rereading yesterday’s work then moving onto the challenge I set for myself the day before.

If you use comment blocks a lot it’s an idea to create a keyboard shortcut for them. I use Control-C. You set it up through Preferences, Markup and double clicking on the Comment Block entry then typing your preferred shortcut.


As you create scenes you’ll see them grow in the sidebar, with a preview of the text at the start a mini synopsis if you like. You can move scenes around just by dragging them, split them in two and merge them too. It’s a very fluid way to build the storyline.


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For me this is a crucial part of the writing process, a kind of advanced story bible to record where I am with the work and note down key elements. I’ll use it to make notes about characters — names, appearance, background, what kind of role they have in the story. You can do much the same for locations too. If you had a lot of reference material you could create a sub group for that. Lastly I will always set up a diary to record my progress with the work, and any thoughts and doubts I’m having. This is also a good place to note down any to do items you have as well.

Location, character and reference groups are fine straight out of the box. The diary function does require a bit of tweaking though. You will want entries sorted by date, not manually. To do this right click on the Diary group and choose these options.

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You can also choose to see the date itself in the sheets preview like this.

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The writing

All this setup shouldn’t take long nor should you need to fiddle with it once it’s done. Once you have your basic structure it can easily be duplicated for future projects too. Just right click on the top level group and duplicate. So once you have your preferred structure for writing you can repeat this ad infinitum without having to go through the setup routine again.

But now for the fun bit… writing.

First of all, if you’re on a Mac, go to full screen. Ulysses is made to work this way and you don’t need anything else to start writing. Three simple keyboard shortcuts now come into play.

Command-1 will show you the whole library of work within Ulysses. If you have existing Word or other documents you can simply drag them in and work with them there. This is everything there is within Ulysses. There are no external files or folders to remember, no other places you need to go.


Command-2 will show you the sheet list inside your current group. So you use this to focus on a specific project or part of a project.


Command-3 will get rid of everything on the screen except the one sheet you’re working on.

Pure text



This is pure text, how you should spend most of your creative time inside the app. I always use Typewriter mode too which makes the current typing line appear in the centre of the screen.



There are various options you can play with here. As always with Ulysses find the one you like then leave it alone. Just hit Command-3, forget about software, think about words. This is what Ulysses does so brilliantly — clear the floor so that all you have to do is write.

There’s a lot more you can do with this app when you get your feet firmly under the table. Keywords, notes, favourites and targets can be really useful and I love the fact you can open a new window on the same file in a separate tab so you can view different parts of the book very easily. Then, when you’re revising, there’s the ability to mark text as deleted without really deleting it. Another favourite of mine is working on two scenes as if they are contiguous in the narrative when really they aren’t. Just select them in the sidebar using the Command key. It’s that simple. Oh.. and backup, versions, exporting, and lots, lots more. But for that you’ll have to browse the documentation or shell out for my little book.

So the truth is I’ve only scratched the surface of Ulysses here. The app is an extraordinarily smart mix of simplicity and power. All of the sophisticated tricks are ones you can learn after you’ve set up this basic structure. You shouldn’t need to change anything to make use of them — just add them to your repertoire.

Remember: the aim, always, is to get to the point where you hit Command-3 and stare at the biggest challenge all writers face on a daily basis — a blank page. Because that is where this app truly excels. There are no distractions, no tweaks left, no ways of avoiding the heart of the creative process. Which is as it should be.

Happy writing.