Meet Ulysses

I spent a delightful day yesterday getting acquainted with Ulysses, a new-to-me writing platform for Mac – and now iPad too. Those of you familiar with Scrivener will find Ulysses quite familiar but with a much shorter learning curve. The biggest visible difference is that Ulysses uses Markdown (they call it markup) for formatting text.


When you first open Ulysses, you are presented with a finished writing project – the user guide. It walks you through everything you need to know about the app. It took about 30 minutes to work through the guide and my first trial export – first to PDF, then to ePub – just blew my mind. It’s drop-dead easy and the results are quite stunning. Ulysses uses style templates and there’s a growing number of them available at their site. It’s quite possible to build my own style, but I haven’t gotten there yet.

Ulysses for Mac
Ulysses for Mac work area

Here you are looking at the Ulysses work area on the Mac. The panel on the far left is the sidebar. It contains groups and filters. Groups are used to organize and arrange content elements much like the folders in Scrivener. Filters are more like smart folders where content is collected based on a search. For example, I could tag content elements as “needs work” and have a filter set up to keep me updated on what I still need to do. The center panel contains what they call Sheets – text items – contained in the selected group or filter. Select a sheet and it’s content appears in the editor panel. There’s a fourth panel, called attachments, where I can stash notes, tags, and images related to this sheet.

Like Scrivener, groups are arranged in an outline format and both groups and sheets can all be rearranged just by dragging them to their new location.

Ulysses for iPad
Ulysses on the iPad

The iPad view above shows that it’s not always convenient to have every panel open at once. Ulysses makes it easy to just display the elements you need at any given time. On the iPad, it’s as simple as swiping left or right.

Users have the option to store their project content on their local drive or in iCloud. If you are using both the desktop and the iPad apps, using iCloud makes it easy to move between the two. As long as you have Internet access, your project is within easy reach.

If you aren’t familiar with Markdown, it may take a while to get comfortable with the markup schema Ulysses uses for formatting text. It uses simple characters like hashtags and asterisks to define formatting options like italic and bold text as well as headings. Both versions of Ulysses have a cheat sheet included in the user guide and the iPad version has a toolbar built into the on-screen keyboard. When using a Bluetooth keyboard, that toolbar is at the bottom of the screen.

The formatting toolbar on the iPad's keyboard.
The formatting toolbar on the iPad’s keyboard.

Yes, there’s still much to learn, but in less than one day I was quite comfortable with the app’s basic operation. I will need to develop workflows and define how I will deal with front matter and other repetitive content, but right now Ulysses’ ease of use, amazing export function and style choices along with an impressive mobile app make it a lot more attractive than Scrivener.

Ulysses for Mac is available in the App Store for $44.99. A free trial can be downloaded at the Ulysses site. Ulysses for iPad was just released this week and is $19.99. The iPad edition and a nice bluetooth keyboard could be all you need to write your own masterpiece.

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