Ulysses 2.5: Tom's Mac Software Pick

Use Ulysses' Library and Markup Editor to Concentrate on Your Writing

Ulysses markup editor
Ulysses three pane interface. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, inc.

Ulysses is a writing tool for the Mac that is polished, well organized, and targeted at those interested in a clean, distraction-free writing environment. Ulysses succeeds by not trying to compete with big word processing apps, such as Microsoft Word, and its myriad features that tend to clutter things up. Instead, Ulysses is geared toward writing pros that want an app that gets out of the way and lets them get their thoughts on paper (so to speak), without too much concern about how things are formatted.

And yet, Ulysses is able to produce properly formatted documents for print, the web, and eBooks.

Pro

  • Clean, intuitive interface.
  • Can export as HTML, PDF, Word, and eBook, as well as various text formats.
  • Markup-based text editor.
  • Built-in library to manage all of your writing.
  • Organize writing by projects, subjects, whatever you wish.
  • Supports setting writing goals, such as by word count or character count.
  • iCloud sync support allows you to write from any Mac or iOS device.

Con

  • Ulysses documents (called sheets) aren't readily available directly from the Finder.
  • Sheets don't use document names, making it difficult to find old sheets unless you remember specific keywords or text.

Ulysses is a very powerful writing app that includes a library to manage your Ulysses documents, called sheets, as well as many writing tools that you will likely need. Sheets contain your writing, which is created using Ulysses markup-based editor.

Markup Editors

If you're not familiar with markup editors, the idea is to free writers from worrying too much about how their writing will be viewed; instead, it lets them concentrate on the importance of the word.

You're not completely removed from formatting your sheet; you still need to indicate if a bit of text is a title, should be emphasized, or if it should appear as a numbered list.

The key to a markup editor is that you only mark the text that needs special formatting, but you don’t actually provide hard codes to format the text. If that doesn’t make sense, consider the following:

You've written a nice piece about the history of the California gold rush, and it will appear in an online magazine about the history of the west. The magazine wants the piece delivered as a complete HTML document, ready to go on the web. At the same time, the parent company of the online magazines wants to run the story in a local print publication and needs the story delivered in PDF format.​

Because you used a markup-based editor, the markups you added, such as titles and lists, will be translated to HTML and PDF by the export function in Ulysses. You don’t need to create two documents, or reapply formatting just to make the document usable for each specific purpose; the document remains universal, while the export markup takes care of the end use formatting needs.

Markups can be added as you write by preceding your text with a special code, such as ### indicating Headline 3, or ** indicating Bold. If you’re familiar with markup, you can just type the markup code as you go, or you can select the markup code from a menu.

You can also just type away and mark up the sheet later; it's really up to you.

If you haven’t worked with a markup editor before, it may seem a bit overwhelming at first, but it's easy to pick up, and you'll likely soon wonder why you haven't used a markup editor before now.

Library

Ulysses manages your sheets within its internal library. Sheets can be organized into groups and smart groups. Groups can be anything you wish, perhaps a project, with all the sheets pertaining to that project stored within. Smart groups are similar to smart folders in the Finder; they display the results of a preset search.

Ulysses comes with one smart group set up for you: all sheets you have worked on in the last seven days. You can, of course, create your own smart groups, such as all sheets with specific keywords or titles.

iCloud and External Folders

Ulysses supports iCloud syncing, which allows you to store the Ulysses library in iCloud or on your Mac; you can even split things up between the two locations. The advantage of using iCloud is that you can access and edit a sheet from any Mac or iOS device you use.

You're not limited to just sheets within the Ulysses library; you can access folders on your Mac that you may be using to store text or markup files. But perhaps the best use of external folders is to point Ulysses to other cloud-based storage services you're using, such as Dropbox. As long as the cloud-based storage appears as a folder in the Finder, you can point Ulysses at it and access the documents within.

Using Ulysses

While we've broadly looked at a few of Ulysses features, it's time to get an idea of what it's like using this writing tool. Ulysses opens as a single-window app displaying three panes. The left-most is the Library pane. Here you'll find all library groups, smart groups, iCloud, and On My Mac library entries. Selecting one of the library groups will display all sheets associated with the selected item in the middle pane. Finally, selecting one of the sheets from the middle pane will display the sheet within the editor pane on the right, where you can edit a document or start working on a new one.

Creating a new sheet lacks a common step most people are used to creating a document title. Ulysses doesn't store or sort sheets by title since there's no direct provision for creating one. The upside is you won’t find your library filled with documents labeled untitled, untitled 1, and untitled 2. Instead, Ulysses uses the first line or two of text you enter as a description that appears in the middle pane. I’ve gotten into the habit of always adding a keyword as a title.

Keywords, Goals, Statistics and Previews

Sheets can have keywords added to assist you in searching. It's also a handy way to add a title that will be displayed in the middle pane, as I mentioned above. I didn't notice a limit on the number of keywords, although only a single line will be displayed in the middle pane.

Goals can be set for each sheet in the form of the number of characters. It would be nice if there were additional goal options, including the number of words, reading time, and reading age.

Statistics are available for each sheet showing character, word, sentence, paragraph count, line count, and page count. There's also a reading speed estimate, which is quite handy.

Last but not least, a preview feature lets you see how your sheet will look once it's exported in HTML, ePub, PDF, DOCX (Word), and text formats.

Final Thoughts

Ulysses has many more features than we can cover here, and since it has a demo available, I recommend giving it a try if you're looking for a markup editor that goes beyond being just a text editor. If you're interested in writing without a lot of interface distractions, or you haven’t had a good experience with markup editors before, then this may be the one for you.

You may find that Ulysses won't just supplement your current writing app, but replace it, and become your go-to writing system.

 Ulysses is $44.99. A demo is available.

See other software choices from Tom's Mac Software Picks.