I am a fiction writer with a (mostly) completed novel, several novels in progress, dozens of short stories, a couple of screenplays, and a million sketches for future projects. I am also a marketing specialist who writes white papers, brochures, and websites, and an academic who drafts long articles, essays, and reviews. In short, I’m a person who uses advanced writing-software to help me craft and manage complex pieces of writing.
My brother, on the other hand, works as a manager in an advertising agency, which means most of his writing takes the form of email. But like so many other people in this world (about 80% in the U.S., according to the Jenkins Group), my brother wants to write a novel.
The question is whether the same piece of software works just as well for him as it does for me. Can Ulysses 2.0 help both beginning and advanced writers reach their final drafts? Let’s take a look.
Ulyssess 2.0 belongs to a small category of writing apps that help writers manage the sometimes hundreds of documents that go into the development of a single, final draft. At the same time, it aims to help writers focus their attention on the content of the written work, rather than its form. It is both a robust project-management application and a minimalist, distraction-free editor.
Before you read any further, you should know that I am a devoted user of Scrivener, an app that attempts to solve many of the same challenges as Ulysses. While I would like to remain unbiased in this review, my long and happy history with Scrivener ultimately colors my response. This is not a bad thing.
Project Management with Ulysses 2.0
When I begin my creative-writing classes every semester, I tell my students to abandon Microsoft Word for an application like Ulysses. Writing projects involve dozens (if not hundreds) of individual files, everything from character sketches to maps to timelines to notes, not to mention the various drafts that each document will go through.
Trying to manage all of those files and drafts via Word documents and file folders is unwieldy, and before you know it, you spend more time managing your system than you do drafting your text.
Ulysess aims to solve that issue by providing a single window into the depths of your writing project.
Projects & Documents
Each Ulysses file (.ulys) is a container for your entire project. It contains each of the documents that will go into the production of your final draft, from the words your readers will see to the notes and sketches you make along the way.
Each document, meanwhile, contains the content you want to include in your final piece and the notes you used to create it. You can think of each document as the piece of paper where you do your writing and the sticky notes you attach to it.
Each document also has metadata associated with it. There’s the usual character, word, paragraph, line, and page counts, and a time-stamp for when the document was last saved. There are also two customizable fields, one for Status and one for Label.
The Status field contains options such as “New,” “Draft,” “Revised,” and “Final,” but you can change those to whatever you want. The Status also assigns a color to each document, making it easy to scan through the Documents Browser for just those documents you want.
Like the Status field, the Label field can also be used however you want, and depending on the nature of your project, you’ll probably want to change the options each time. A scholarly article might have Labels such as “Interview” or “Source Notes,” while a piece of fiction might use “Chapter” or “Character Bio” for its Labels.
Filters, Groups, & Collections
Each document in your project can be added to a Filter, Group, or Collection to make it easy for you to manage a set of related documents. These are kind of like folders, but they’re much more useful.
Filters are saved searches, similar to Smart Playlists in iTunes. You can create multiple conditions for each Filter, which means you can build a simple or complex filters to fit your needs.
The difference between Groups and Collections is subtle, but important. Both are like folders, but Collections are folders for your documents whereas Groups are folders for your Collections and Filters.
You can use these options to view your documents in more than one context. For example, a single document might exist in a Filter based on the Label for “Needs Revision,” a Collection titled “Chapter 2,” and a Group called “Antagonist Perspectives.”
With Filters, Groups, and Collections, not to mention Labels and Status, it’s easier than ever to manage your writing.
Comparing Ulysses’ Project Management to Scrivener’s
As I mentioned above, I’m a die-hard Scrivener user, so let’s compare Scrivener’s project-management features to Ulysses.
Text Documents Only: A Ulysses project can only contain text documents (including imports from Microsoft Word), but Scrivener lets you collect Web pages, PDFs, images, videos, and any other file you might wish (you can’t edit most of these files in Scrivener, but you can store them there). Since many writing projects require more than just text documents, Scrivener seems the stronger app.
Text View Only: Along with collections, filters, and a document browser similar to Ulysses, Scrivener also includes storyboard and outline modes. The former allows you to view your project as a collection of index cards, which you can move around as if on a table in front of you. The latter lets you look at your project as an ordered outline, with various elements of each document (title, synopsis, label, status, etc.) relegated to its own column (like a spreadsheet). Again, since various stages of a project require seeing your documents in a different light, Scrivener seems to me the stronger app.
Writing with Ulysses 2.0
While the project-management features separate Ulysses from word processors such as Microsoft Word, the true test of any writing app must be whether it makes you want to write. Beautiful, subtle applications such as IA Writer and Ommwriter have raised the standard by making the act of writing on your computer as pleasurable as you can imagine. How does a robust app like Ulysses 2.0 stack up against its minimalist brethren?
Maybe the most confusing part of Ulysses 2.0 is its billing as a Semantic editor. If you have any familiarity with John Gruber’s Markdown or with Microsoft Word’s “Style” feature or with HTML and CSS, then you already understand Semantic editing. If not, then think of it like this: Semantic editing separates the look of your text from its meaning.
In a regular text-editor, you decide when you want some bit of text to be italic, and you set its formatting accordingly. But what does that italic text mean? Is it a note to yourself or is it a bit of text that you want your reader to emphasize? In a Semantic text editor, you set the meaning of the text and the look of it comes later.
The benefit of a Semantic text editor like Ulysses is that it forces you to concentrate on content, rather than distracting you with formatting. While it can take a while to get used to, and it looks kind of messy on the screen, a Semantic text editor such as Ulysses creates true, distraction-free writing.
Standard Writing Mode
The editor in Ulysses’ Standard Mode takes up the center column in the app’s three-column layout (see the “Overview” screenshot above). When editing in Standard Mode, you can view all the documents in your Browser, the active document’s metadata in the Control Panel, and your Notes.
Using tabs, Ulysses also give you easy access to a variety of “open” documents. When a document has been changed but not saved, a little black dot appears next to its title in the tab bar.
You can also use a Split View for the active document to get two different views of the same document, helpful for when you want to view two sections of the same document that are pages and pages apart. Instead of scrolling back and forth, just enter Split View and see both sections at the same time.
Full-screen Writing Mode
As every writing app must do nowadays, Ulysses 2.0 offers a full-screen writing mode. Called “Console Mode,” it’s designed to resemble the console computers from back in the day.
When you enter Console Mode, you can’t do anything else but write. You can’t play with the notes of your document, adjust its Label or Status, open your Documents Browser, or anything else. Just you and your text and the act of writing.
Obviously, by hiding everything from view and preventing you from opening anything else, Console Mode helps you get in the zone; it would be nice, however, to have the option of seeing your notes if you want. Scrivener gives you this option, opening secondary files (notes, images, etc.) in a floating panel over your main text.
Customizable Fonts & Colors
Unlike some of the minimalist writing apps, Ulysses allows you to set up whatever fonts and colors you wish for the Standard and Console editors, the Browser (colors only), the Notes pane, the Preview pane, and for Printing. You can adjust these on a per-project basis, or save them as a Theme for use in future projects.
Exporting Your Final Draft
Because Ulysses is about the writing process (as opposed to the publication process), it includes plugins to export your final draft for publication. The preinstalled plugins include exporters for Plain Text, Rich Text, PDF, LaTeX, and Microsoft Word.
Each plugin includes various options. When you select “Export” from the application menu, the plugin takes over the last two columns of the app window, with each plugin giving you various options to set.
Currently, the only plugins available for Ulysses are the ones included on the install, but the download page of The Soulmen’s website displays a ghosted item for Plugins, which makes me think there will be more plugins in the future.
I began this review by asking if Ulysses could serve both beginning and advanced writers. The answer is undoubtedly yes, but I have to add a qualifier due to the Semantic text editor. Many writers are not savvy with technology, and the concept of a Semantic text editor will seem a bit geeky to them. I know that instead of learning to write semantically, my brother would rather get going on his novel (of course, Ulysses can be used as a plain-text editor, with the Semantic aspect only showing its geeky head if my brother wants a bold or italic button).
Add on that Ulysses prevents the user from importing photos, PDFs, and the like, and I’d have to advise my brother to choose Scrivener instead.
Ulysses is a great product, but it’s not the best there is.