Manage Your Writing Projects with Ulysses 2.0

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.

Overview

Ulysses gives a single window onto your vast writing project

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.

Full Disclosure

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.

Document Metadata

Use Labels and Status to track your documents

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.

View all your files with the Browser

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 options for the Filters

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?

Semantic Editing

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.

Some of the default inline styles

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.

Tabs in the Standard Mode

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.

Full-screen, distraction-free writing

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.

Some of Ulysses' exporting options

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.

Final Thoughts

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.


Summary

Ulysses is a project-management app for writing projects, as well as a Semantic, distraction-free text editor.

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  • Scott C.

    These writing tools are way overhyped. TextEdit is all you should ever need in any writing project.

    People often ask what word processor they use. It doesn’t fucking matter! I use TextEdit exclusively. Other people write in Microsoft Word and code in TextMate+ or some fancy web-based collaborative editor like EtherPad or Google Wave. WHATEVER. A feature-rich editor will NOT make you a better writer. Writing will make you a better writer. Writing, and editing, and publishing, and listening – really listening – to what people say about your writing. This is the golden age for writers. We have a worldwide communications and distribution network where you can publish anything you want in a browser and – if you can manage to get anybody’s attention – get near-instant feedback. (Can you say WordPress?) Writers just 20 years ago would have killed for that kind of feedback loop. Killed! And yet you’re asking me to use Ulysses and Scrivener for all that? Just fucking write in TextEdit, then publish, then write some more.

    • L N

      Clearly you’ve never had to organize a massive collaborative writing project with lots of research, accompanying images, and things other than the main body text. Sure you can write “everything” in TextEdit. Glad it works for you. But some people still need to organize everything else.

      If you don’t want to use a program that will help you with the organizational side of things, fine, but don’t assume that everyone else should write like you.

    • http://welcometosherwood.wordpress.com Steve Zeoli

      Not sure why you’re so worked up. I didn’t see anything in this review that said writers had to choose Scrivener or Ulysses. Use whatever software works for you. However, since you appreciate the feedback loop, using the word “fucking” doesn’t impress me with your creativity and it doesn’t make your argument any stronger.

  • Deb

    I tried Scrivener, I really tried. Then I found Ulysses.

    I’m very visual and was really attracted to Scrivener, but in the end, I found it overwhelming. Further, some of the features I found appealing in Scrivener did not work the way I needed them to (corkboard). I tried very hard to like it, to use it well, particularly as everyone else seems to ‘get it.’

    I find the uncluttered, clean Ulysses a better place for me. I’m addicted to the tabs at the top. I tend to think/process in Twig (Tinderbox’s little brother), then write in Ulysses (academic work).

    It would be nice to know, given the different types of writing in your life, if you find different programs better for different needs, or if one, Scrivener, does them all for you equally well.

    I keep looking at Scrivener, wondering what it is that I’m missing but the rest of the world seems to get….

    p.s. it is separate, not seperate. ; )

    • http://www.fluidimagination.com Kyle Callahan

      Hi Deb,

      You’re right that Scrivener can seem a little overwhelming, and I’m glad you pointed that out. To my mind, though, Scrivener is an app that “grows” with you. As you come to develop more of a system for managing your writing, you’ll start to say, “I wish I could do X.,” but then, with a little of investigating, you’ll realize that, “Hey, Scrivener already does X!”

      With that being said, it’s great that you found Ulysses and that it works just right for you. While I can’t agree with the anger in the first reader’s comment, I understand his point: the magic is not in the software, it’s in the writer. If Ulysses helps you channel that magic more so than Scrivener, all the power to you!

      Thanks for commenting…and for your eagle-eyed proofreading :-)

  • Shane Cooke

    I used for Ulysses for my M.A. Thesis and loved it. I liked how I could make each document a chapter, and easily see the word count, and have another document open as a tab with refs., etc. I’ve tried those other types of apps which you can add PDFs and whatnot… bloat!! I used PDFs of course as references but stored them separately in folders. Ulysses was awesome. AND it easily handled Cyrillic and Arabic.

    As an aside, it was irritating to keep reading about “Scrivener this” and “Scrivener that” when the title of the post indicated a review of Ulysses, not a comparison. Unless this article is edited to remove the Scrivener references the title should be changed to “Comparison of Ulysses’ offerings with Scrivener”

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  • Roy

    One size does not fit all. I tried a bunch of writing programs but Scrivener worked the best for me. If you have a ton of research to do in order to complete your novel then Scrivener is clearly the best choice. No other program on the market has the capabilities to organize research data, including picture, music, video, and pdf files, etc., all in one place. It can be a bit overwhelming at first, because it’s not linear, but with the video tutorials I was up and running in a few days. I could certainly have written my novel without Scrivener, but with the hoards of info I had to compile it would have taken me twice as long–no kidding. Here is one example. Let’s say you are working on a chapter where you need to research boats and sailing because you need to thread those details through your chapter to win credibility with your reader. Well with scrivener, I can split the screen in half and have all of those statistics as to the boat that my protagonist will be sailing on the left side of my screen, and the chapter in which I am intending to weave those statistics into on the right side of my screen—or visa versa. And those stats or facts or whatever, that I wish to put up on the left side of my screen can be text, or video, or picture files, or music files etc.. The point is you don’t have to go into another software to dig up all the stuff you have gathered for research it’s all right there— right next to the chapter you’re writing. And when you save your Scrivener file at the end of the day and back it up in dropbox or Spideroak or wherever, you only have to back up one file because not only are you backing up your Novel but also all of the data you have collected and placed inside your scrivener file for that novel. It’s simply brilliant!

  • http://bestsamplepapers.com/ best essay

    We have never had to organize massive writing project, accompanying images, and things other than the body text. We are sure you can write all. You’re creative! I would bet my dollar that you can think on virtually any topic or go in for reviewing.

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