You’ve likely used word processors like Word, TextEdit, and Pages, as well as plain-text writing apps like iA Writer and Byword. If you’re a serious writer, you’ve likely used or at least looked at advanced writing apps like Scrivener or the original Ulysses.
But you’ve never seen anything like Ulysses III. It’s a totally new take on an advanced writing app, bringing the best of Markdown-focused plain text editors together with a multi-document management system that makes sense. Throw in HUDs that make Markdown formatting easier to use than rich editing in Word, and you’ve got one serious writing app. One that must be seen to be believed.
A Fresh Take on a Writing App
First off, Ulysses III is a brand new app, albeit one with a 10 year legacy. The Soulmen team even listed the version number as Ulysses III 1.0. No stone has been left unturned; everything in the app is new, yet familiar if you’ve been using plain-text writing apps. If you never liked older versions of Ulysses — perhaps thought they were too complex or confusing — you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised with Ulysses III. If you loved older versions of Ulysses, you’ll likely love the new version, but you might have to learn to love it for itself. You’ve really never used an app like this.
Ulysses III is a writing app built around a library of documents, fused with a super-charged plain text/Markdown editor. You won’t want to use it as the default app to open text files; in fact, if you open individual files in Ulysses, it saves them as a new version in its library, and the changes won’t be saved back to the original file. That in itself is a leap for most people used to writing in plain text apps, but it’s a leap that can make a lot of sense if used right.
Ben Brooks describes Ulysses III as a notebook, where traditional text editors and plain-text writing apps are a piece of paper. That might be one of the most apt descriptions yet.
The Best Onboarding Process Ever
With that, Ulysses III needs a bit of an introduction to get you started in it. It surely delivers. On first launch, you’ll be asked if you want to enable iCloud sync (which you can always go back and change if you want), and then asked if you prefer Markdown or Textile style formatting (you’ll want to select the asterisks options for traditional Markdown). But hey: when’s the last time you’ve seen a writing app actually give you the option?
After that, you’ll be introduced to the app with a group of documents about how to use Ulysses III, inside the app itself with all the features you’ll learn to love in the app. There’s the main content in the right 3rd of the app, a list of the documents in the current group in the middle, and a left sidebar much like the one in Finder that contains your groups of documents and more. It’s simple and familiar at first glance.
You’ll have iCloud documents — default if you enabled it — but you can also add “External Sources” from the buttons on the bottom. This lets you, say, add a folder of plain text note files you have saved in Dropbox right into Ulysses, where it’ll feel as integrated as any other document in Ulysses. You can even create new files in that folder, change their file names from the top of the sheet, edit the files as sheets with the changes saved immediately to the original file, and more. So, while it won’t work well with your individual files, it will work well if you already have an organized system of working with plain text files, as you can bring the whole folder into Ulysses with you.
Dig in, though, and you’ll find dozens of delightful differences, hidden just below the surface right until you need them. There’s line numbers on the right side, a near-absence of buttons, and a delightful iA Writer-style editing theme that morphs to a dark mode, single column of text when you go full screen (with equally beautiful integration of the Solarized light and dark color schemes). There’s even a “Pure Mode” for those who love flat UIs. Typing feels as smooth as you’d want, with a blue iOS-style cursor or a traditional OS X one. There’s nifty additions to the extras you’d expect: scroll to the end of a document, then pull up a little further on your touchpad, and you’ll see the next document. It feels natural, yet new.
Ulysses III is organized with groups, subgroups, and sheets. Sheets are individual documents, while groups are essentially folders. There’s also Filters, which are smart folders that’ll surface everything that meets your filter criteria — pretty handy if you use Ulysses to store everything you write and clip.
Everything you write will live on a sheet, which can be as long or short as you want. You can easily move sheets around, select multiple sheets to view them together in a continuous sheet (and it really acts like one sheet while selected, even showing the total word count of the set of sheets together, and letting you search through the whole set). Or, you can glue a set of sheets together to save them as one sheet when you’re done writing. That makes it easy to break up your writing into, say, a sheet per section, then pull it all together when you’re ready to share your work.
Writing in your sheets with Markdown formatting is simple, even if you’re not well versed in Markdown. You can simply press CMD+B or I to set text as bold or italicized, respectively, and you’ll see the Markdown formatting along with actual formatting on the text itself. Press CMD+L to add a link to selected text, or type brackets around text, and you’ll be greeted with a small popover to enter your link and its title.
You can add footnotes in much the same way by typing (fn), or can drag in images and videos to have them added to your text with Markdown formatting — albeit hidden Markdown formatting. You can add in-line comments that won’t be exported, to help you keep track of what’s going on in your document, and can add notes to a document itself, again saved only in your Ulysses copy. It’s a brilliantly simple way to edit text with faux-rich text formatting powered by Markdown.
There is one odd thing: Ulysses treats links and footnotes the same way, pushing them to the end of your document. It’d be nice to see it treat links the same way most Markdown writing is done, with the link right after the linked text, but perhaps this is necessary for Ulysses’ UI. But that’s a small complaint, and any app that takes Markdown files will have no problem reading files created in Ulysses.
There’s more awesome text editing features, of course: full OS X integration, so Dictionary, spell check, and even versions works perfectly in Ulysses. You can search for — and preview — your groups and sheets from Spotlight. It’s a great experience, from writing your initial ideas and drafts to pulling it all together into a polished work.
Publishing from Ulysses
Ulysses may be a great app for simple writing, but it’s aimed at long form writing and publishing. That’s apparent in the tools to glue sheets together, the reading time in the info pane, the Markdown headings powered quick navigation pane (which is awesome for finding your way around in longer pieces of text), and in the Favorites section that lets you add related sheets to the top of your sheet for quick reference.
But it’s most apparent from the Quick Export tool, which lets you turn a sheet, group, or set of sheets you’ve selected into a polished PDF, export it as HTML or plain text, or send it to Word in RTF form. There’s more coming, too: Brett Terpstra already announced that Ulysses will be tightly integrated with the next version of Marked which should bring more export formatting options, and the Ulysses team has already listed ePub support as forthcoming, along with the potential for Tumblr publishing and more in the future.
Daedelus Touch: Ulysses on the go
There’s one more little extra with Ulysses III: it integrates perfectly with The Soulmen’s mobile app, Daedalus Touch. This app shows again The Soulmen’s willingness to redefine how apps should work, this time with an innovative stacks-based document navigation that makes sorting through your text simple on your iPad or iPhone. Check iPad.AppStorm’s review for more info, but it’s an app that has to be seen to be appreciated.
Now, it integrates with Ulysses III as well, giving you a simple way to write across your Mac and iOS devices. There’s only one cavort: your Daedalus notes will show up only as one section in your Ulysses library, and only the notes in that section will sync with iOS. You’ll need to move any notes you want synced with your iOS devices to the Daedalus section to make sure they’re everywhere. In fact, if you only have one Mac, you might want to use the Daedalus section as your default writing area instead of iCloud. Both are powered by iCloud, but only the former will sync with your iOS devices.
Ulysses III is an incredibly impressive writing app, one any serious writer should strongly consider getting. It’s that good. It can compete with Markdown plain-text editors and top-of-the-line longform writing apps. It’s excellent for longer projects — the PDF export almost tugs at you to turn your random writings into something more lasting — but equally excellent for individual short writings. It could be your next notes app, but it could also be so much more.
Again, you need to appreciate it for what it is. It’s not your traditional text editor, and you’ll need to work around how it works to get the best out of it. But as you bring in your text folders, and start putting it to use for new projects, you’ll likely find it indispensable. I’m already starting to, just two days in.