Ulysses and other apps for writing

12.49, Tuesday 22 Dec 2015

A quick plug for the Mac app Ulysses which has totally upended my writing workflow in the last few months. Brilliant – the first tool I’ve found that fits the way I work.

My previous writing workflow in a nutshell:

  • I capture super-quick notes in Simplenote on my phone, or nvALT 2 (an updated version of Notational Velocity) on my laptop. They’re synced together. Perfect for ideas, recipes, records of when I last called the electricity company to give a meter reading, etc. These apps are optimised for search… type a word or two, and all matching notes instantly appear. Over the past two decades I’ve seen the benefits of serendipitously running across my own forgotten scribbles, these apps are ideal for that.
  • For longer documents, I move to Textmate which really is a text editor for writing code, and it’s dated too. I use a plugin I wrote in 2007 called Plain Text Wiki. This lets me write longer, structured documents of multiple linked pages, all as plain text. Seems like a bunch of trouble to go to. But I’m a purist: Since losing a bunch of data in the 1990s, I’m distrustful of other people’s file formats. Plain text is the way to go, no Word docs. I want formats that I can extract words from, even when I’m down at the level of reading bytes retrieved from broken hard drive platters. It’s happened. That was the first time. The second time a drive failed on me, I ran the server with the drive sitting on an ice tray direct from the freezer – any warmer and it would seize. I do backups now.

This blog uses Markdown for formatting posts, and I wrote my own blog engine. The engine has changed multiple times, but the data - my posts - remain the same. For quick presentations I use Deckset which lets me make + present great looking slides fast, also using Markdown from plain text files.

So I’m pretty choosey, and my flow is pretty well established.

Every so often, I try a more grownup app for writing. Textmate is ok but it’s made for coding. And more importantly, I can’t get to the docs I’m working on from my iPad or my phone.

But the Mac apps I’ve found… they’re all about focus. Full screen writing. Dark backgrounds. I don’t focus when I write, I’m all over the place. I like to have multiple documents on the go, and often multiple projects.

Enter Ulysses.

Ulysses is plain-text first, with Markdown for formatting. There’s a learning curve, and then it’s simple: All my text sits in a single library that I’ve organised into projects. Within each project, there are notes both short and long. There’s a prominent search field, and when I look at the Ulysses library on disk, I can find the text files.

I’ve added my blog as an “external folder” – to publish, I drag a file from my main library onto it, and sync.

But importantly, it just feels right. I open it and continue writing. I don’t have to think about what to call this file and where to save it, but equally I don’t need to be concerned about mixing up my work projects and my personal projects.

What’s convinced me to make this a permanent part of my workflow is that I’m on the Ulysses for iOS beta and it’s great. The library syncs automatically. Being able to access my longer docs while I’m on the bus (which, it turns out, is where I do most of my thinking) and add notes directly to those projects… fantastic. Drafting blog posts while I’m on the tube, in a familiar text editor? So good.

So yeah – an enthusiastic plug for Ulysses. Thanks!

All of that said: I don’t think I would have looked outside my current workflow except that I sat down with Dinah Sanders and she generously showed me how she uses Scrivener, which is the go-to app for authors of proper books.

While I’m not using Scrivener (Ulysses is similar and I’m too committed to my text files…), Dinah opened my eyes to using process and organisation as part of writing. Currently I’m constrained by my own working memory. Every time I try to write a single piece of more than a couple thousand words - fiction or non-fiction - I get in the swamp. This feels like it’s helping.

Follow-up posts: