Author: Archangel

Anyone who writes texts embarks on a journey. The ancient poet Homer sent his hero Odysseus on a ten-year odyssey – those who write texts today actually want to reach their destination faster. Homer only had papyrus or parchment and a so-called „reed pen“ available for his epic at that time. Today we have other writing tools, but the creative process from the initial idea to the finished text can still be as challenging for the author as it was for Homer.

This text was translated with the help of DeepL.

And exactly this writing process is always „brainwork“, but as for many other areas of life, there are tools that support you in doing just that. And this is the story of this article – as I have brought my very own „odyssey“ in search of a suitable „writing program“ to a good end.


Source: Shutterstock

You can write with many… or not?

Simple writing can be done in many programs. There are countless questions that influence the selection: How long are my texts? Do I need formatting for footnotes and scientific formulas? Do I want to embed images and graphics? But the type of publication also plays a role – is the text copied into a content management system or do you want to print a serial letter?

Ideally, you should use a program that best meets your requirements. However, finding this is not always so easy. Or worse still: You use the wrong program for years and then your are completely taken by surprise when you find a software that is actually much better. As human beings we are „creatures of habit“ and it may well be that you simply continue to use a program because you do not want to deal with something new or take the time to do so.

To be honest, this has also happened to me – let me reminisce a bit… I have written many texts in my life on the computer. My first contact with electronic word processing was in the 1980s with the then current version of Apple Works on an Apple IIc. I really started with my first PC and Microsoft Word version 2.0 at the beginning of my university studies. And I stayed with Microsoft Word in all its versions up to Office 365 for the following 27 years.

New Evaluation

I also used it to write all blog posts for this blog until November last year – but the day came when things literally came to a complete halt.

What had happened? While writing and revising our last contribution to the Mobile Working-series, it became clear that Microsoft Word was not the right tool. At each discussion of the text, we changed the structure of individual chapters or the entire text, as it was a very complex topic. Because of the enormous text length, it was almost impossible to keep track of the text as a whole. As a result, the time required for each revision increased and so did our frustration level. As a Word documents the entire article was about 12 pages long. We had this experience again and again when writing long texts.

As luck would have it, Monk-Trader had read a news release a few days earlier on mactechnews.de about the latest version of the writing software Scrivener. This gave the impulse to look for a new tool – and was the decisive moment for this article as well.

Objectives: Overview and Focus

Even though the pressure of time was great to finish the text, we took time for an evaluation. With some online research, we identified the two most popular applications in this segment: Scrivener and Ulysses, with Scrivener being the market leader in the reviews we read.

But what were our specifications for new software? To cut to the chase: Keep an overview of the text and focus more on the core task of writing.

Approach

We have downloaded and installed the free trial versions of both applications. Scrivener is currently available in version 3 for macOS, Windows and iOS. Ulysses is only available for macOS and iOS. But since Archangel has been working on macOS for some time – we described our experiences with the Hackintosh project in detail – this was no problem for us.

We then compared the two programs with regard to aspects such as user interface, mode of operation and functional range.

Scrivener versus Ulysses

With both you can split a text into several parts to work separately on each of them and change their order. We had already liked this concept when we read the reviews. However, they have implemented this concept in quite different ways.

The user interface of Scrivener looks a bit old-fashioned in the recently released version. The software is also not only a pure writing tool, it provides modules for collecting search results such as links, PDF files and images as well as for creating notes. Our first impression with Ulysses was that the focus here was more on pure texting. The user interface is slim and modern and has nothing to distract from writing.

Scrivener uses the WYSIWYG principle similar to Microsoft Word, and formats the text accordingly. Ulysses, on the other hand, uses a text-based editor. We also looked at the iOS apps for both applications: We immediately noticed that Scrivener’s app is based on a completely different concept, while Ulysses follows the same basic concept on all platforms.

Scrivener and Ulysses stand for different solutions to support the user in writing. Both concepts exist in their own right. We finally decided in favour of Ulysses because the desktop and mobile versions are more modern and at the same time simpler and clearer.

And this first impression was confirmed in the following days: Afterwards I transferred the current Mobile Working-text into Ulysses and we finished the text there. It was a completely different experience to work with the text and to rearrange sections or entire chapters.

How I work with Ulysses

In this chapter I would like to explain how I work with Ulysses and how the software supports me throughout the writing process. Because in Ulysses I can represent the entire writing process, from the first brainstorming and notes, through a first rough outline of the text to the final version.

As already mentioned, Ulysses is at home in the Apple world: There are Ulysses apps for macOS and for iOS. Content can be synchronized between the various devices via iCloud.


Source: Ulysses

The user interface of the desktop and iOS versions is consistent across all platforms and devices because it is always almost identical. This also makes it very easy to switch between the two. For the smaller iPhone display there is a correspondingly adapted layout, but even here Ulysses can be operated according to the same basic principles.

In the following I concentrated on the desktop version. Since I work with both operating system and applications in English, the menu items of all following screenshots are always in English, although the text itself is German. This is because we primerially write all our blogpost in German and translate them afterwards.

Organize Texts and Build a Structure

In Ulysses I can plan and organize longer texts or whole series of articles very well, even before I have written a single line. Ulysses provides various hierarchically organized functions for this purpose.

The entire Ulysses user interface is based on the 3-column layout used familiar from many macOS applications. On the far right there is also a fourth column that can be expanded and collapsed as required.


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One Library for all Folders and Sheets

All texts processed with Ulysses are stored in a single library. Local device and iCloud are available as storage locations. External folders (from local or cloud services) can also be integrated. Groups can be created in the library. Texts are written in sheets which are stored in the groups.

Groups and sheets – that may not look like much, but these two features are so versatile that even after several months of use I still learn or discover new possibilities. This is a fundamental characteristic of Ulysses: The software is very intuitive to use. In addition, you can do a lot with groups and sheets.

With the hierarchically organized groups in the left column, I usually work as follows: For each blog post I create a main folder divided into two subfolders: Blogpost and R&D. Under Blogposts I store the sheets of the text, under R&D I store sheets with notes, brainstorming ideas and individual text elements that I want to use later when writing. In the screenshot below you can also see that I have created several versions of the Blogpost folder, which always stand for a larger revision of the text. I duplicate the folder with the current version of the text, rename it and continue working on the copy.

In this way, work on an entire series of articles can also be planned and neatly structured.

You can refine an established structure at any time – in parallel to how you familiarize yourself with a topic.

Sheets give Chapter Structure

Let’s make a concrete example from my everyday work: With the sheets I build up a provisional chapter structure, or I start with a single sheet and create a rough structure of the text and divide it into individual sheets later.

Another approach is to put notes and text modules from different sources in one sheet and arrange them in a logical way and then build a chapter structure from them. If I don’t want to write everything at this point, I create notes in the scrolling text with the markdown character „%%„. These are displayed in a different font color. I also create temporary separators or other hints that help me to structure the text.


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I will come to the topic of markdown in more detail in a later chapter.

The sheets can be rearranged in order at any time. Since a not insignificant part of the writing process, especially with longer texts, consists of planning and organization, this concept allows a high degree of flexibility.

Images and PDF files can be attached to each sheet. The images can also be inserted into the text. All these functions are located in the fourth, far right column, which can be opened and closed as required.

Versions and Backup

For larger revisions of a text I like to manually create a version as I already mentioned above. Ulysses also creates an internal version history for each sheet, in which you can scroll back at any time. The interface is similar to the Time Machine of macOS itself.


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In addition, the desktop version has its own integrated backup. You can use the drop-down menu in the upper left corner to go back to a date in the past and restore old and deleted content from there.


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Keeping Track

The longer a text, the more difficult it becomes to keep track of it or to capture the text in its entirety – no matter how large the screen on which you are working.

The column with the sheets allows me to always see at a single glance how the text as a whole is structured. It is helpful to give each sheet a significant chapter heading.

If you want an even more concise overview, you can call up this pure listing of chapter headings.

If you work according to the principle that you use a separate sheet for each chapter, having an overview of the structure of the text always guaranteed. Adjustments are also quickly implemented, as the sheets can be moved by drag-and-drop. Of course, when I change the order of chapters in a text, I have to check whether textual transitions need to be adjusted or rewritten.

Even if you work on several texts at the same time, you never have to switch between different documents or windows. If necessary, you can still open individual sheets in a new tab or window.

The sheets allow you to have only one overviewable portion of the entire text in front of you. However, this also entails the danger of thinking too strongly in blocks and not paying enough attention to the flow of reading throughout the text when writing. To counteract this or to make sure that this is not the case during a revision, you can select several sheets and then display them in one piece in the editor. Another possibility is to connect them with the function Glue Sheets. This can then be undone. Merge Sheets creates a new sheet from all selected sheets, but this cannot be undone.

With the texts that write for our blog, the text length does not play such a role. However, if you always have to or want to keep an eye on the number of characters in a text, you can set a limit with the Goal function. In the same way, a fixed date can also be set up as a deadline. The statistical information (number of characters, words, sentences, sections), which can be displayed at any time, also contributes to the overview.

More Focus

Besides creating structures and keeping track of things, focused writing is another strength of Ulysses. I can concentrate better on the real thing, namely on formulating sentences or the logic of a chapter or a section.

In the following I want to show you what all contributes to that.

And don’t always think about formatting

Ulysses is all about writing. The program uses a text editor for this. Unlike word processing software such as Microsoft Word, there are no layout and formatting functions. In Word the text is always in a certain formatting, which also forces you to deal with it again and again, especially if you copy text sections from other sources into your document.

Of course, text formatting is also possible in Ulysses. You can use markdown commands for this. However, these only become visually effective when the text is exported as ePub, DOCX or PDF. In the screenshot below I have summarized a compilation of the most important markdown commands using a sample text.


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The advantage of this system is that formatting during writing never distracts from the actual flow of thoughts and the writing process. And if you write blog texts like I do, such formatting can be exported as HTML and transferred to the content management system.

Structure of the User Interface

The simple user interface of Ulysses, which I have already described above, also contributes to the focusing. If I want to increase the focus further, I use the fullscreen mode of macOS.

Themes and Dark Mode

Ulysses offers so-called themes for the entire application interface, which use different background and text colors. Especially the markdown sections can be displayed in different color settings, so that you can adapt Ulysses very well to your own preferences.

For each theme there is a so-called Dark Mode, which is based on a dark background. Writing on a dark background increases concentration, because it is more pleasant for the eyes than always staring at a white background.


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This is what Ulysses looks like in „bright“ mode:


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In addition, two intermediate steps are possible – either the background of the editor is dark or the two left columns.


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View screenshot in original size in new tab (1440×900)

You can download additional themes for the user interface from the Ulysses website.

Workflow

As I said at the beginning, I can represent my entire writing process in Ulysses. But it comes the moment, when I have texts, which I want to go through with Monk-Trader, before they are published.

We have developed a very simple workflow for this purpose. Ulysses offers various file formats for exporting texts: Text, HTML, ePub, PDF and DOCX. I export the articles I want to discuss as ePub. Several format templates can also be downloaded for the various export formats.

I send the file to Monk-Trader via AirDrop and he reads the text and marks text passages or takes notes. Then we discuss the text together, while I make comments for changes directly as a note in Ulysses.

To publish the text in WordPress, I export it as HTML and copy the source code into the WordPress editor. I can use the HTML tags such as headlines, bullet-lists or italics and do not have to set them again in WordPress.

Subscription Model

Of course, this much functionality and flexibility is not free of charge, but even this is handled very transparently. Licensing works according to a subscription model and can be paid monthly or annually. The apps can be downloaded for free from the Mac App Store or the App Store for iOS devices. The subscription is completed by an in-app purchase and is valid for both platforms. Synchronization via iCloud is always included in the price. Ulysses also offers a 14-day free trial version with full functionality.


Source: Ulysses

The subscription model rewards the ongoing work of developers to further develop and support the software and gives the company more financial planning security. And as a user, I can rightly expect that I will receive regular updates and that new features will also be implemented. In my opinion, support is also one of them: When I had problems with my iCloud synchronization, the support team from Ulysses was very dedicated to helping me. Incidentally, the company is based in Germany, more precisely in Leipzig.

Conclusion

Meanwhile, I’ve been working with Ulysses for many months. The most important conclusion I can draw from the odyssey I mentioned at the beginning is that I used the wrong writing tool for years. Only under massive pressure did I start looking for alternatives. With Ulysses I have found a solution that supports me in my daily writing and allows me to focus fully on creating articles.

This is due to the clearly structured user interface and the dark mode, which I clearly prefer. I can organize my work very well: Texts can be roughly structured and then formulated and refined in structure. For long texts and entire series, the overview is also always intact. This also contributes significantly to the focus on the main task – writing texts.

As a user, the decision for Ulysses is also one for the Mac platform. I have no problem with that, the important thing is that I have the best possible „working environment“ for writing the blog texts.

Of course there are also areas where Ulysses could improve as a software. There is the wish for improved spell checking, which also takes grammar into account. In addition, a few basic collaboration features would also look good, because you don’t always work on a text alone.

With a manageable amount of functions, Ulysses is a universal and flexible editor with a strong focus on writing that has completely convinced me. With the subscription model the monthly costs are very modest and in my opinion it is an investment that pays off. I simply can’t imagine writing blog texts without Ulysses anymore.


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