Ulysses & iA Writer in Plain Text Duel! 🤺

En garde, Monsieur Markdown!

Ulysses is often compared with Scrivener, but in truth it has more in common with iA Writer (iA). This is because both iA and Ulysses handle plain text files, whereas Scrivener works with rich text. I’m a long-time Scrivener fan, using it to write novels, short stories, scripts and edit books, but for blogging, plain text is where it’s at – and this is where Ulysses and iA really shine. There are, however, marked differences between the two.

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

The Elements of Style, Strunk and White

I love plain text files: they’re simple, light, fast, future-proof, and compatible with apps across different platforms. It’s the simplicity and lightness that really appeal to me. Plain text has the same purity as the typewriter or single-speed bicycle. There’s no fluff or stuff or fancy fonts*, no embellishments, glitter or glitz. There are no unnecessary parts in the plain text communication machine. Both Ulysses and iA sing about their plain text focus, and rightly so.

My attention is a bit like that of a labrador retriever…

I was first drawn to iA way back when there was a cursor and not much else. The app’s similarity to the typewriter, a machine I love, really appealed to me. I was also attracted to the “distraction-free” environment, because, well, I’m easily distracted. My attention is a bit like that of a labrador retriever: intent on what’s in front of me one second, only to be hijacked by a fluttering leaf or passing fly the next.

Both apps have the familiar three-pane layout, although these panes can be hidden with gestures or keyboard shortcuts. They also have full-screen, focus and typewriter modes. I’ve never really used such features to be honest: when I’m writing, I’m generally focussed on a particular sentence, word-by-word anyway. I actually find focus modes distracting, which would seem to defeat the object. Similarly, in typewriter mode the text tends to lurch around if scrolling; it never does that when I’m actually using my typewriter…

I really admire the developers’ attitude to fonts, and their apparent focus on the craft of writing

Both apps have developed significantly over the years. Although iA’s developers stuck rigidly to their purist approach for a long time, they eventually introduced export and publishing options, tags and smart folders. One of the main highlights of iA, though, is the importance placed upon typography. Mono was originally the only option, with Duo and Quattro introduced later. Careful thought has been given to these fonts to minimise the potential for distractions, maximise their effectiveness, and make iA the purest of writing environments.

In my work with university students, I often expound the benefits of monospace fonts. Monospace fonts come from the days when typewriters were the only alternatives to writing by hand, with every character the same width due to the way typewriters work. Monospace fonts are particularly useful for those with dyslexia because the words are spaced out more, which slows the reading process.

By contrast, most modern fonts are proportional, designed for fast reading; this isn’t necessarily what you want when you’re writing a first draft, and especially not when proofreading, as it’s easy to miss a mistak. Of the three available in iA, I tend to switch between mono and duo: they just feel more workmanlike. I really admire the developers’ attitude to fonts, and their apparent focus on the craft of writing.

…a slower journey enables greater awareness and insight. And isn’t that what every writer needs?

Ulysses uses System Font by default. This can look pretty, but pretty isn’t necessarily what you need when trying to spot errors or slow down. In a world where we all seem to be on the hamster wheel, taking things more slowly might seem counterproductive. But a slower journey enables greater awareness and insight, and isn’t that what every writer needs? I love monospace fonts, so I’ve set Ulysses to Courier, which is the only one that becomes invisible to me. “Pretty” can come a little further down the line, when it’s time to publish. iA Writer Pro did touch on this, but I think that’s an app best consigned to history.

Despite the introduction of additional features, iA remains largely true to the original concept: just open a document and type, with plain text files saved to iCloud. You can use markdown for formatting if you want, but that’s not necessary if you’re going for the real typewriter-replacement experience. Both apps use versions of markdown that are extended from the basics you’re already familiar with. I tend to use the basics and the highlight function, and that’s pretty much it, but I’m sure the additional syntax will be useful for some. An area where the two apps differ significantly is the library.

Ulysses has a modern take on the traditional content structuring system

The library in iA Writer is really just a list of files. Yes, I understand that’s exactly what it is, but there’s a notable lack of functionality compared with Ulysses. Both Ulysses and Scrivener allow files to be linked, moved, searched, and multiple files viewed contiguously – useful features iA lacks. It is possible to open different files in tabs, but that’s not nearly as useful as scrolling through what appears to be a single document, even if you’re actually looking at several different ones.

Ulysses also allows related files to be grouped, and these groups can be customised with various icons and colours. Again, iA does something similar with folders, but the implementation just isn’t as slick. I guess you could say Ulysses has a modern take on the traditional content structuring system.

iA has the ability to insert text held in other files via “content blocks”, but I’ve never found this useful or seen the point: if you’ve got some text in a separate file that you want in the document you’re working on, why not just copy and paste? Then it’s all in one place. This just seems to overcomplicate something uncomplicated, but I accept I may be missing something here.

In Ulysses, it’s possible to attach notes and keywords (effectively tags) to files. This is a really useful feature. For example, when writing for Medium I paste the SEO heading and description text in the notes pane in Ulysses, so I can access it easily later, if necessary. In iA, you can add such information between two lines of three dashes, and it won’t be included on export, but again, this feels wrong to me: okay, I might need that information, but I don’t want it in the actual document.

Ulysses also features “material sheets”, which can store information relevant to whatever it is you’re writing, but won’t be included on export. I haven’t used these yet, and I’m not sure I will: I’d probably just put something in the notes pane. Despite the presence of smart folders and tags, I’ve also found organising and referencing my writing difficult in iA. By comparison, Ulysses’ Groups function is an intuitive case of drag and drop.

iA does offer an extensive syntax highlighting and style checking function – something that caused some controversy when first introduced – but these are tools I dislike and don’t use. I can see their relevance and appeal to some, but my concern is that such features strip an individual’s character from their writing. Wouldn’t it be boring if we all wrote in the same tone? Isn’t our uniqueness as writers what adds value to what we produce?

I’m middle-aged; sometimes I know what file I want to open but can’t remember what it’s called – I need all the help I can get!

Ulysses offer much greater functionality in the library. Sheets can be glued, reordered, grouped together or split, while iA only offers options to sort by name, date modified or extension. Both apps offer a quick-open function, but this is more useful in Ulysses, because it offers a list of suggestions before anything’s even typed, while iA offers a simple dialogue box. Dear reader, I’m middle-aged; sometimes I know what file I want to open but can’t remember what it’s called – I need all the help I can get!

Both iA and Ulysses offer various export options. I’ve tried writing stuff in iA then exporting it to a Word document to share with others, but the body font was too small and it was a pain trying to change the spacing between body text and headings. It feels like the iA developers pay lip service to the possibility that exporting to a Word document is actually something someone might want to do – let’s face it, the majority of people use Word, whether we like it or not, so this compatibility is needed – but last time I tried it, this wasn’t implemented very well.

…that’s exactly the kind of thing I don’t want to have to faff about with

Both apps enable direct publication to platforms such as WordPress, Medium and Ghost. I exported from iA to my WordPress blog easily for a long time, but found inclusion of images in posts to be a bit of a pain. You have to stick them in a folder on Dropbox or something. I was never quite sure whether they were actually uploaded to WordPress, or whether, if I deleted them from Dropbox, they’d disappear from the post. This might sound stupid, but that’s exactly the kind of thing I don’t want to have to faff about with.

In Ulysses, images can be embedded directly into posts. And, should you decide to change anything in your article after publication, you can now do so from within Ulysses, with the app updating the post on the relevant platform. I did encounter a problem recently, though. I’d uploaded a post to WordPress, then decided to change it. On WordPress I moved the post to the Trash – when I went back to Ulysses isn’t didn’t recognise that I’d done this, and wanted to update the post in the Trash. I can’t remember how I got around this, but it would seem logical that if a post is moved to the Trash in WordPress, a new draft should be uploaded.

…a lack of barriers, whether technological or mental, is surely one of the most important things for any writer

Above, I’ve gone through some of the features I use; there are almost certainly others I don’t know about, don’t care about, or simply haven’t bothered with yet. Any shortcomings I’ve indicated may be as much down to me as the app – but that’s kind of the point: a writer should be able to export her writing easily, without having to fiddle or tweak or be forced to do things a certain way. Altering the way you work to suit the app is surely the realm of Microsoft.

Reading this back there’s a definite bias. I can’t help that. I’ve wanted to like iA Writer for so long due to its typewriter-like experience, and blogged enthusiastically about it in the past. But although I’ve tried to make use of iA, tried to make its approach to tags and content blocks and so on work for me, there’s just something that doesn’t gel. A particular pain point was the library, which felt cluttered and overwhelming no matter what I did. Ulysses, meanwhile, feels light and easy, and just gets out of the way. And a lack of barriers, whether technological or mental, is surely one of the most important things for any writer.

iA feels like a side hustle for the developers, rather than the focus of their endeavours; perhaps this is why they stick rigidly to the “no-subscription” mantra: a sub just couldn’t be justified, because that would raise customers’ expectations. I’ll freely admit that as someone who resisted subscriptions for a long time, that’s what kept me using iA. But in writing this article, and the more I use it, the more Ulysses’ benefits and additional features really become apparent – and that’s why I’m now prepared to subscribe.

iA and Ulysses are both fantastic apps, with their own unique features and devotees. For me, while one feels very minimal and light, the other is slick and well-supported. Ultimately, plain text apps are a personal choice, but I know which of these I’ll be using for the foreseeable future.


* OK, so you can change the fonts in Ulysses and to some extent in iA, but you know what I mean.

I’m a novelist and scriptwriter, Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow and Advisory Fellow, workshop lead and creative coach. Click here to get the lowdown on updates, insight into projects, and a look behind the scenes on creative stuff. You can also follow TFW on Twitter, or like the Facebook page.

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