Ulysses, iA Writer & Scrivener

All great, often compared, very different – and I’ve made my choice

Icons courtesy of https://ulysses.app and https://ia.net/writer

YMMV and all that jazz

Ulysses is a great application, but having used it for several months I’ve decided to return to iA Writer and Scrivener. Here are my reasons.

The first thing to say is that Ulysses is excellent. It offers all the tools a lot of writers will ever need in a very pretty package. It’s undeniably convenient, with “all your texts in one place”, and the ability to publish direct to blogging platforms, complete with images and tags. Writers can even update published posts from within the app. When I first started using it, I was bowled over with Ulysses. But after a while, I found that some aspects of this program just didn’t gel with me.

Ulysses’ right-hand pane is one example. This contains a lot of important features, such as keywords, attachments, goals and notes. There’s a lot going on, and I didn’t find this pane intuitive. Using these tools also requires either the mouse or a slightly awkward hotkey combination of CTRL+CMD+[number]; as far as I can see, there isn’t a way to change this combination. And I could never remember what a couple of the icons in that pane were for, meaning I had to click and explore.

I could never get my head around those four squares or the node icon…
Screenshot courtesy of the author

Where’s my file?

Then there’s the way Ulysses handles files. The app works with plain text, but, like Drafts, files are stored in a database. This isn’t something I’m keen on. Files are important to me. I like to see them in the Finder. Scrolling through a long list makes me feel like I’ve done a lot of work.

A standalone report or post such as this is a small writing project comprising a single file. I don’t need that file to be buried somewhere within the operating system as part of a database. I just want a file – a file that I can see and move and manipulate if I want to. With iA Writer, that’s exactly what I get. In Ulysses, files can be moved between Groups, and apparently it’s “plain text”, but where’s the file? Writer stores my files in an iCloud folder; I have no idea where Ulysses keeps them…

No macro necessary

Attempts to automate Ulysses with Keyboard Maestro were problematic. I created a macro that added a little bio and links to the end of each blog post. Keyboard Maestro typed some text, selected that text, simulated CMD+K, then pasted links. At least, it was supposed to. More often that not, at the point of selecting the text to be made into a link, that text would be deleted.

I tried extending pauses, insertion by pasting instead of by typing, but couldn’t fix the issue completely. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Each time the macro didn’t perform as intended, I’d have to make corrections, which created work: rather ironic given that such macros are supposed to save time. Whatever the reason for its failure to perform – which may well be down to some error on my part – this was frustrating.

With Writer, I can use content blocks to do the same thing. These can be inserted into a post, and easily edited if I want to change their content. A lengthy Keyboard Maestro macro isn’t necessary. And because of the simple way Writer handles markdown and plain text files, I suspect it will be easy to create and implement any future automations.

Part of Ulysses’ appeal for some people is that the app offers themes, the ability to change colours of markdown syntax and styles for document export. Personalisation is all very good, but too much of a distraction for this easily distracted writer. iA Writer just doesn’t have such distractions, which is something I really appreciate. The font can also be customised in Ulysses, whereas the developers of Writer have created optimised writing fonts unique to the suite of apps: Mono, Duo and Quattro. These fonts are available to download so they can be used wherever else you might want, although to my eyes they just don’t look quite the same outside Writer. I even tried them in Ulysses. As I did so, I wondered why, instead of trying to make Ulysses look like Writer, didn’t I just use Writer? That was another nail in Ulysses’ coffin.

The subscription issue

Ulysses operates a subscription model. I’m even less keen on these than I am on databases: I’d rather pay in full, up front, and minimise ongoing costs. There are interesting and convincing articles from both on the topic. I was initially swayed by the Ulysses argument for subscription, but this post from iA won me.

The fact is, I’m a writer, trying to write and be creative, profitably. Being profitable means controlling costs. £45 a year for Ulysses might not seem like much, but I have other subs, too: Office 365 (a necessary evil, and a five-account sub for £79.99 means our kids can use it too), Drafts, Craft (won’t be renewed because I’ve moved everything into Obsidian), Hindenburg, VideoScribe, MindNode (another one that won’t be renewed, as I’d rather use paper for “brainstorming”), The Writer’s Guild, NAWE, YouTube Premium, and iCloud+. These add up to quite a figure – more than I realised until I listed them all here.

Moving my texts from Ulysses into Writer has allowed me to cancel a subscription, which feels like the icing on the cake.

It’s not U, it’s me

These factors contributed to the end of my brief but passionate affair with Ulysses. But getting my writing out of Ulysses proved a bit of a faff:

  1. Click the Export Preview button
  2. Select “text”
  3. Specify markdown
  4. Copy
  5. CMD TAB
  6. Paste into Writer

There may be a simpler way, and there is this method on The Sweet Setup, but it shouldn’t be a struggle to move a plain text file. On the plus side, my file-by-file transition provided an opportunity to weed Ulysses’ Inbox for stuff I didn’t want any more.

iA (type)Writer

Most of my single-file writing is now back in Writer. I’ve tried alternatives over the years, but always returned to this app, which is surely indicative of its quality. Since the initial release, the developers have added new features such as tags, export options, content blocks and the additional fonts, but it remains a simple, pure writing environment.

The suite of Writer desktop and mobile apps gives me the tools I need to do the work I love, without distractions: no themes to browse, few settings to tinker with. It’s just a nice place to write. All I have to do is open the file and get on with the work. It’s the equivalent of a digital typewriter – and I just love typewriters.

Both iA Writer and Ulysses offer style checking features. I’m sceptical of the value of these. Our writing needs individuality and character rather than sterilisation. In my work as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow I see a lot of students who make changes to their writing because “Word underlined it”, or “Grammarly said”, yet they often don’t know the reason why. Lacking the experience to make the judgment for themselves, they assume the technology knows better. Many people use it a lot, but I’m in agreement with the statement that Grammarly is Garbage. I’d suggest that these tools may be a useful starting point, but there’s nothing better than writing, reading, and experimentation.

The only factor I’m not yet sure about regarding Writer is the way it handles images. Ulysses shows thumbnails of images within the document, but iA Writer handles images in a similar way to content blocks: in writing mode, instead of the actual image, a link is visible; switching to Preview mode shows the image as it will appear when published.

Some people may find this less aesthetically pleasing than the way Ulysses works. I would admit to not being a fan of the way Writer handles images: it seems to put a reference to the image file in the library, which seems a little untidy and fragmented, but it does keep the focus firmly on the writing – and that’s what iA Writer is all about. The same could be said of Ulysses, of course, but inclusion of images and coloured links and various pieces of additional markup all detract from the act of writing. This is the first post I’ve written since the move from Ulysses, so I’m interested to see what happens when I move the completed article to the archive folder. (In the end I just waited until I was ready to publish and dragged the image files into WordPress.)

Scrivener – a rich text app in a plain text post

This piece focusses mostly on Ulysses and iA Writer, because those are the two apps I’d use for a particular kind of writing: self-contained documents comprising a single file using markdown. But I have to bring Scrivener into the mix, because it is another app I’ve used for a long time, and widely compared with Ulysses.

I know some people use Ulysses to produce complex documents comprising lots of separate files, but I don’t even feel compelled to try the app for that kind of work. A Group in Ulysses still feels like a collection of separate files, whereas the files in Scrivener’s Binder feel like the components of a unified project. I guess these are just different ways of looking at the same information, but for my money, Scrivener handles it perfectly. And as we’ve already established that money is an issue, a point to highlight here is that, like Writer, Scrivener is one-time payment app, with no subscription.

I’ve used Scrivener to write novels, short stories, scripts for audio and screen. I also use it to edit travel guides for a German publisher. In these books, each file is a chapter, with strict character-count limitations. As well as editing the text, part of my job is to ensure the chapters are alphabetised, numbered and cross-referenced. Scrivener’s Binder makes all of this a breeze. At the end of the process the whole book is exported to Word for final submission. I just couldn’t do this work in Ulysses or Writer. Similarly, I wouldn’t write posts like this one in Scrivener. I know it can be done, and I did try to organise my blog in Scrivener at one stage, but it felt like too many boxes in boxes, and as I stated in this post about Cultured Code’s Things, that’s something I really dislike.

Some people complain that Scrivener is complex, that there’s “a steep learning curve”. The fact is, Scrivener’s feature set can be as limited or extensive as your needs require: I don’t use a lot of the app’s features. I’ll admit that in the past I found the Compile function frustrating – largely because I didn’t have to use it very often – but in Scrivener 3 the process seems somewhat easier.

Writing on-the-go

All of these apps are available on iOS, but the experiences is variable here too. Ulysses on my iPhone SE is quite small and cluttered. I have Scrivener on my iPad, but haven’t used it yet; I’ve deleted Scrivener from my phone: it’s interface was a little cluttered, but this decision was made largely because I just don’t need it on that device: I am a strong believer in getting away from the work now and then. iA Writer is perfect on all devices.

While Ulysses and Writer both sync via iCloud, Scrivener’s Dropbox syncing method is probably the area of greatest criticism directed towards this app. Even a long-time devotee like myself would have to admit that Dropbox syncing feels clunky and inconvenient compared with don’t-even-have-to-think-about-it iCloud syncing. But the convenience of iCloud may be part of the issue.

In the past, writers always had to think about saving work, and making backups to floppy disk. “Syncing” between devices meant taking a disk from one machine, putting it into another and loading it up. It was time-consuming, but we took responsibility for our work. I used to backup every night to an Iomega Zip drive; it made a nice mechanical noise – kinda like a zip – and I had a physical backup I could slip into my bag. I loved it.

While the cloud has many benefits and is the future of computing, we’ve come to consider such convenience almost a right. The reality is that Scrivener’s Dropbox syncing method works just fine; what we don’t like is that sometimes we might forget to close the app on one device before we open it on another, or that it’s not instantaneous.

A nod to support

During the writing of this post, I experienced an issue with iCloud, which is where I store my iA Writer files: I began to write one morning, and realised none of the changes I’d made the previous day were evident in the version I’d opened. Dear reader, I have to tell you that I felt a bit sick. I hadn’t experienced this sort of thing for years. I’d spent a good couple of hours working on this piece the previous day, and all that work seemed lost. I tweeted my frustration – and seconds later, the team at iA responded. We exchanged a few DMs, then I was given this advice:

Great support from iA
Screenshot courtesy of the author

I was unaware of this feature, and despite the team’s doubts it worked perfectly: within a few clicks, the previous day’s document was restored. The other apps also seem to offer good support. Whenever I’ve asked a question about Scrivener via twitter, I’ve received a response fairly quickly. Similarly, I’ve reported crashes to Ulysses’ developers and received an email from support shortly afterwards. I can’t remember having any issues with iA Writer: the above data loss turned out to be due to an unrelated factor.

Keep It Simple, Simon

This whole experience has underlined the importance of plain text to me. Plain text is simple, fast and light. Its versatility and reliability is unparalleled, and it really is all we need for effective communication through writing. I didn’t appreciate the importance of plain text and markdown until I had cause to move data from Ulysses to iA and from Craft to Obsidian. This was also important when setting up Writer to be the interface for files in Obsidian. (A post on that soon…)

iA Writer’s developers have created a beautiful plain text environment that encourages the craft of writing. Using Writer to publish a blog post may mean a little more work, but only a little; the other benefits of using this productive and aesthetically pleasing app far outweigh the little bit of friction that may be involved. Besides, I’m a firm believer that a little bit of friction is a very good thing.

As for Scrivener, this will remain one of my everyday workhorses for more complex writing projects, pieces with specific formatting requirements such as scriptwriting, and the editing work.

The fact is, there’s a lot of stuff on the internet about streamlining and systematising and automating. But it’s not possible to streamline, systematise or automate the act of thinking, then manipulating symbols to convey complex thoughts and feelings that others will understand. We just have to do the work. Writing is difficult. Always has been, always will be. To communicate effectively through writing, we need tools that get out of the way; for me, iA Writer and Scrivener become invisible during use, and I can pay them no greater compliment than that.

Whenever iA Writer 6 and the next major update to Scrivener are released, I’ll pay for them without hesitation – up-front, in full.

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I’m a writer, editor and Royal Literary Fund Fellow. I publish The Overthinker: thoughts, observations and other stuff about creativity, productivity, writing and life in general; sign up to receive it, plus other occasional updates.

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