Scrivener, Storyist, Ulysses

Driven, I suppose, by a desire for something new, something different, I tried a couple of alternatives to Scrivener recently. Scrivener has been my go-to writing software since I discovered it in the middle of writing Stealing Light, and the second half of that book was finished using it.

Scrivener essentially collects chapters, notes, synopses, images and research, all into a single document or "project". It has a full-screen view that blocks out distractions; you can do neat stuff like open separate chapters that "float" in size-adjustable boxes next to what you're actually working on, for reference; you can set searchable keywords; have another text box open for notes specific to a chapter, or the manuscript as a whole: make use of a scratch-pad for typing in very quick, rough ideas; label chapters as to whether they're finished, not finished, and so on; add notes and comments into the main text that stay out of the way while you're writing; and a million other little tricks I still haven't tapped into.

Essentially, Scrivener's pretty much awesome. But I got an iPad last year, and found myself wanting to write on that. There's no Scrivener app for iPad, however - at least, not yet. An iPad version's been in development for a couple of years, and the announcement finally came not long after New Year that an internal beta was undergoing testing. Well, excuse me, while I throw my hat in the air and whoop. I know a lot of people are champing at the bit to be able to use Scrivener on a tablet.

But an internal beta is a long way from actually being able to get hold of and use the app itself. I had a halfway solution: Textilus, an iPad word processor that syncs reasonably well with Scrivener. But it's not perfect because, essentially, it's still not Scrivener, and depending on how good your internet connection is there are often document conflicts as it tries to autosave to your documents into Dropbox (through which the two programs automatically sync). So, while an acceptable halfway solution, that's all it is.

But there are other programs like Scrivener which do have iPad apps. One is Storyist. The other is Ulysses. I tried both recently. Storyist looks nice, but isn't nearly as malleable and adjustable as Scrivener. They've aimed for simplicity, which is fine, but coming from Scrivener it merely feels restricted. If I want to make in-document notes, I'm presented with a set of pre-formatted sheets with sections for 'Character Bio' and so forth that don't in any way reflect my working process. And I don't like being forced to make use of someone else's idea of an outline.

Still, the iPad app for Storyist is...okay. I tried a demo of the desktop version, but wound up back with Scrivener. The latter is also, I must add, shockingly expensive at nearly £45. And if you want the iPad app as well, that's most of a tenner on top of that. Scrivener is considerably less expensive, and vastly more flexible.

Ulysses is slightly better, and has a philosophy behind it of keeping things very clean, zen-like and simple...perhaps, I think, too simple. They eschew any kind of toolbar. There's no clickable option for bold, italic and so forth. Instead, they rely on something called Markdown which, I learn, is a form of HTML formatting.

I had no idea what Markdown even was until I downloaded the demo. It's kind of a pain in the ass, because I see no evidence that typing a bunch of hash marks or other symbols before and after a word is in any way simpler than just pressing ctrl-b or crtl-i on your keyboard. Sure, leave a toolbar out, but does anyone who writes seriously still click those little buttons instead of using the standard keyboard shortcuts? Supposedly not having to 'think' about formatting means you can focus on your writing; again, all I see is an opportunity to waste time 'focusing' on figuring Markdown the hell out. Not to mention there are "editable" style sheets which would send anyone who's never hand-coded a web page run screaming into the night.

So: Ulysses tries to sell itself as a simple, clean solution to writing, but my personal feeling is it's anything but. If you're a blogger, or a web page author, sure. But writing a book? Not so sure.  It also has a weird - to me - document storage solution entirely separate from your computer's native folder system. That, I don't get.

And here's the thing that annoyed me most of all: I could not find anywhere any way any means by which I could do something so simple as centre-align a line of text in Ulysses. Put it this way: if I can download free word-processors  capable of centre-aligning text, I feel no great need to spend thirty quid on one that can't, let alone requires the additional learning curve of an unfamiliar, if basic, formatting language.

But, again, there are two advantages Ulysses and Storyist still have over Scrivener: the first is that they have iPad apps, and Scrivener doesn't. Yet. I'd thought about getting one of these other programs to tide me over until that Scrivener app does finally appear, but I've found nothing to persuade me to shell out on either.

The other advantage appears relatively insignificant, but does count for something. Storyist and especially Ulysses have the advantage of being, well, pretty. They look nice. When I went back to Scrivener, it looked kind of...utilitarian and functional by comparison. It looked like a program built in the mid-2000s, rather than the 2010s. The current iteration of Ulysses, by comparison looks very sleek and modern, despite having only a fraction of Scrivener's flexibility.

But pretty isn't enough to make me move away from Scrivener, even temporarily. It's just too powerful and too flexible compared to the competition. In fact, trying other programs has made me dive a bit deeper into Scrivener's settings and change things around in a way that's improved my workflow. I've only ever really used a fraction of its settings, but now I'm trying to learn more, and that's a good  thing because, ultimately - hopefully - it'll make my job easier.

I gather there's going to be a  major update for Scrivener when the iPad app finally appears later in 2015, so maybe there's a chance they'll upgrade the overall look of the program at the same time.

(Edit, October 2015 - this entry has been getting a lot of hits. Indeed, it's had more hits than any single post on my blog, ever. There are several follow-up entries that explain the process through which I ended up almost entirely switching to Ulysses - the first, from July 2015, is here, the second is here, and the third and last, from September 2015, is here.)


Kenny Park said...

As a fellow Scrivener evangelist and iPad user, my solution (until the arrival of the native app), is Parallels Access. It does depend on a net connection, as it's essentially a way of remotely seeing/ controlling your desktop, but it needn't be great. The real selling point is that it magically represents the desktop software as iOS apps, rescaling and interpreting touch controls (no fiddly fake pointer).

I collaborated with a director last year, he on his laptop, saving his .scriv to a shared Dropbox folder, me across the room on my iPad controlling my iMac across town. Worked seamlessly over a shockingly bad connection.

(I've also editing video on Final Cut Pro while waiting in line for a concert, and that was by tethering my phone's 3G.)

One subscribes to Parallels Access, but it's often part of software bundles from MacTrast and the like, if you keep your eyes open. It certainly gives you complete Scrivener on your iPad in a way that feels native.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

Thanks Kenny. I just downloaded it and tried it for a while and it's definitely superior to anything else I've seen - and actually rather cheap at the price, I'd say. My internet situation is a touch complex, and so this might not work for me in the long term, but it's definitely worth exploring as an at least potential stop gap until that Scrivener iPad app.

Michael Cummings said...

Keep your chin up - I made the mistake of being weak and spending some gift cards to buy Storyist. I thought I could get over it being rigid because it ran so nicely on both ipad and desktop. Trust me - if how Scrivener works with documents is good for you, Storyist is no replacement. Make me run it in gtk2, but at least Scrivener has that flexibility. Sotyrist's treatment of your project as just one long document with break points makes my brain hurt.

Al said...

Markdown is pretty standard these days. Most of the iPad word processing apps use it and, in fact, most of the OS X blogging or diary apps (and the pretty, minimalistic word processors). A lot of blog engines use it. Hell, Github uses it for all HTML output on the site. I write security advisories for Mozilla in it. :-)

That isn't to say you're wrong that it might seem odd on first perusal but it is meant to be an implementation, effectively, of how people did things like bold and italics in a plain text format before we had html. In most markdown implementations, it will also allow you to enter html if you need to do so. My blogs use markdown but I also use html syntax for images (for centering) for example.

kayembi said...

Hi Gary, just a quick (and belated) note to say that Scrivener on the Mac will indeed be getting a bit of a UI refresh with the version that is released alongside the iOS version later this summer, so that it looks very much like a Yosemite app. It must seem that we've been dragging our heels over the past couple of years, which has been frustrating for us as well as for our users, but internally, along with the work on the iOS version, we've been working on major overhauls to the desktop versions. The work that's gone into this has taken a lot longer than we'd hoped, in part because of major changes in the Mac frameworks. I was originally waiting to unveil a refreshed UI with a major new version, but given that we're a still a way off with those overhauls and Yosemite has been around for months now, we're refreshing the 2.x UI a little in the meantime. It's great to hear that Scrivener is still your tool of choice (or at least was back in March!). I hope you like the iOS version. Our iOS developer has just got the long list of bugs and issues down to zero ready for the next round of internal testing... Thanks, Keith

Anonymous said...

Index Card 4 - corkboard writer for iPad was released today. It can now export Scrivener .scriv files, in addition to the previous ability to sync .indexcard files with Scrivener. Full disclosure, I'm the developer of Index Card. http://www.IndexCardApp.com

Anne Viel said...

Thanks for this post!
I now have the same problem than yours. I love Scrivener a lot (despite its old-fashioned look). I write scripts for animated films, non-fiction, and now a novel. Scrivener is fantastic for all kind of writing.
But i DO appreciate to work on Ipad. I use Index card for some months, even if it's not a complete writing app (I must purchase the new version, it doesn't seem to be automaticaly updated. But it's really cheap).
I took a look at Ulysses and Storyist websites . They don't have Windows version (i'll switch to Mac as soon as I can, but for the moment I work on Windows), and they seem to me less complete than Scrivener. Is there cards board in Ulysses for example?
Ah! I'm a bit lost.

Anonymous said...

"There's no clickable option for bold, italic and so forth. Instead, they rely on something called Markdown which, I learn, is a form of HTML formatting."

Given how much information there is out there on Markdown these days I don't think you learned very much ;) Markdown isn't a form of HTML formatting...it's just a plain text format that can be easiliy transformed into HTML or other formats.

"It's kind of a pain in the ass, because I see no evidence that typing a bunch of hash marks or other symbols before and after a word is in any way simpler than just pressing ctrl-b or crtl-i on your keyboard."

I can't speak to Ulysses but other Mac and iOS Markdown editors (Byword for example) do that. The point of Markdown is that it's a plain text format that is easily portable, readable, and easy to transform into other (sometimes binary) formats. Honestly it really isn't that hard to learn.

alwayzambitious said...

Is it possible to have android app at some point?

Sam said...

Scrivener fan here. I've dabbled in Ulysses, never been near Storyist.

Just wanted to add that a 'feature' which often gets left out of these comparisons is Forum Support.

The Scrivener Forum is outstanding in my experience.

The main developer is frequently in there sorting out questions and there are a number of other 'power users' who are in there a lot. I've asked various questions over the last 6 (?) years that I've been a Scrivener user and never had to wait more than 24 hours for a full answer.

Great search feature, too, which often makes asking a question unnecessary.

I have no experience of the forums for the other software you mentioned but the kind of solid support you're guaranteed with Scrivener is certainly worth a shout out.

Michael Cummings said...

Thanks to your original post, I started playing with Ulysses as an alternative to Scrivener. I didn't get past a few hours in the trial, namely because I found that all of the features I wanted (cross-platform, formatting, easy management) were already possible with just dropbox+multimarkdown in a text file. Plenty of editors to choose from no matter what platform I'm on, and a txt file is a txt file. And I have mobile editing now rather than waiting for the some day of Scrivener on mobile ios. Thanks! (oddly, this was a contributing part to my wanting to return to a Linux desktop after a few years on the Apple side, but that's really out of scope for tangents to your original post).

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

Andrew - that Scrivener have excellent support through their forum is very true, and I've made considerable use of it myself in the past, enough so I wound up being a public beta tester for Scrivener 2.0 way back. The main developer is also very good at answering queries directly...and actually posted a comment here, if you scan back a bit. So yes, a thumbs up here for Scrivener support.

I will add, however, that while Ulysses lack a forum - something they could probably really use - they've been very good indeed at answering queries, usually posted via Twitter. I've rarely had to wait more than 24 hours before getting detailed feedback from them on how to do something that's stumped me.

Michael - I didn't get too far at first with the Ulysses demo, but came back to it after a couple of months and ended up buying it (as detailed in follow-up posts to this one). For me, the big selling point was easy syncing with my iPad, which has now become a true and very useful work-oriented machine. But yes, there are many, many solutions to achieving an optimal work environment.

StenR said...

I've tried a lot of sync solutions to be able to edit my macbook Scrivener projects on my iPad. For me, using external folders in Scrivener, storing as .txt files on Dropbox and edit with the iaWriter is certainly good enough for line editing while waiting for the IOS app. But really, a used 10" macbook air actually takes upp less space than an iPad with a wireless keyboard and would probably make more sense for me when doing real writing.

Unknown said...

Have you ever thought of just remote desktop-ing into your Mac and using Scrivener that way? I do it with my PC all the time and there's a program called Teamviewer (that works with basically everything, including Android, etc). So, as opposed to sharing files and all that nonsense - you just remote from your iPad (or in the case of my wife, her Samsung Note phone or Tablet) and Scrivener works just great. :)

I wouldn't recommend it for low bandwidth situations or video gaming, but for writing? It's just fine.