Ulysses (yes, again)

Okay, so maybe the last couple of times I got talking about Ulysses I was being a bit grumpy. I got some editing work in since then and thought screw it, and bought the desktop version of the app as well. And you know what? I quite like it. It seems a bit minimalist compared to Scrivener, but it looks nice and - like I think I mentioned last time - it's got an attractive layout that somehow prompts me to write. Is it better than Scrivener? Hell, no. But it's close, and if Scrivener hadn't been invented I'd have probably thought Ulysses was pretty great. But someone did invent Scrivener.

The thing that puts people off Scrivener - and draws them towards Ulysses - is the latter's simplicity. God knows I've known enough writers who seem to get severe techno-fear when it comes to computers that the appeal of something like Ulysses is clear.

Now that I have the desktop as well as the iPad version, Ulysses turns out to sync really nicely between the two machines. In fact, the iPad version only really comes into its own when used together with the desktop version. On its own, Ulysses for iPad is perfectly acceptable, but with a certain small degree of hassle that means it doesn't entirely get out of your way as you write. But these are minor concerns, and it's otherwise a genuine pleasure to use.

And that's what for many people gives Ulysses the greatest advantage over Scrivener at the moment: you can use it on the iPad.

Like many, I'm sure, I've discovered that an iPad paired with a bluetooth keyboard makes for a much better laptop than most actual laptops. It turns out that you can use an iPad for work, if the tools are good enough: and Ulysses is more than good enough. If you wanted to write on the iPad, you really, really couldn't do better than Ulysses.

However, I do still have a strong sense of loyalty towards Scrivener, having used it to write almost all of my books apart from the first two (and how the hell did I manage that?), and I really want them to get out an iPad version of their software and blow everyone else out of the water. And when it comes, I'm sure they will.

In the meantime, I'm gradually getting used to Ulysses odd-to-me quirks like the insistence on markdown text. I like that I can drag documents into Ulysses for OS X and boom, it's transformed into markdown; I'm using it at the moment both for working on outlines for future potential books and the aforementioned editing work. I was a bit annoyed at first by a fairly constricted notes panel (I write a lot of notes) until I realised they could be undocked. Even so, I'd like to be at least able to name the bloody notes, so when I look to the right of the screen I can find what I'm looking for immediately instead of having to scroll up and down for ages until I finally find the specific note or detail I'm looking for.

It's little things like that which keep Scrivener just ahead in the race. For some, its flexibility is a bug. It seems too complex. For me, that's what works about it. I don't use that many of Scrivener's features, but I don't notice them at the same time. If I one day need them, I can find them fairly easily.  Scrivener is flexible enough you can figure out what you want to do, and how you want to do it, and do it that way - as I demonstrated in the previous post. It's a serious working tool for novelists, for people working on theses, or on all kinds of documents. Ulysses is...more like Scrivener Lite, let's say.

Here's the best metaphor I can find for Scrivener's utility: it lets you see past the trees to the whole wood.

When you're writing, and you're deep in the guts of a book, you feel like you can't see the forest for the trees, right? You're there in the middle, and you can see the immediate detail, but getting a mental grasp on the whole picture can be difficult. But with Scrivener, with its multitude of ways of displaying information, you can in fact get very close to seeing everything at once. You can surround your primary text with all kinds of ancillary windows containing synopses, paragraph-specific detail, other chapters, notes, and so forth. You can move everything around until it's displayed in a way that suits you. Can you do that with Ulysses? A little, but not nearly so much as I'd prefer.

But it does look terribly pretty. And I wanted to be able to work on the iPad as well: my laptop, with its buggered-up keyboard, now sits on a Roost stand and I type on a bluetooth external. That makes my iPad my true laptop, for now. I still don't know if I'd be able to write a whole book in Ulysses, because I still have a sneaking suspicion once a project got complex enough I'd have to go back to Scrivener to finish it. But we'll see. 


Unknown said...

Thanks, Gary.

I've found your series on Scrivener, Storyist and Ulysses most informative.

The main thing that has held me off Scrivener is the lack of an iPad version. The availability of that with Ulysses is a key attraction; also I am familiar with Markdown so that isn't a barrier but a plus for me.

Am I right in thinking that you are saying Ulysses on the Mac cannot do the sort of floating or multi-windowed way you use Scrivener as shown in your "Ulyssess on the iPad versus Scrivener on the Macbook" post? OR was that just a limitation of the iPad given the way that (currently) only allows for one screen/app at a time?

Thanks once again for the thoughtful outline.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

It can do the floating window thing to some, but not the same extent. There's a notes panel which can be revealed and unrevealed, and docked and undocked so it floats above or next to any other document, which I only discovered the next day. But I can only undock those notes panels. So far as I can see, if I want to compare one document to another, I need to copy one into a temporary note so I can see it. That's fairly inflexible at least when compared to Scrivener, which is enormously flexible by comparison.

However, one very nice trick you can do because there's an iPad app is have one document open on the iPad and another on the screen of your Macbook, which is a solution, although not open to everyone who, say, either has only one or the other machine or only one or the other copies of the program. So far as I can tell, both version of Ulysses appear to be limited in that same way. It may be there's some other way of displaying multiple notes or documents together I haven't so far found, but I have a feeling there isn't. That, plus the fact you can at least get Scrivener on WIndows and even Linus as opposed to Mac with Ulysses, still puts Scrivener way ahead.