Thoughts on Ulysses and Scrivener

I’ve been a Scrivener user for a long time. I wrote CHANGER in Scrivener on the Mac, and I edited and assembled Raw Materials with it too. I wrote about the new-this-year iPad version of Scrivener a month ago, and in that piece I also touched on Ulysses, which takes a different approach to writing and assembling long (or short) written works.

I’ve been giving Ulysses a bit more of my time lately, and I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts about it, and how it compares to Scrivener, for posterity. This article pertains almost solely to the iPad versions of each app.

Before we go any further, I want to mention that I’ve more or less been awake since 04:30 today, and it’s now after 18:00. I’m not going to edit this much before publishing it, because once you’ve spent enough time as a professional writer, you develop an instinctive feel for the rhythm and tone of I really can’t be arsed.

I’ll start by saying that I believe fiction should be written in rich text, with native italics, curly quotes, em-dashes, and whatever else you need (which shouldn’t be much at all). Rich text is right for fiction. It’s more page-like, and it’s how we’re used to reading the stuff. I really, really like that Scrivener uses rich text. Markdown is great for articles and blog posts and technical, factual, and/or journalistic material, but for me, it just doesn’t sit well with stories. Many people — including most of Ulysses’ user base, presumably — would utterly disagree with me on this, since Ulysses uses Markdown by default, and plain text at all times.

To which: hold up there, champ. Read the previous para again. I draw your attention to the word should. Search your feelings, and tell me you really believe that (1) fiction should not be written in rich text, rather than that (2) Markdown has so many advantages for focusing on words rather than formatting, and for portability, and blah blah blah, that its benefits outweigh the natural and pleasing symbiosis of fiction and rich text — which is nevertheless still totally a thing. It’s probably the second point that best reflects your position. You probably don’t disagree with the should part. We are not necessarily on different sides of this issue. And if we are; meh. This is my article.

I really didn’t think I’d be able to get used to Ulysses. It looks like an email client, circa 2014, once Apple had released iOS 7 and the software killing-fields were strewn with discarded bevels and gloss and fricking mahogany (to which: jesus henry christ, what were we thinking?). It looks like a light-table for text, or a code editor, or a… you get the idea. I have hand-tremors whenever I see anything that looks like it was designed by or for programmers — because I’ve been there. It’s not a happy place for creativity, generally speaking.


But, … there’s actually something going on there. Once I’d forced myself to properly try Ulysses for a few days — on a whim, after much prompting, and upon learning that the iPad version can natively export ePubs as well as PDFs, unlike Scrivener; very attractive when you’re iPad-only — I began to appreciate some of what it tries to do. Its whole design and interaction ethos can be summarised thusly:

  1. Plain text markup is brilliant for just writing.
  2. But, man, fuck plain text markup, am I right?

Ulysses’ position on plain text is I know, I know, but let’s just get through this.

Case in point: it does the now-usual Markdown syntax-highlighting whereby emphasis is shown in italics (nice) alongside the underscores (fugly). Boldface is shown as such, alongside the double-asterisks. People who use any other combo of delimiters for emphasis and boldface in Markdown are provably wrong and ill — in the sense of sick — and sick in the sense of unwell. Damned kids.

More relevantly, you type the same way you would in Scrivener, unless you’re a mad person — in the sense of crazy enough to wear your pants on your head. Pants as in underwear. Americans make me so very tired.

Let’s consider a snippet of fiction, right? This:

All this time, Castle thought. You remembered.

In Scrivener, or pretty much any rich text environment, you’d type the shortcut to toggle italics, then “All this time”, then italics off, then “, Castle thought. “, then italics on, then “You remembered”, then italics off, then the full stop. You might shift the punctuation around to be inside the italics (teeth-sucking noise), but that’s the gist of it.

Same thing in Ulysses! It responds to Cmd-i for italics just as you’d expect — and it intelligently shifts the cursor around as you type. So you enable italics/emphasis, and you get an underscore. Then as soon as you start typing again, you get the closing underscore too, ahead of the text you’re entering. When you get to the end of the emphasised portion of text, you can either right-arrow past the closing underscore, or you can indeed just toggle italics again, and Ulysses will skip past the delimiter for you. Small touch that takes way more explanation than it seems to warrant, but it’s really nice in practice. It’s set up for writing, not coding.

This is a recurrent theme. Instead of the default system font (San Francisco? I dunno, but it’s sans-serif and it’s the kind of typeface that the Made in China label on Captain Picard’s mobile phone would be set in), you can indeed choose something more bookish. Like Palatino, or your own different and wrong choice.

It eschews most of Scriv’s metadata stuff like labels and status and synopsis, but you do get four basic things: plain text (naturally) notes, a target for the length of the piece, tags/keywords, and an image. Those are all per-document, which Ulysses insists on calling a “sheet”, even though it’s the least papery writing app I’ve ever seen. “Text Unit” would be a bit more apposite. Whatever.

Where it does get papery, though, is when exporting. Selecting which “sheets” to export is a bit of a mess, frankly; you have to multi-select items in a list for some reason, like an animal that can deal with lists on a computer, but once you’ve gone through that needless faff, you get a gorgeous in-app preview of each and every output format: various kinds of text (plain and rich), ePub, HTML, PDF, and Word (docx). There are assorted styles included, and you can download more, and even make them yourself in the Mac version of the app.

In that respect, it feels more like a paper-making studio than Scrivener does; the latter (on iPad) shows just a collated manuscript preview of the final text, without layout treatment, and doesn’t make ePub at all. (Yes, you can export to Word DOCX and import that into Pages on iPad, and export from there as an ePub, but then your section titles are janky old generic “Section 1” etc, and also life’s too short.)

Ulysses, like Scrivener, handles a lot of the typographical and layout niceties you’d want when producing PDF output: right or left binding, folios, mirror margins, forced-recto section starts, and so on. It knows a hell of a lot more about book design than it initially seems to, with its techno-nihilist, output-agnostic text chic. You can customise the hell out of export formats. Here’s the relevant reference for Ulysses. The analogous one for Scrivener is within the app itself.

Structurally and organisationally, Scrivener publicly acknowledges a lot more long-form booky stuff (like front matter, but only on the desktop version, and corkboard view, and two-up reference, and keeping your research in the project), whereas Ulysses is all like, la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you, and There Are Only The Sheets. But Ulysses is more of a one-stop shop for getting your work out as a finished book on the iPad than Scriv’s mobile version is. There’s a definite difference of opinion on the part of the makers: on the iPad, Ulysses is the mobile version of the desktop app, and Scrivener is the mobile companion — at least for now. It’s an important distinction.

I wish that Ulysses would take its cute hideaway “annotations” (like link-bubbles and footnotes) and extend them to their logical conclusion by banishing the underlying underscores and asterisks from my sight, unless the cursor is within the relevant span of text. I wish that it had more state and stronger organisational concepts regarding which groups of sheets are a single, compilable thing. I wish that it let you create and edit its various export styles in the mobile version, as well as the desktop one. I wish it had a two-up view within the app, instead of relying on system-wide Split View. I wish it supported Dropbox as a first-class file store, instead of an “external” location, with reduced functionality for sheets stored therein. I wish that its laudable opinionatedness of user experience didn’t always veer so drastically towards goddamned starkness and asceticism. Go on, highlight that last sentence and clip it for Twitter, you vultures.

Equally, I wish Scrivener’s iPad counterpart was a bit more output-focused like its big brother, and didn’t have the persistent chip on its shoulder of Use me until you take the manuscript somewhere else to REALLY finish it. I wish that the sync wasn’t modal, like cloud syncing was just invented this year. I kind of wish it had a dark theme.

The thing is, Scrivener is great. Really beautifully designed. You feel like you’re in hands that aren’t just capable, but that know why you’re here in the first place: to write a freaking book. Scrivener gets it. I have an emotional connection to it. It’s a leather armchair that bears a perfect imprint of my arse.

Ulysses, on the other hand, tries exceptionally hard to tell me that I don’t get it, and that text is zen, and formlessness is the way, and oh but I can still totally make ePubs, and PDFs without widows and orphans. It’s a bit multiple-personality. I have a sense of respect for it. It’s a glass desk, set into a beautiful, chamfered aluminium frame.

I like them both, and they both piss me off. Scriv is somebody’s little brother, complete with second-child syndrome. Ulysses wants to go and visit the library, but won’t let itself skip the t’ai chi class.

It’s a difficult choice. For now, I’m keeping a watchful eye on the Updates pane of the App Store to see what happens with Scriv, but it’s Ulysses that’s on my iPad’s primary Home screen. The next book is being planned in there. Worst case, they can each import some variety of the other’s export formats, though you wouldn’t want to do it regularly.

Ulysses is more than I thought it was — I cheerfully admit that — and in terms of entirely being what it’s designed to be, it’s understandably much further along the road than the still-young mobile version of Scrivener. Scriv feels like the 1.0 that it is, albeit a spectacular one, based on years of thought and experience in this genre of tools. Ulysses also feels like the 2.7 that it is. Neither one is perfect, because nothing can be, but nor is either one ideal. I’m giving Ulysses a shot for now, but with some reservations. We’ll see.

Do I still recommend Scrivener? Oh yes. It’s lovely. And would I recommend Ulysses? Absolutely. They’re different. How do you feel about aluminium?

You could do this job with just paper and pencils, of course. Countless people have.

Maybe that’s the real conclusion.