Recently I’ve had a few people ask me how I keep track of my writing projects, particularly on long-form writing like my first short story, and I’d love to share one of my secrets: an app called Ulysses.
Disclaimer: I don’t work for them or get paid for writing this glowing review, I just really like it! There is, however, an affiliate link at the end of this post which I would get a small payment for if you decided to give it a go.
What is Ulysses?
Ulysses is an app that’s available on Apple devices (both mobile and desktop/laptop).
I use Word. What’s so great about Ulysses?
Word?! You have my sympathy! There are a few reasons I would recommend Ulysses to anyone trying to keep track of their writing. Here’s the overview, which I’ll expand on afterwards:
- it’s beautifully simple, clean and pleasant to use
- it acts as both a writing app and a flexible project management app to keep track of work in different folders
- it uses markdown, a writing technique that removes formatting decisions from the initial writing process and making formatting more uniform when you’re ready to output a file or HTML
- you can easily write comments into text which enables quick edit notes or drafting writing to fill in later
- you can sync across devices very easily
- you can tag, search and track goals
There are probably many more reasons, but these are the ones I’m going to focus on, and the ones that really help me.
A beautiful, functional interface
Okay, maybe beautiful is a bit strong, but Ulysses is a simple, functional, clean app – which to my mind makes it beautiful (form follows function and all that). It’s not trying to do anything special – in fact, if anything, it’s just trying to stay out of the way.
On the desktop version there are three main columns; folders, documents, and the writing view. This makes it really easy to hop around between projects. The app is similar but you only ever have one view at a time (otherwise it would be super squished).
In the writing panel, you can jump to a zero-distraction mode, and use markdown and a few useful shortcuts to really unlock the power of the program.
Manage writing projects with ease
The projects column is very intuitive – I organise it with several folders within main folders, for example on this blog I have a folder for ideas in progress, another for review and another when they are ready to publish. As well as that I have a bunch of other folders for non-blog posts such as projects and the like.
Markdown leaves the creative part of your brain alone
You basically have to start using markdown when you use Ulysses, which has a small learning curve. It may seem like a bit of a faff at first, but soon you’ll wish you could use markdown everywhere. Here are a few examples of how markdown works here:
For headers, use a ‘#’. One # is the main header (H1) for HTML users, and two ## is the next level down. Simple.
for bold text add to either side of the text you wish to make bold
for italics just one asterisk is fine
and if you wish to make a comment (perhaps to note something you want to write about later, or just as a placeholder, e.g. ‘write an amazing introduction here’), you use %%
It may seem simple, but the commenting feature for me has opened up the way I write. I used to just start writing and stop when I ran out of steam, but now if I don’t have the energy to write a full paragraph I just drop myself a quick note and pick it up later when I’m feeling ready to tackle it.
Syncing across devices
A big part of the magic of Ulysses is the flawless syncing. By syncing my writing using tools like Dropbox or iCloud, I can pick up my writing quickly wherever I am.
I can jot something down at the bus stop, and pick it up on my laptop. Or I can proof my work on the tube, writing quick comments to follow up on later. Basically, it means that instead of scrolling through Facebook I can add small but invaluable productive elements of time into my day.
Pro tip: It’s worth noting that advanced markup features such as commenting only work if you’re syncing with iCloud. I used to sync with Dropbox but it was worth the hassle to move over.
Tagging, searching and tracking goals
Another feature that’s really just a bonus, but to my kind just makes the experience that bit better is the extra meta you can put into each document, including; tags, images, notes and goals.
As with anything, it’s only as good as the information that goes into it. I tend to use tags to ensure I can find all blog posts or all posts in progress quickly. Sometimes I feel like making small adjustments to a blog and as I have a limited number on the go at once I can search for articles in progress across multiple projects this way.
Goals are a nice feature too – they help you keep track of the bigger picture in terms of word count, line count or even average reading time — so if you want to write an article that takes 10 minutes for a slow reader then you can set up a goal to help inform this. This also produces the nice effect of demonstrating at a glance which projects need more work putting into them.
Goals don’t track comments or other text that won’t be output in the final edition either which is obvious, but important!
I haven’t really made much use of attaching images to docs as of yet, and I tend to use inline comments to draft out my ideas rather than notes.
I’ve found that Ulysses has opened up the way I write – I’m no longer trying to edit files over Google Drive (which was the previous option for me), and using markdown enables me to write quickly without wasting previous brain juice on the formatting until it’s ready to export. And finally, setting up goals such as word counts or reading time, enable me to have a quick overview of which documents need more work and which ones are nearly ready to go.
What tips do you have that have helped you to write better / more efficiently? Any software you’d recommend? Let me know in the comments!