I've long been a fan of plain text for everything from notes to general writing, but it wasn't until recently that I found my holy grail: An app that could sync with multiple devices and handle multiple output types. Ulysses. It's the plain text version of Evernote I've always wanted.
There are a couple of catches with Ulysses I want to mention up front: First, it's only available for Apple devices (Mac/iOS). Second, it's pricey: $US44.99 ($69.99) for the Mac app (though you can check out a trial version for free) and $US24.99 ($38.99) for the iPhone/iPad app. Both the iOS and Mac apps have the same feature set, so you can switch between the two easily.
Considering apps like Evernote are free, the price tag is definitely asking a lot, but it's also the only app of its kind that clicked for me. Scrivener was close, but its ugly design and lack of mobile options prevented it from being my only tool. Ulysses doesn't have that problem, which makes it worth the price. Now that Ulysses has cemented itself in my workflow, I figured I'd share a few tips for how I use it.
Ulysses Isn't Just a Text Editor, It's a Writing Environment
Ulysses isn't exactly a plain text editor. For a long time, the pitch for Ulysses was "plain text enhanced," and while I hate to succumb to advertising catch phrases, that does describe Ulysses well. It's a smarter version of plain text that can work as just plain text, or handle much more if you want it to. More than that though, Ulysses is an entire environment for writing. To use Ulysses well, you'll want to dump everything, from your notes to your book manuscript, into Ulysses.
If you've used an app like Scrivener, you know a bit of what to expect with Ulysses. The main text editor in Ulysses is just that, a text editor. You can type in a nice, distraction-free mode. You can add formatting if you want, and that's about it. One little feature I love is how Ulysses automatically hides the interface when you want to type, which makes it super easy to just dive in and start working.
As for the writing itself, you can write in plain text, a special version of Markdown, classic Markdown, the HTML markup engine Textile, or you can create your own markup language (this is handy for books where you're working with a publisher's specific markup style). You can attach notes anywhere you want, create groups to organise everything, and even add images. Ulysses is basically what I imagine Evernote would be if it was made specifically for writers.
Like I said at the start, Ulysses is much more than text editor, it's a writing environment. That means tons of organisation tools.
Make Groups for Every Project, and Don't Be Afraid to Create Tons of Sheets
The organisation features in Ulysses are its biggest strength. They're what separates Ulysses from minimalist writing apps like iA Writer. While the organisation features are great, it can take a little mental effort to get used to how it works because the system in Ulysses is a little different than other apps.
Ulysses is a self-contained system, and in that system you can create self-contained little projects. Instead of notebooks, Ulysses categorizes projects into groups. Each group can have an unlimited number of subgroups. Each group or subgroup can have an unlimited number of sheets. A sheet is just a fancy word for a text document. If any of this language is throwing you off, don't worry, it took me a little while to get used to it too, but once I started actually using groups and subgroups, it made my life a lot easier.
So let's say I'm working on a book. First, I create a group in the sidebar, give it a name, then select an icon I want to represent it. This is the overall group for the project as a whole. Next, I'll create a subgroup for the first chapter. When that's all set, I'll create a new sheet. Depending on the project at hand, I'll usually create one sheet for an outline and another for the writing itself. While Ulysses has a built-in notes function where you can add notes, images, and URLs to any sheet, I also usually add a work cited sheet to keep track of anything I'm referencing. Finally, I add an "Idea Dump" sheet into that subgroup. This is where I'll dump ideas I have when I'm on the go, or when they just pop into my head while I'm typing. Then, I get to typing. When I'm finished, I select the sheets I want to export, and Ulysses stitches them together in one massive document.
If it's not obvious, I like to organise things before I write, and Ulysses gives me complete control over doing so. I realise not everyone's like this, and if that's the case, Ulysses is likely overkill for you. However, if you like to categorise, outline, track sources, and compile notes all in one place, Ulysses does the job very well.
Search Is Powerful, Use It
On top of having a solid system for organising your writing manually, Ulysses also has an incredibly powerful little search program inside of it. Tap Command+O and type in your search. The results will include any text with that search term. Find the sheet you want, press Return, and Ulysses takes you straight into the text editor for that document. This doesn't sound like much, but it makes so you can easily bounce between sheets without ever touching the mouse, which is useful when you just want to write.
Use Tags and Smart Filters to Organise Your Writing Automatically
While the search in Ulysses can pull up sheets incredibly fast, you still might want to use tags to organise your writing a little more. This works for two reasons: One, tagging a sheet has the obvious benefit of making it easier to find in search. I usually do this to collect together notes, or add in some thematic tags if I'm working on an idea that might tie into a broader goal. For example, if I was writing Game of Thrones, I'd tag each sheet with the main character in each chapter so I could easily find them.
Ulysses also supports auto-updating filter groups that works exactly the same as a smart folder in Finder. When you create a new filter, you can choose a tag, keywords from the text itself, or the modification date. Then, Ulysses automatically fills that group with anything that matches. This makes it so you create a group to collect together a specific keyword so it's easy to find again. In Game of Thrones, I might add a "death" keyword, then create a group that keeps track of each chapter with a death in it so I could easily find it again.
Don't Be Afraid to Customise Ulysses to Your Liking
If you love to tinker, then you'll appreciate how much you can change about Ulysses. You can alter the appearance of the writing environment, create your own document export options, and even customise the markup language.
Ulysses uses themes to change the editor. You can download a number of popular themes from the Ulysses site or create your own if none of those are to your liking. With themes, you can change the colour, look, and feel of the editor. I'm a big fan of the New Wave 80s theme because it adds a ridiculous circus look to everything while I write, which makes me chuckle every few minutes. If you're working on some Fallout fan fiction, the Early Computers theme pictured above is the one you want to use to get into the right mood. Regardless of your preferences, the beauty is that themes have no effect on how a document gets exported, so you can choose whichever one you're most comfortable writing in without worrying about formatting anything later.
Ulysses uses styles to export your writing into other formats. When you're finished writing, you can export it as a PDF, ePUB, Rich Text, or in HTML. When you do so, your document gets formatted in a style of your choosing. Like themes, you can check out a number of user-created styles on the Ulysses site. Styles are incredibly useful if you're working with multiple mediums or you plan on self-publishing in any way. Basically, you can write in a simple form of plain text, then export that plain text in a much fancier way. For example, if you're writing a film script, you can use the Filmscript PDF style to export your text to a studio-friendly screenplay format without worrying too much about the formatting as you write.
If none of the downloadable themes or style options suit your needs, you can create your own in the Preferences panel. This takes a bit of work to get right, so I'd suggest looking through the downloadable options first. If you decide to make your own, you'll find a full guide for doing so on the Ulysses site.
Finally, Ulysses supports a couple of writing-specific modes worth mentioning. From the menu bar, you can switch over to a dark mode for easier writing at night, drop into full-screen mode for a distraction-free experience, change the font in the text editor, or enable a typewriter scrolling option that pushes text up as you type. Personally, I use dark mode and full-screen mode the most, but it's always nice to know those other options are there if I decide to use them.
I've wanted to like Ulysses for a long time, but it was always held back by the lack of mobile options. With the release of the iPhone and iPad apps, it's finally settled into itself and does everything I need. I can type big, longer form text on my computer, but still have instant access to all that writing on mobile. I can dump everything into it without worrying anything will get lost. It also does the one important thing that every writing app needs to do: It gets out of my way when I just want to write.