words and images by mk swanson
Ulysses for Headache-Free Writing

Ulysses for Headache-Free Writing

I Got a Lot of Problems, but My Writing Software Isn’t One of Them

If you are a writer who uses some combination of a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone, the Ulysses writing app could be the best software thing that ever happened to you.

Amiga, My Love

Adopting Ulysses as my sole writing draft application reminds me of the magical moment in the 1980s that I got my first computer (an Amiga 1000) and Scribble!, the writing software that I bought with it. Before that, I hand-wrote then laboriously typed my papers, stories, and poems. I was (and am) a terrible typist with illegible handwriting, so the backspace key alone was a miracle. I used Scribble! to write my first public relations copy and my first book. The combination of a computer and a piece of software that was easy to learn and stayed out of my way probably made my writing career possible.

Over the years, I’ve used many applications for writing and for page design. Often, one piece of software was forced to do both. I wrote as well as designed in Pagemaker and InDesign. Reluctantly, I became an expert in bullying Microsoft Word into creating well-designed pages and elegant formatting, even teaching others how to make it behave. On the Mac when I wasn’t using Adobe, I used Pages, but it was less full-featured than Word and didn’t play well with others. I tried open source software like LibreOffice, but while it impersonated Word well, it suffered from a lack of polish that I’d been spoiled with while using Adobe software. Often, I would yearn for the simplicity and colorful friendliness of my Amiga.

Why Does My Text Look Like a Swear Word?

Once I was spending more time writing and less time designing, both as a fiction writer and as a tech writer pushing raw copy into CSS-styled online documents, I realized that I spent too much time stripping out Word/Pages/FakeOffice-induced artifacts, designing a page in Word and then deconstructing and reconstructing for changes and diverse outlets. (My partner writes entirely in plain text, which certainly solves a multitude of problems, but leaves my design sense sad, so sad.)

I tried applications especially for writers that were ok, but hardly spectacular. Mostly, they offered onscreen post-it notes and book writing tips. (Post-its, despite my early love for Apple’s post-it notes, are best when applied to the outside of the computer or the keyboard.) Other unwanted solutions included: toolbars, multiple windows, layout and design. If I want layout, I’ll use Adobe when I become independently wealthy, or turn to this wonderfully worthy and inexpensive substitute, Affinity software.

Next, I tried distraction-free software. It turns out, that just means monospaced text with no styling options either in the typing window or the output. You had to employ design software to make it palatable for anyone but a dyed-in-the-wool green-screen user.

Code Monkey Like Markdown

This is when I learned about the magic of markdown.As an early user of HTML who remembers when I could hand-write any web page I needed, markdown felt familiar and at the same time, simpler: a very restricted set of markups created a code for neat, styled text when interpreted by a template.

Looking for a markdown-based writing app led me over an intense few days of trial and error to Ulysses.

Easily-styled output was awesome, but the best thing by far was that text entry was styled, too. Not wysiwyg… no, far better: the text was styled in colors, sizes and fonts I could tweak at the flip of a virtual switch. Text entry could look one way, and text output could look another way, and I could change both of these things any time. I could even create my own styles and templates.

I can write on my iPhone and have it show up instantly on my MacBook Pro. I have backups and access to external files. I have access to iterations of all of my past writing. I have space for images and notes and keywords.

The most obvious metric is how much I have been able to write compared to before. Roughly, I’ve produced two more books, half a dozen short stories and maybe a hundred poems. I’ve also transferred writing from other formats, edited all of my existing books, and used Ulysses’ export to share my work with critique partners and beta readers.

Perhaps most important of all, I’ve enjoyed every moment of the writing process. Moving text, rewriting, editing… it’s all happened without the pain of careful styling and formatting that gets lost in someone’s email interpreter, or has to be redone to appear on Confluence, or needs to be stripped off all characters to appear in a web form.

And when I sit down to write, my text looks like I want it to. I have barely opened Word or Pages in three years.

I don’t miss them at all.

My current them, Dracula Redux
A simple page using Dracula Redux theme
That page using DOCX format and Swiss Knife style
The Freestraction theme in light mode