Why I switched from Scrivener to Ulysses

Posted on March 4, 2014
Updated October 3, 2019

In the modern era, content and information needs to be separate from presentation, so that it can be, to put it simply – used. In more than one place.

Scrivener is a powerful document formatter, with great chaptering and storyboarding tools for writers. If you’re writing or formatting a screenplay, manuscript – or anything with precise industry formatting standards, Scrivener is invaluable and versatile.

But, as I found out, for the needs of many writers, writers who create content and not finished documents, Scrivener will be overkill. You need to set style as a part of your writing process – and changing these styles isn’t easy. Of course it’s always possible for format your documents how you like them, but the fact that they need to be formatted at all is enough to make writing perturbing. And I tend to avoid grief.

For those who don’t need formatting, or who can format after having written, Ulysses provide a vastly more pleasant experience.

Writing in Ulysses is almost like writing in a text editor, with the addition of groups for organising text, and the ability to add semantic meaning via semantic markup.

Yes, there’s a catch to writing an unformatted document. We use formatting for meaning: paragraphs, headers, lists, quotes etc. Now, we can add the same meaning without formatting. Instead, we use a simple syntax called “Markup” to add semantic indicators to the text. Markdown, (it’s been said before) is the future of writing.

There’s not much to learn in Markup. A hash before a line indicates a first level heading (which would translate roughly as ‘Title’ or ‘Heading 1’). Two hashes before a line indicates a second level heading. a “>” before a line creates a quote. Italics are indicated by enclosing text with a “*” at each end, and “Strong” emphasis (or “bold”) is created by enclosing text in two stars. Paragraphs are simply the default and don’t need to be indicated at all, meaning documents will still look and read great.

An overview of one possible writing environment. Full screen is supported and the sidebars can disappear.

I admit, it sounds bloody awful. Maybe how an engineer would write. But with the right environment, it can really be usable and friendly.

There are other Markdown writing tools. The most beautiful, without a doubt, is IA writer. It was my ‘right’ environment and is still my go to for inspiration on the go, due to simple iPad and Mac apps. The trouble is, which I realised when I undertook some larger writing projects, they don’t manage your writing very well, simply using folders. Not great where document grouping, sub-grouping and order is important, for example, in a novel.

The options.

Ulysses, for now, has solved all my problems as a content creator, and aspiring novelist. You write in markdown, and organise your writing into simple groups (like folders) and sheets (your documents). So a large project can have its own group with sub-groups of (for example) acts or parts inside, which can have any number of sheets within them, as illustrated below with my burgeoning story Half Finished Monster. Reordering is drag-and-drop easy. You store your files locally or with iCloud (though there aren’t any iOS or android apps to sync to). Your writing can look how you want, to some extent, as you can change the display font and adjust size on the fly with zoom. There are great writing serif fonts included as well as a nice monospace default.

Slightly embarrassing section synopsis…

The sum of my description hasn’t touched on the real experience of using Ulysses. It’s quite a pleasure. But just as importantly, I believe it’ll save writers time, help them organise their projects more efficiently. I encourage you to try it out. Even with the small Markdown learning curve, I’m sure it’ll become your goto writing tool.

Scrivener on the Mac App Store.

Ulysses on the Mac App Store.