Beautiful and clean interface. Excellent selection of distraction-free modes. Flexible. Tracks writing goals. Filters help organize content. Excellent Evernote import feature. Can publish directly to WordPress.
Requires some learning, especially for those unfamiliar with Markdown. No audio file uploads.
- Bottom Line
Ulysses is the best, and most beautiful, distraction-free writing app for Mac. It's ideal for writers who prefer a minimal interface and total flexibility in their apps, rather than those who do better with structure and hand-holding.
By Jill Duffy
Writers faced with the horror of staring at a blank page all day might at least be comforted if their writing app is Ulysses, because it's so elegant to behold. This app is designed to help writers focus on their writing by providing a minimal experience while still remaining functionally flexible. It's not the app for you if you like hand-holding and a lot of buttons and menus in your interface; rather it's for those who believe less is more. It's a top software for writers.
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Ulysses scraps altogether the standard word-processing formatting that you find in Apple Pages, Google G Suite, Microsoft Office, and other office suites. Instead, it supports Markdown language (more on this in a bit). That's not to say it is bare-bones software; rather, it offers tools for organizing writing without dictating how you must use them. Its export function, for example, is a powerful tool for showing you a sample page of how your work will look before you commit to a particular export style.
What Ulysses doesn't offer is a prescriptive experience. It doesn't tell you how to organize the various drafts of your novel or that there should be a title page, contents page, foreword, and introduction. For that kind of hand-holding, Scrivener is a better option, one that's also available for Windows, macOS, and iOS. The two apps are both top writing-app competitors, but they are very different. For that reason, I spend a fair amount of time in this review comparing Ulysses and Scrivener. Both are worthy of consideration, and as such, they are both Editors' Choices. The only type of writer who should use a different app is a working screenwriter. Final Draft remains the industry standard in that category.
What Is Markdown?
Markdown is essentially a way to indicate very basic formatting for text. If you've ever typed on a phone or in a messaging app and used underscores to create italics or asterisks to make text bold, it's kind of like that. With Markdown, you use simple characters to denote boldface, italics, subheds, and a handful of other styles, but not too many others. Then, when you export a file from Markdown to html, PDF, or any other commonly used format, the Markdown language translates cleanly into the proper styling.
Price and Platform
At $44.99 for the desktop app, Ulysses is affordable. The iOS app sells separately for $24.99, and it's designed for both iPhone and iPad. You can sync your work between the desktop app and iOS app by saving your files to iCloud, Dropbox, or some other file-syncing and storage solution.
It's a bit easier to swallow the high price of the iOS app if you think of the package price for the two of them together as being just $70. Remember, that's a one-time fee for lifelong ownership. It's not a recurring subscription price. This more old-fashioned pricing structure helps keep the apps affordable for writers who, let's face it, don't exactly have a reputation for making six figures. Keeping the price close to a fine bottle of gin feels about right.
As mentioned, Ulysses is available for Mac and iOS. There are no versions for the Web, Android, or any other platform. Ulysses costs about the same as Scrivener ($45.00), which is available for Mac, iOS, and Windows, though nothing for Android yet. Scrivener's iPhone app is priced at $19.99, a few dollars less than Ulysses' app.
Both of these apps are high-quality apps for writers, though for screenwriters specifically, they don't compete with the much more expensive industry standard Final Draft ($249.99, available for Mac and Windows). It's entirely possible to create other kinds of writing using Final Draft. If you write screenplays and novels, it would be a fine choice. But if you're not working in Hollywood and don't plan to, you don't need to spend the money for a copy of Final Draft.
What Makes Ulysses Different?
Put head-to-head against Scrivener, Ulysses offers a completely different experience. Put simply, Ulysses has a lovely interface, and Scrivener is ugly. Besides the fact that Scrivener is also available for Windows, that is the primary difference between the two. Ulysses holds back with a minimal toolbar. It tucks away features that you learn to bring up through keyboard shortcuts.
When you launch Ulysses for the first time, you had better set aside a good 15 minutes to read the bulk of the tutorials, because otherwise you won't know where to find so many of the app's capabilities, including the cheat sheet of Markdown characters, which surfaces by way of a keyboard shortcut. To be fair, There is a toolbar option for it, too, but if you're new to Markdown and see the toolbar without any sort of preface about what it is, you'll be completely lost. That's the flip side of minimalism.
With Scrivener, however, you get an interface that puts function over form. Buttons are explicit. Menus and toolbars are not restrained in the least. You quickly understand that you'll have a wealth of formatting tools at your disposal, because even the tutorial content uses two different serif typefaces. Is it all a bunch of interface clutter, or is it a series of signposts that make the app easy to learn to use? I figured out the basic ins and outs of Scrivener in a matter of minutes. But to be honest, I would hate to look at it every day, though that's a matter of personal taste.
Ulysses' focus modes differ from Scrivener's, as well. When you enter Full Screen Mode in Ulysses, you see only your active sheet with either a white or black background, depending on whether you've also chosen Dark mode, too. All other elements of your desktop and computer interface vanish. Scrivener has a similar feature, Composition Mode, that sweeps you into a view of only your active sheet. But by sliding a dark-light adjuster, you can choose to see as much of the desktop as you want. Drop your cursor to the bottom of the screen, and a toolbar with more viewing options appears. Are these options useful or distracting? It depends on your writing habits.
Another view option in Ulysses called Typewriter Mode locks the active line at the top, bottom, or center of the active window so that you don't have to scroll while you're composing. You can also set Typewriter Mode to show only the active line, sentence, or paragraph in full brightness, darkening whatever else is on the page.
When apps are spartan in their design, little touches go a long way. For every project you create in Ulysses, you can choose a custom icon to appear alongside it. A goal tracker, which keeps tabs on whether you're hitting your desired word or character count for a sheet, changes color from blue to green to red as you creep toward it, hit it, and exceed it. In the sheet list, you see a little colored dot indicating the goal status for every sheet that has a goal.
Filters operate like tags (the language of writing app does not conform to that of other productivity apps). Applying filters to sheets that are within the same group lets you sort them later. For example, let's say I'm writing a novel told from multiple characters' points of view. I might create a filter for each narrator's name so that I can quickly see all the parts of the story as told by a certain person. Or say I'm writing a book that includes a lot of foreshadowing. I might create a filter about every element that's foreshadowed so I can quickly find and reread the appropriate earlier chapters while working on the later ones.
Anyone trying to abandon Evernote might be lured back by Ulysses' Evernote import capabilities, which worked impressively well when I tested them. Caveats are that encrypted notes won't show up (that's good for your privacy, though), tables and to-do lists appear as plain text, and font customization is obliterated. Tags do carry over, converting to filters.
Getting your precious words out of an app and into the proper format for sending to editors, publishers, or agents is of the utmost importance. The Preview function lets you see a sample page of your document in a few different export styles before it compiles and generates the file. Some of the styles use bigger fonts than others. Some use color. Some include your notes and annotations. What you choose to generate will depend on who's receiving it. I really like the Ulysses gives you an option to check how it's going to look before it spits out a PDF.
Other export formats include Word DOCX, HTML, Epub, and plain text. If a WordPress site is a final destination for your text, you can configure Ulysses to publish to WordPress directly.
As mentioned, Ulysses doesn't hold your hand or coach you in any way. It's up to you to figure out how to use the app. That's not the case with Scrivener. I don't want to overstate how much structure Scrivener offers, but you do get templates for different kinds of writing projects, such as novels, novels with parts, short stories, works of nonfiction, BBC taped dramas for radio, screenplays (with export support for Final Draft), and others. These templates provide a small amount of structure and guidance for people who need it.
With Ulysses, you can find templates online to import or make your own, but it takes work, and it isn't obvious that you can do it, much less how you would.
Ulysses lets you upload and store image files, whether to use in your work or for more general research or character development, but it doesn't support audio files. Scrivener does. There are other little things that could be better, such as more ability to customize how much interface clutter you actually want to see. For example, in any group, you can pull up statistics regarding how many sheets it contains. I'd like to see the sheet count right in the library list, all the time, but it's not an option.
From testing other writing apps, I've run across few novel features that aren't mind-blowing but that some writers might see as little perks. In iA Writer, for example, a syntax button lets you see in color-coding different parts of speech, such as all your verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. That would be a fantastic tool for writers trying to improve their writing in specific ways.
Another neat feature in Scrivener is a split-screen view. This splits the active window horizontally to show a mirror view of your text, which allows you to write or edit in one window while reviewing the rest of the file in another so that you don't lose your place. The Mac-only app Focused Copy includes a selection of lyric-free soundscapes and white noise tracks to play while working.
The Best Software for Distraction-Free Writing
Ulysses is an Editors' Choice writing app. I recommend it especially to those who are 1) looking for a distraction-free experience, 2) appreciate flexibility, and 3) already know Markup or don't mind spending a few minutes learning the ropes. If you prefer a bevy of tools, templates, and WYSIWYG formatting, however, you're better off with Scrivener, which is also an Editors' choice.
Jill Duffy is a contributing editor, specializing in productivity apps and software, as well as technologies for health and fitness. She writes the weekly Get Organized column, with tips on how to lead a better digital life. Her first book, Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life is available for Kindle, iPad, and other digital formats. She is also the creator and author of ProductivityReport.org. Before joining PCMag.com, she was senior editor at the Association for Computing Machinery, a non-profit membership organization for… More »
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