As a writer, I try to keep it simple. In the early, pre-blogging days, I word-processed in Microsoft Word like everybody else. Since then, I’ve found my way around a half-dozen CMSs from WordPress to Tumblr to Movable Type to Medium, and realized it’s too easy for a browser crash or an errant back-button click to destroy a draft. So I write everything now in Apple’s (almost) crash-free TextEdit, add HTML tags by hand, and paste my plain-text writing wherever it needs to go. The files are small, the app is quick, and the text is universal.
But it’s not quite enough.
I’m working on a handful of long-term projects with different needs and scales, and before I dig in too deeply, I took a day to sample the new generation of writing apps. Here are my quick thoughts on Ulysses and Bear.
What I need
The first project is a nonfiction book proposal. I have research documents and quotes, an extensive outline with facts, citations, scenes and ideas, and the final proposal itself (and eventually the book chapters). I need a way to manage all this that can be indexed and quickly searched. TextEdit and the MacOS Finder are a bit under-powered for this, and Microsoft Word remains a bother (and expensive). There’s Google Docs, but I’d prefer a desktop copy I can backup to the cloud with Dropbox. I’m not writing on a phone or tablet and don’t care about syncing.
The second project is web development documentation. I am studying WordPress along with front-end dev, including HTML, CSS, and PHP, and am deep into note-taking: for this, I’d like an app that can present rich text alongside clearly marked plain-text code. Again, TextEdit can handle this, but laboriously, and a speedy search function would be much better.
This is an amazing app. I’m writing this blog post in it now. Ulysses is built on Markdown, an in-between way of writing that—with Ulysses’ customizable styles—gives you the benefits of both rich text visuals and HTML semantic power and flexibility. This is my first day using Markdown, but knowing HTML, I learned it in about 5 minutes.
- Flexible text that can go anywhere, from a WordPress post to an eBook to a Word document
- Great with displaying code and allowing color customization
- Fast and powerful search
- Organization: You can create file groups and hierarchies, making it easy to collect, say, book chapters or put a project under one folder structure
- Version control: Files save automatically, but hit “save” to create a snapshot to go back or restore from later
- Document windows: You can open a file in a new window to do side-by-side editing, essential for comparing an outline or research document with the final text
- Comments: You can write Markdown comments that disappear in the final exported document, which is a killer feature for leaving yourself editing notes or citations to search or fix later.
- Can connect directly to WordPress (or Medium) for writing blog posts
- I use SourceTree for version control for my code: the advantage there is it displays “difs,” or differences, between file versions. Ulysses’ version control appears to be missing this feature, and just gives you the two documents to compare with no guidance.
- Not necessarily the best option for outlining or zoomable bullet points
- Markdown is still not the same as rich text, so the exported project may be visually surprising. The preview feature is strong, but it would be nice to flip to it a little easier. It’s also just going to take me some getting used to.
There are many other features but I’ll end there. Ulysses is clean and ready to go out of the box, but it’s also visually customizable in specific and powerful ways. I love this app. I think it’s going to solve a lot of problems for me, particularly on the code documentation side, but I think it can handle a longer writing-focused project just fine.
Ulysses is available for MacOS ($45) and iOS ($25) on Ulyssesapp.com. The demo is free.
After trying Ulysses, Bear tastes like Diet Coke. Though similar to Ulysses, Bear is enough of a downgrade to feel best used as a mobile app—for note-taking rather than longer writing. It’s an improvement in visuals and features over Apple’s Notes, but I found its minimalism opinionated rather than accessible.
- Familiar three-column layout like Notes and Ulysses
- Fast search
- Exports to PDF, HTML, DOCX
- Flexible, Markdown-y text that can include headings, links, images, etc.
- An interesting hashtag tagging system rather than folder hierarchy: this seems more bothersome than simply grouping files in Ulysses or using hashtags to navigate bullet points in WorkFlowy, which I also use.
- Only a handful of display options and color and font choices. Some may find this liberating and love the look: it’s just O.K. to me.
- Markdown has to be turned on manually and without it, bold and italic styles use Bear’s weird markup instead of just bolding and italicizing.
- Bear’s version of markup seems generally distracting to me, like the H1 markers before a heading. Like I said: opinion.
- Fewer export options and customizations
There are enough solid features for using this as a flexible-text phone app but it doesn’t feel natural to me for longer work, and for my grocery list or a note-to-self, I’ll stick with WorkFlowy.
Bear, a subscription app, is $1.49 a month or $14.99 annually via Bear-writer.com. You can also try it for free.
I am a devoted user of WorkFlowy, an outlining app I have used for years as a note-taking tool, bullet journal and daily to-do list, writing outliner, and almost everything else. Practically my whole life is in it. The bullet points paired with search make it incredibly useful for atomizing short bits of research, but I am still pondering how I can use it best alongside work that demands longer text, like a full quote or an article. Perhaps a timeline to use side-by-side with Ulysses?
There’s also Scrivener, which I know is the gold standard for many writers but seems to avoid the HTML superpowers I’m interested in as a blogger and front-end developer. I’ll be looking at that next.
What would you recommend? Let me know what you use on Twitter or join the newsletter below and drop me a line.
Matt Gemmell: Thoughts on Ulysses and Scrivener