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TUAW Review: The Soulmen send Ulysses 2.0 on a writing journey

Steve Sande
Steve Sande|@stevensande|July 16, 2009 10:00 AM
As a technical writer, blogger, and wannabe novelist, the tool that I use to capture my thoughts is almost as important as the words that I choose to describe those thoughts. I love to try out new writing tools, particularly those that say that they're going to let me write creatively without getting in the way. Unfortunately, many of them end up becoming the proverbial albatross because of steep learning curves, impossible-to-remember keyboard shortcuts, or complex user interfaces. In my thinking, any writing application that keeps me from writing deserves to go into the Trash Can quickly.

When I heard about the recent release of Ulysses 2.0 from The Soulmen (formerly the Blue Technologies Group), my first thought was to dismiss it as Yet Another Writing Tool. After having a chance to work with Ulysses 2.0 for awhile, I'm now beginning to think that I may have finally found the perfect Mac writing tool for my purposes. Of course, every writer has his or her different idea of the ultimate word-crafting application, so your mileage may vary drastically.

Follow along on a short tour of what makes Ulysses 2.0 so special.
If you like to try out writing applications for the Mac, you're in luck. Most of them, including Storyist (US$59), Scrivener (US$39.95) , and Ulysses (€44.90, around US$62.70), have some sort of free trial. In the case of Ulysses 2.0, that trial lasts long enough -- a full 60 days -- that you can really give it a workout to decide if it's going to be "that" tool for you.

The application is a lightweight 22.3 MB file that charmed me from the start. Even the installer was classy and clean, with a backdrop that looked more like credits for an art film than a Finder window:

Launching the application brings up a similarly attractive splash screen, followed by a very simple dialog that asks if you want to create a new project, open an existing project, or open a recent project. A project is a container for any number of related documents. For example, during my test of the application, I created a project called "TUAW Reviews". That project contained a number of documents, all of which could be tagged as to their status -- new, draft, final?, revised, and done. If I have other status tags to add, such as "waiting to add screenshots", I can edit the tag list.

The user interface is relatively uncluttered compared to some of the other tools. I'm currently working on a review of Storyist 2.0 as well, and while it provides a number of project management, storyboard, and other tools, I found its interface to take some getting used to. Not so with Ulysses 2.0. What you see is indeed what you get, and a lot of what you see is blank white paper to type on. In the screenshot below, you can see the blank writing area in the center, surrounded by a list of documents at the top left, a preview of the document (more on this later) at the bottom left, a note pad at top right, and information about the currently active document in the lower right.
Megan Lavey's recent look at Scrivener 2.0 showed another writing application that rivals Storyist in interface complexity. You won't find complexity in Ulysses 2.0, even on the most complicated screens. If you still find the user interface to be too cluttered, you can switch to the console mode. This took me back to the days of single-function word processors, with their green or amber screens. All you see is a black screen with amber (or your choice of color) text:

If this interface gets in the way of your writing, then it's obvious that you have writer's block!

At this point you're probably wondering where all of the standard text formatting features of word processing applications like Microsoft Word are hiding. Ulysses is an example of what is called a "semantic text editor." With this type of editor, you're more concerned about the text than the formatting. In other words, writing and formatting are kept separate. You start by writing plain text with no formatting at all. With a semantic text editor, you want to add meaning, not formatting. Instead of setting some text as a heading by applying a format (bold face, larger text size, different color), you just mark the text as a heading by applying a tag. Those tags can be applied from a menu, or by typing a two-character combination.

One of the many excellent screencasts that are available on the Ulysses website sums up the reason for semantic text editing very nicely, saying something like "if you've ever spent more time formatting a heading than it took to write it, you'll understand why semantic editing is important." Having spent many hours futzing with formatting of Word documents instead of just cranking out text, I can understand.

So how do you make your documents look nice once you're done with them? It all depends on the exporter, which is a plugin that translates the tags so that your text is formatted. Ulysses offers a number of different export plugins, including plain text, rich text format (.rtf), Word format (.doc), PDF, and LaTex (.tex).

What if you need to add images to your document? Isn't it just easier to use Word or Pages, and import an image into your document? It's surprisingly simple to add images to a file through the use of the notepad. You can drag and drop an image into the notepad, add a tag to it, then type the tag in the spot where you want the image to appear. For fiction writing, chances are very good that you won't need to add images.

If your writing project becomes so huge that you have many different documents that are all part of your project, you can create a "collection", which is similar to a folder containing many documents. Ulysses 2 also provides "filters", which are alike in concept to Apple's Smart Folders in that they will automatically collect documents that have similar categories or status. As an example, if you have a "in work" status tag applied to documents, you can create a filter that will group all documents that are currently in that status. Once a document is marked as "done", it disappears from the "in work" group.

As you can probably tell from my comments, I like the way Ulysses takes the concerns about formatting text out of the way of writing. When you're finally ready to create a formatted document, the exporter plugins handle the task. So is there anything not to like about Ulysses? Yes.

The price of the application is a bit high considering that it's a one-trick pony. For about 2/3 of the price of Ulysses, Scrivener provides a complete set of storyboarding and scriptwriting tools, as well as outlining, research, and project management capabilities. However, The Soulmen understand totally understand that you might not need some of the advanced features of Ulysses 2.0 (including all of the exporters, project-wide search and replace, and project notes), so they offer Ulysses Core without those features for €24.99 (about US$35.31). Once again, there's a free 60-day trial available for giving Ulysses Core a good test drive.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that Ulysses might not be the right answer for all writers. It is a deceptively powerful and easy-to-use application, so at least give it a try while you are searching for the right tool to let you unleash a flood of words. Take a look at the gallery below for more screenshots from Ulysses 2.0.