The new version of Ulysses is out for Mac and iPad. (The Mac version is a free upgrade from Ulysses III; the iPad app is new).

Screenshot showing Ulysses for Mac with a three-paned window  editing notes from _Practice Perfect_.
A screenshot of the updated Ulysses for Mac. The theme is “Tomorrow” and the font is Inconsolata.

It’s really hard to explain what this app is. In fact, I’ve been purchasing (and not using) this application for years before I realized that it strikes the right balance for a certain set of work.


The first time I experienced the love of typing letters into print was on the IBM Selectric II with a Prestige Elite 72 typeball. This joy was magnified by the fact that I couldn’t read or write so the twin nightmares of Snopake paper and LiquidPaper fluid had yet to gobble me up. It was only last year and with much sadness when I finally Goodwill’d that big old blue behemoth.

If you like to write. Really. Like. To. Write. You inevitably develop a need-hate relationship with your word processor (usually Microsoft Word). Most people will stay in this relationship indefinitely because they don’t know any better.

I believe the problem started when the Macintosh introduced us to WYSIWYG. Editors became word processors that mix the look with the content. In programming, we call it mixing the view with the model. No matter how beautiful, this is not good. I can’t think of how many times in high school, when stuck with a writing assignment I hated, I procrastinated by tweaking my Word stylesheets or header/footer. This is especially pathetic because I am old enough to have recopied my essays by hand so the English teacher wouldn’t know I used a computer to edit them.

Very few will discover the solution is a throwback to the “text editor.” Back then it was BBEdit, today it is SublimeText. My first introduction to one was Bank Street Writer soon graduating to the wonderfully idiosyncratic vi, which I still use today as Vim.

The problem with these is that they were written for a specific non-applicable use case — most often by programmers for programming. When working with text, how do you do even simple things like emphasize stuff?

That’s when you discover Markdown and its endless variety of extensions and applications. Markdown is basically text-formatted in text (“markup”) done in a manner that’s designed to look the way you’d type it if you didn’t have access to such formatting (hence “markdown”). For instance typing “simple things like _emphasize_ **stuff**” will output to “simple things like emphasize stuff.” Besides the deft quickness of typing text even for formatting, you find its portability means you can be truly untethered from the editor you’re using — as Henry Ford once said, “Choose any [editor] you want, so long as it [understands Markdown].

Which editor then?

The path from and back to Ulysses

You want one that understand the purpose of writing is to write.

This is something that multi-use editors don’t get. Yes, I’m starting to appreciate Sublime, and you’ll pry vim from my cold-dead fingers when it comes to editing a config file, but for long-form writing and note-taking what I really want is just the editor, please, and enough to understand what I’m typing. I want that mythical ideal of “distraction-free” writing.

Ironically, the first to offer distraction-free writing as a fullscreen experience was actually Ulysses.

Screenshot of editing this article in Ulysses full-screen distraction-free mode
Full screen mode for Ulysses on my iMac is just a Cmd-Ctrl-F away. The theme here is “Simple” and the font is Courier Prime Sans.

The first distraction-free typing application or app you may have heard of was probably something along the lines of WriteRoom, Ommwriter, or iAWriter. They’re all great and do the trick, but if you work with anything longer than a couple pages you end up with a ton of flat files and no purpose to them. You gave up too much.

Maybe that’s when you start looking for software like Scrivener which allows you to organize multiple markdown pages into a hierarchical succession of files and so much more: organize your research, tagging, synopsis, cork board and outline views, and, if you’re feeling quite masochistic, you can integrate it with nearly any tool for export into nearly any format.

It’s that “so much more” that ends up being a problem. By the time you’re done setting up Scrivener, the full-screen distraction-free writing piece seems like an afterthought. You wake up and realize you’ve traded one set of “formatting” bells and whistles for a different set of “organizing and export” ones.

That’s when you come back to Ulysses. Write text files distraction-free with auto-save and auto-history and store it in iCloud where it is auto-synced and handoff-able to the iPad. Organize and export said text (or texts) how you want it (or them).

Screenshot of Ulysses for iPad editing this article in portrait mode (keyboard hidden)
This blog post partially edited on the new Ulysses for iPad. The theme is “Tomorrow” and the font is Anonymous Pro.

Sure if you’re programming use Xcode or Sublime. If you have a quick letter maybe Pages or even TextEdit is better. A long collaborative document is still best in Google Docs. You still need something that opens Word documents when you get some business correspondence. DayOne still makes a better journal. And I can still even see the benefit of keeping iAWriter installed for one-off documents.

I’ll concede some points too: I find their icon selection a little lacking in expressivity. I miss the ability to simultaneously edit multiple scrivenings. Its synchronization with Marked is still a bit cumbersome. I’ll never quite be a fan of “Markdown XL” — the lack of being able to export annotations means I have to invent my own syntax when writing to my quirky blog which I still can’t directly post to in-app as I can in MarsEdit or MacJournal. Let’s not discuss the now-outdated and useless waste-of-money that was/is the experimental sister-app, Daedelus. And yes, as you can see, when I get stuck, I’ll still mess around on their style exchange—old habits die hard. Nothing is perfect.

But if you, like me, found all that other software getting in your way because you Just. Want. To. Write. Read more about Ulysses and if it interests you consider giving it a whirl. It took me many years and three false starts with the program, but I’m glad I did.

And now with this version on Mac and iPad, there are moments when it’s just me and the words I type. A small part of me remembers what it was like to feel at home with an editor again — even if the hum and clacking of ballhead impacting black ribbon on paper has been replaced by the silent digital rendering of pixels on a retina display.

It’s those moments and that feeling, Ulysses or no, I hope the writer in you experiences every time you decide to put words down.

Photo showing an iPad with a Apple Wireless Keyboard editing Ulysses for iPad while the background shows an iMac editing Ulysses for Mac.
Distraction-free writing
San Francisco, California

Sony DSC-RX1
1/80sec @ f/5.6 iso 400, 35mm

Ulysses in landscape mode with an Apple Wireless Keyboard in an Incase Origami Workstation. The theme is Outback and the font is Courier Prime.

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