November 13, 2016

The Prodigal Son Returns to Ulysses

I have a love-hate relationship with Ulysses. I use it. Get frustrated. Dump Ulysses. Go back to Sublime Text 3. Come back to Ulysses after a while. So what is going on?

I am back to using Ulysses.

Frustration with Ulysses?

  1. Markdown: Ulysses supports markdown badly. I need tables. Ulysses doesn't support them. I have to rely on some other editor to make tables. If I am already using some other editor, why not do all the work there instead of switching between two editors.
  2. Links: My articles for the blog are full of links. Ulysses does a horrible job of dealing with links. They are considered "objects." What that means is that if you format a link, you have to rely on the pop-up provided by Ulysses to format links. If you don't, and input the links in the raw format, Ulysses has a horrible habit of adding escape characters to the links, when exporting, and it is a pain to remove them.
  3. Ease of Writing Markdown: There are ways to make writing markdown easier. Ulysses doesn't provide those. I should be able to highlight a word and press a keyboard command and the program should enclose the word with square brackets and then immediately following that get the URL from the clipboard, enclose them with brackets and move the cursor past the closing bracket. I have a plug-in in Sublime Text 3 which provides this for me. LightPaper and iA Writer provides this out of the box. Ulysses doesn't. Ulysses supports all the code, but doesn't make it easy to work in it. For instance, you can make links in Ulysses, but there is no keyboard command assigned to that. Nor is there a keyboard command for images. Another feature it lacks is the auto-pairing of brackets and asterisks.

Then why go back to Ulysses?

The Simplicity of the Environment

Simplicity. What does that mean? How is that established?

It took me three months of using Sublime Text 3, reading a couple of books on it, before I found myself comfortable in Sublime Text 3. It is a complicated beast which does a lot of things.

Ulysses doesn't do most of what Sublime Text 3 is capable of. It does a subset of the tasks and that is all it concentrates on. That means that the learning curve is smaller. It also means that it is not going to take you three months to become familiar with using the program. In fact, it might take you a week before you know everything there is to know about Ulysses. There is pleasure in working in an application where you are confident that you know the nooks and crannies of a program. Every keyboard command is at your fingertips. That comfort with Ulysses is a result of its simplicity. Ulysses has done a great job of including all the things that you need and leaving out most of the things that you don't.

That is the essence of what I mean by Ulysses and simplicity. You spend a week, you learn the program and then you write in it for the rest of your life. Doesn't get better than that.

I love being in Ulysses. The themes are beautiful. It does a perfect job of giving me just enough control over the variables I want to control and the text on the screen looks crisp and sharp, the spacing is perfect and I am just happy writing here. Sublime Text 3 is infinitely customizable and you can make it look anyway you want, but with this increased choice comes a certain amount of complexity. The other part of it is that you are going to be tweaking all of the available choices and not writing. Writing was the object of this exercise. Ulysses through its control of the features that it lets you tweak gives you the right options but doesn't overwhelm you with choices. You don't find yourself endlessly customizing in Ulysses. You settle on a look and you are good to go. That helps your productivity. I like choices but endless choices can get overwhelming and more importantly, distracting.

As a result of this simplicity I find that I am productive in Ulysses. More productive than the other options. That was the main reason behind the switch back to Ulysses.


These are the compromises which I have had to make to bring back Ulysses into my workflow:

  1. Links: I don't input most of the links when I am working in Ulysses. I write the article. After the content of the article is written, I export to a markdown document. I open the document in iA Writer and go to work on it. iA Writer does three things for me: check the grammar of the piece, input tables, and input links. This is the process I go through. It gives me the advantage of writing in Ulysses, and editing and tweaking in iA Writer. I get the best of both worlds and I find that I am productive.
  2. Keyboard Commands: I use KeyboardMaestro to add keyboard commands to Link and Image. That makes the process of adding links easier in Ulysses.

I love being in Ulysses.
So, I have returned to Ulysses.


RJR @inzzense on Twitter asked me a relevant question: "Just curious why not return to iA Writer then?"

I answered the question on Twitter but I have been thinking about it some more.

It is a valid question. I am working in Ulysses and then moving on to iA Writer for its better handling of links and grammar check. Why not start and end in iA Writer? The advantages of that are obvious:

  1. Less friction. One less app to worry about.
  2. Better support of links and markdown writing than Ulysses.

Those are good enough reasons to make me think of switching to iA Writer and dumping Ulysses altogether. What is keeping me in Ulysses?

  1. iA Writer has improved considerably in version 3.0 and I am looking forward to the next version which is about to be released. But it still restricts choices too much for me. I want to use my own font: I like looking at Operator Mono instead of the custom Nitti that iA Writer uses. I want some control over line spacing and paragraph spacing. iA Writer does not provide that. Ulysses does.
  2. Typewriter scrolling. iA Writer implements it, but it is rigid. Ulysses provides some measure of control by it's variable setting and I like that better.
  3. Themes. I like Solarized light and dark. Ulysses provides that. iA Writer doesn't.

I stare at the screen for 16 hours a day. Please let me have some control over what I am staring at. These are the main reasons behind the decision to keep working in Ulysses and then move to iA Writer for adding links and grammar checking. I understand that this is not an optimal solution. One app would be the better solution. However, given the limitations of both applications, the write in Ulysses and edit in iA Writer seems to me, to be the best solution for the time being.

macosxguru at the gmail thingie

Writing macOS Ulysses

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