Switching from Ulysses to iA Writer

Reflections upon tools for writers

For more than five years Ulysses has been my goto application for writing almost anything. As someone who loves to write it has been an amazing application.

Every article I have ever written on Medium has been written using Ulysses. This is the very first article I am writing using a different tool.

For those of you doing most of your writing using Microsoft Word, Apple Pages or Libre Office you may not even have heard of applications such as Ulysses or iA Writer. Consequently it is may not be obvious why anyone would use such applications.

Why I began using Ulysses in the first place

It may help if I explained the background for how I came use Ulysses in the first place. I was trying to write a novel in a word processor. I was using Pages because I am a Mac user. Had I been a Windows user I would probably have been using MS Word.

I quickly ran into trouble as the number of pages grew. Word processing applications are simply too focused on how things look and not enough focused on managing content creation.

Locating particular parts of the novel and rearranging it was fiddly. There was no good way of managing text that didn’t necessarily belong in the finished product but which was important for the writing process such as description of characters, plot, background information and various researched articles.

Ulysses solved all those problems. It allows you to compose text made up of small sheets you can rearrange and place into hierarchy of folders. You can put different tags or keywords on them and easily rearrange them. You can filter your list of sheets to show only the ones matching certain keywords or containing particular kinds of text.

This made is possible to get control over all the text involved in writing a novel. Different logical parts could be separate, tagged, grouped and later reorganized.

Not to mention Ulysses finally gave me a place to put all my myriad of notes. I have somewhat of a goldfish memory. I easily forget details. That is part of the reason why I like to write. It is in some ways an extension of my brain or my memory.

With Ulysses at work or home I could write down important information like where important resources are located on the company network, employee number, rules for sick leave or a multitude of other useful information tidbits. All placed in a system which allows neat organization through grouping and tagging.

Thus Ulysses basically became the tool for pretty much all my writing except actually writing code.

Trouble in Paradise

Many people swear to note taking applications such as Evernote, which I did briefly try. I don’t know the current state of Evernote but there was two things which totally turned me off:

  • No markdown support. I don’t want to be tied to a specific tool for important work. Hence I want an open and widely supported format. Not something proprietary.
  • Subscription model. I am vehemently against prescription models for software. I want to own my software.

Sadly this seems to happen all too often with high quality successful software. They switch to subscription because their users are too much in love with the functionality to let go of the app.

And sure enough it happened to Ulysses. For this reason I have been stuck on version 2.8.3 of Ulysses for a while now, while it has moved on to v18. For me it did not matter that much since Ulysses at version 2.8.3 was already a really good and polished product.

But perhaps a more serious problem I started noticing is that Ulysses markdown isn’t really what most people use, and it has had some pretty glaring deficiencies for people writing more scientific articles. Support for mathematics typeset in LaTeX has been poor for years.

The way you mark sections as code blocks is different from pretty much everybody else. Thus when writing either documentation for my packages I created in the Julia programming language or when writing content for my Hugo static blog, I had to use a different format from what Ulysses was setup for.

Enter iA Writer

When I first began using Ulysses I did briefly look at iA Writer but at the time it had none of the organizing facilities of Ulysses.

But time catches up with Ulysses, now you can do many of the same things with iA Writer as Ulysses in terms of organizing content.

Ulysses is still nicer in how it allows you to organize things and Ulysses still looks better. However iA Writer is among the better looking apps. In terms of looks I am not speaking specifically about things like icons but about how text is formatted and presented. I look at many alternatives to Ulysses over the years an a reoccurring issues is that they just did not do a good job in terms of color selection, font spacing etc. As someone with a certain passion for beautiful design this would grate on me. iA Writer however has much of the same clean and pleasant design as Ulysses.

However iA Writer appeals more to the software developer side of me. No more slightly non-standard and proprietary markdown file format. iA Writer uses plain markdown that works in a lot of other software out of the box. The organizing system is based on plain folders.

The benefits I see from this is that it is more convenient to version control your markdown files using developer tools like git.

You kind of could do this in Ulysses as well, but it was never quite satisfactory.

I was pleasantly surprised that iA Writer did a very good job of previewing markdown files written as documentation for my Julia packages (programming language). Ulysses did a rather bad job of this.

iA Writer simply feels like a better citizen in the general markdown population. I now have a tool which will work well writing both developer documentation and blog entries.

And it is not subscription based!

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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