Visual review of Ulysses professional writing software: improves efficiency; fosters creativity; integrates with common tools; at the monthly price of a cup of coffee. This software is finely tuned, single-user and mostly intuitive.

This post originally appeared in the March 12, 2020 issue with the email subject line "My website redesign research process" and an essay about (surprise) my website redesign research process.

For decades, writing apps have hoped to overtake the behemoth of Microsoft Word, that bloated, ugly software that we all learned to type papers on. People write all the time about how Word is a shitty program, yet many writers still use it, because it’s comfortable and familiar.

The free, sharable Google Docs has replaced Word in other instances — and it’s what I push most teams toward for content editing and management.

But when you’re writing a lot, like thousands of words a day, being chained to Google Docs is terrifying, since most of its best features are cloud-based and sometimes the whole point of writing is to get off the internet. And Word’s not even remotely built for the fluid editing that you need as a digital writer.

Note-taking apps like Evernote and Notion enable more dynamic, drag-and-drop content management, but at the end of the day they’re designed for jotting, not the personal and deep process of writing and editing. Evernote’s specifically marvelous for phone writing, along with making grocery lists. However, those apps don’t have a lot of flexibility in some of the more helpful features of writing apps: specifically annotations and comments.

Like any writer, I’m a master procrastinator. As I embarked on the process of writing, annotating and researching, I decided to look for an app that would better fit my Big Project needs. A tabula rasa app, an app I haven’t yet sullied with opinions.

Ulysses at a glance

Ulysses is the best markdown editor I’ve used, with customizable themes and easy keyword or drag-and-drop organization. Ulysses counts your words for you, so you can see exactly how productive or prolix you’ve been this week. It enables you to set goals of characters or pages or time or reading time. It does all those easy language counting things.

It’s an exercise in hubris to name a piece of work Ulysses, but men keep on doing it. But Ulysses is a great app for a writing journey, a well-built boat that can be prettified and decorated and brought into a fleet, then back out on its own. It enables diversions but pushes a writer back to the words.

Ulysses offers:

  • Full-screen document writing for when you need to stop looking at tabs
  • All the best word processor features and none of the worst ones (why do you need to draw a picture in your Word document???)
  • Speech to text
  • Side-by-side editing
  • Well-designed built-in themes, if you’re like me and just want the program to function and look nice
  • Custom themes, if you’re a persnickety prettifier
  • Integrations with Wordpress, Ghost or Medium
  • Incorporations of annotations, comments and footnotes as separate content types (as they should be)
  • Typewriter mode, or fixed scrolling, for when you want to focus on one line at a time
  • Version history, because I can’t use anything that doesn’t auto-save with version history at this point

It’s fast and not buggy and lets you copy and paste and move text with ease. It’s funny how you don’t notice how slow your text editor was until you use a really fast one.

I recommend Ulysses for writers who are working on a large writing project, as well as other side projects. I recommend Ulysses for me.