¶ Ulysses 2.5

When I get the urge to write something I either reach for the closest instrument I can or, if available, the one that provides the most comfort. My iPhone is almost always with me and I'll write there if I must, though I much prefer my iPad when lounging in a recliner or my Mac if at a table or desk. Maybe I'm a bit overly particular, but I prefer my writing environment of choice to be as similar as possible across my three devices. This is one reason I love Day One for journaling and why I loved Byword for most anything else.

Yes, I said loved. Past tense.

There are a number of reasons why my beloved Byword fell out of favor with me. The frustrations were mainly with iOS. It started to feel buggy, and sync often bogged down the app, or ended with conflicted copies of files. In short, it became unreliable.

Now, I don't mean to disparage Byword. It will always hold a special place for me. But sentiment isn't something that should keep a tool around of it is no longer working well. It is ultimately only a tool.

Enter Ulysses. I bought Ulysses for Mac some time ago and experimented with it a bit, but I never committed as the story on iOS was only for iPad, and I often start my ideas on iPhone. It felt like an incomplete tool for my writing process.

Of course, hints and rumors have circulated for a while that The Soulmen, the makers of Ulysses, were working on an iPhone version. When they announced a beta, I quickly signed up, and, thankfully, was quickly accepted.

To put it briefly, Ulysses has captured my heart and the words pouring from it.

The Experience

The best apps are the ones that offer an experience. They have a story to tell when you use them, and that story is expressed consistently on each device. Ulysses is such an app. It aims to encourage writing. It has all the tools one could want whether you are jotting a note or penning the next great novel.

Ulysses is powerful when it comes to organizing your writing. First up is the Library, where you create groups, sub-groups, add icons to groups for context, and more. The Library is as sparse or detailed as you want it to be. I use several overarching groups to separate writing for this site, work, and a few other things. Under each of those I typically have some sub-groups for additional context, such as Drafts and Published in my group for Full City Press.

Once you delve into a group you have the Sheet List. Think of Sheets as separate documents. Like a sheet of paper, it is a blank canvas. It doesn't need to have a title or a file name. It just needs words.

Once you create or select a sheet you're in the Editor. This is where the magic happens, and the true joy of writing with Ulysses is found. The Editor is clean, putting your words first. But it also places every tool you'd want within reach, kind of like Batman's utility belt. You can add keywords, set a writing goal, add a note, or even an image via the attachments sidebar. I make use of the writing goals to ensure I don't go overboard on words, and I love using notes to drop links I want to reference without mucking up my main text. I could see a novelist keeping notes about a scene or characters there, as well.

The best part is Ulysses is familiar whether you use it on a Mac, an iPad, an iPhone, or any combination of the three. Every tool you use on one device is found on another, in a sensible place for the size of screen being used.

Write. Anything. Anywhere.

I love the Ulysses’ slogan of Write. Anything. Anywhere. For the 2.5 release The Soulmen focused on the anywhere aspect of it. Bringing Ulysses to the iPhone is easily the capstone feature of this release. As I mentioned earlier, most of my writing starts on my iPhone while I am out and about. An idea hits me and I quickly jot it down, usually with a working title and attaching some notes to capture my general stream of thought. If the occasion permits, I may even tap out the first paragraph or two right there on my iPhone.

Ulysses, by default, leverages Markdown for styling text, which I have long held is the markup language every writer should learn and use. The various symbols you use for Markdown are easily accessible on a hardware keyboard, but can be a bit of a chore when using the on-screen keyboard on iOS. Ulysses again keeps the tools you need close by with the Shortcut Buttons that reside with the iOS keyboard.

Shortcuts are separated into three categories:

  1. Blocks: Headings, Lists, Quotes, Comments, and the like.
  2. Inline styling: Strong emphasis, regular emphasis, links, and more.
  3. Special characters: All the special characters you could shake a stick at.

Ulysses keeps all of these a single tap away while writing, instead of having to toggle the keyboard to symbols and maybe tap and hold on a key to reveal further options, as one would normally need to do things. These are located right in the QuickType Bar on the standard iPad keyboard, and are elegantly placed just above the keyboard on iPhone.

It is astounding how much attention to detail there is to keeping you focused on writing and not worrying about where things are at. Ulysses simply steps out of your way when writing while keeping any tools you may need within reach. To make another superhero reference, Ulysses is the Jarvis to your Tony Stark.

Keeping It All Together

Ulysses can be the one-stop shop for all your writing if you want it to be. It keeps everything organized. And when you use it on more than one device it also keeps everything in sync. Ulysses does this all through iCloud, and requires zero setup. It really just works.

Now, iCloud sometimes gets dirty looks when it comes to sync. Those aren't unwarranted as iCloud has definitely had quirks in the past. That said, I can't say I have had any trouble with iCloud sync in Ulysses. It has indicators in the Sheet List to show whether a particular sheet is uploading or downloading, and everything has always come across on all my devices. I don't even think about it. Ulysses has proven trustworthy that when I close it on one device, my work is there when I open it on another device.

Get to Writing

You don't need a fancy text editor to write. You can use paper, you can use TextEdit, Pages, or any number of tools. Ulysses is not needed for you to write or to write well. I don't think The Soulmen would disagree with that.

That said, when you set out to accomplish something, the caliber of the tool you use matters. There's a tremendous difference between using a generic tool and a precision instrument. Ulysses is the latter. It is designed to make a difference in your writing by taking care of all the things that typically steal away your attention while trying to focus on your writing. While it cannot create focus for you — that part is up to you — it does not create distraction.

Ulysses is the tool I whole-heartedly recommend to serious writers. Whether you write poetry, short stories, reviews, quips, thought pieces, or novels, Ulysses can handle it.

Write. Anything. Anywhere.


Ulysses is available on the iOS App Store as a Universal app for iPad and iPhone for $19.99. The Soulmen told me that price will be going up soon, so now is a great time to buy it. The Mac version of Ulysses is available on the Mac App Store for $44.99.

These apps are worth every penny, and I applaud The Soulmen for pricing them to be sustainable so Ulysses can continue to be the best writing tool for ages to come.

¶ November is for Writing & Thankfulness

I've been seeing a lot of folks this past week getting ready for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as aspiring authors like to call it. NaNoWriMo is an ambitious endeavor. 50,000 words in 30 days. That is roughly 1,667 words per day.

I've also seen a couple other takes on NaNoWriMo, such as what Ben Brooks is doing. Ben isn't planning to write a novel, but he is taking on the challenge of writing 50,000 words on his site. Equally ambitious, if you ask me.

I was thinking this morning about Ben's take on the NaNoWriMo challenge and a challenge that I have done each November for the past few years. While I don't write anywhere near the amount each day in November to get to 50,000 words, I do write each of the 30 days.

A few years ago, my friend Shaun Jones (sorry, he doesn't have a website) introduced me to the idea of Thanksvember. Simply record something you are thankful for each day of November. Some days I write a sentence, some days paragraphs. I record all of it in my beloved Day One. Sometimes I share an entry with others, but often I keep it to myself.

I think the great thing about doing some kind of writing each day in November is not so much about the quantity — heck, even the quality — but rather the consistency. Taking November to write daily is a great way to start the habit of writing. It's so easy to have the desire to write but to allow yourself to be blocked to actual put words to paper or pixel.

Whether you are writing the next great novel this month or simply being thankful for something each day, be sure to write.

On blogs

Matt Gemmell:

Instead of a blog, let your site be a site. Or a journal. An online anthology. Your collected works. Your essays, to date. Your body of writing. A blog is a non-thing; it’s the refusal to categorise what you produce, and an implicit opt-in to the disappointing default.

Instead of posts, you have articles. Pieces. Essays. Stories. Poems. Briefs. Tutorials. White papers. Analyses. Even thoughts, if you like. Actual works, crafted and presented for the reader, instead of just being punctured by a push-pin, and affixed to a bulletin board, beside lost dog, and roommate wanted.

Instead of posting, you’re publishing. If you were a blogger, maybe you’re a journalist.

Instead of blogging, you’re writing.

Try those words on for size. See how they feel.

Matt's article on his disdain of the terminology surrounding blogging is an absolute must-read. I know I needed it. As I've alluded to recently, I've been wallowing in a lot of doubt as a writer. Matt's words were a great reminder to keep writing.

I remember very distinctly a few years ago when I decided I wanted this site to be more than a blog. When I traded blog in the navigation for articles. When I started calling myself a writer.

My readership is not fantastically large. But it isn't insignificant, either. But the number of eyeballs reading these words does not detract from the value of my words. I greatly value the time you take to read this site, dear reader, but to be frank, I'm not necessarily writing for you. I'm mostly writing for me.

I encourage you to read all of Matt's article. It is excellent. He is a very gifted writer. And finally, I want to leave you today with a final quote from his passage, one you should jot down in a notebook, or Evernote, or wherever you keep quotes to look back and reflect upon.

Language is a surgical tool in the right hands, and a blunt instrument otherwise.

¶ Welcome to Full City Press

Here it is. The new chapter of my writing. Full City Press. For years, I've written about tech — primarily Apple — and it's been incredibly fun. Over the past year, however, I started to feel like I was in an echo chamber, and just murmuring the same thoughts as everyone else writing about Apple. And it burned me out to where I stopped writing publicly.

Writing is something I must do. It's almost a compulsion. If I don't put words to page every now and then, a negative effect takes root in just about every part of my life. Over the past months where I couldn't bring myself to write one more word on this site about technology, Day One became my rescue. There I could write freely about any topic. But I longed to share that here.

The former name of this site, techese, became a mental barrier for me. It just didn't feel right to write about non-tech stuff here under that name. So I did some soul searching and came up with a new name. Full City is a degree of coffee roasting (it's delicious, by the way). And Press has dual meaning as I press coffee each day, and also the link to writing. It's a perfect name for my future endeavors as a writer.

Writing about technology is still going to happen. It is too large a part of my life for it to not happen. But I'm going to take the liberty to write about any topic I choose. So let's grab a cup of coffee and get to writing again.

Squarespace's New Apps

When I launched techese, I had been yearning to get away from the likes of WordPress. I had settled on Squarespace back then and have been with it ever since. I still wholeheartedly recommend Squarespace to folks who ask me what they should use to create a site.

One thing I have always had issue with was their iOS app. It wasn't all that good back on Squarespace 5, and since Squarespace 6, it has been a bag of hurt.

Thankfully, Squarespace has released two new apps to handle the crowded functions of the previous app.

Blog handles the writing and posting part while Metrics handles all your stats. Both apps are gorgeous and work really well. These were worth the wait. I'm really happy that Markdown is a first-class citizen in the Blog app.

I have two issues which will hopefully be taken care of in updates. The first is that the Blog app is missing the social sharing toggles of the web interface. If it had those, I could truly do everything I wanted with posting from iOS, which would rock.

The second issue is that Metrics doesn't have an iPad UI, so it scales up in the ugly 2x mode.

Beyond those two omissions, the apps work great, are fast, and chock full of the feature set you would expect. I hope Squarespace treats these apps as first class, iterating often, instead of letting them languish as the previous app did for so long.

Byword 2 | Review

I've been beta testing Byword 2 for OS X & iOS for a while, and I am really glad it's finally here. It has many little improvements I've been thirsting after for some time, and a great big feature I wish my host/CMS — Squarespace 6 — had an API to use with.

If you're not in-the-know already, Byword is a fantastic app focused on writing. It simply gets out of your way gives you a page to write on, with minimal fluff to deal with. The best part is that it is designed for web publishing as it is one of the best — no, wait, I'll just say the best — Markdown-centric apps I've used.

The grand marquee feature of Byword 2 is blog publishing. You can now publish your text directly to Wordpress, Tumblr, Blogger, Scriptogram, or Evernote. I've been dabbling a bit more into Evernote use, so maybe I will find a home for this feature via the big green elephant. I haven't used the publishing feature, to be completely honest, so I can say very little about it.

Byword 2 also sports improved conflict resolution, showing you each conflicting version in their entirety, so you can make an informed decision on which is the keeper. The update also includes better handing of new, edited, renamed, and deleted documents in Airplane Mode.

The remaining features are the removal of friction points that I have run into with previous versions. When viewing the Markdown preview, Byword 2 now keeps the scroll position intact. This is one of those things you subconsciously knew was annoying that is now fixed.

On iOS specifically, you can now move and duplicate documents. This is handy if you decide you'd rather have a document on Dropbox instead of iCloud, or vice-versa. Fonts on iOS are also much better. Rather than some obscure fonts you've never heard of, Byword 2 now uses Avenir Next (yay!), Helvetica Neue, Courier, and Georgia. I, for one, am in love with the Avenir font family, so I am really glad the developers added it (they were extremely gracious when I was being super-annoying about it during the beta).

If you regularly write for the web there are two things that will help make your life so much easier: learn Markdown, and use Byword.

Byword 2 is a free update for existing users and $10 (OS X)/$3(iOS) for new users. The publishing feature is an in-app purchase for $5 on each platform.

Avenir

A nice little gem in OS X Mountain Lion is its inclusion of a new font called Avenir. According to Wikipedia, Avenir is French for “future”.

I found out about it when I started using Day One (my review), since it uses Avenir by default if installed on Mountain Lion. To get a better taste for Avenir I have had Byword for Mac set to use Avenir for the past couple weeks, and I have found it to be a really enjoyable font.

Turns out Avenir will also be included within iOS 6, and will be front and center in the new Maps app. Day One for iOS will also use it by default on iOS 6, and I suggested to my friends at Byword to include it as an option for their iOS app.

In the past, I have always sought the timeless classic Helvetica Neue as my font of choice for writing. I think Avenir may actually be my new default. If you have OS X Mountain Lion, give it a whirl.

¶ Day One

On and off over the years I have tried my hand at journaling. It has never stuck. I have several reasons behind why it I have never done well with it.

  1. I’ve never really set a clear purpose for journaling, hence motivation to do so wanes quickly.
  2. I hate writing by hand, partly because my penmanship is terrible.
  3. I never felt motivated to really try journaling via a text file or an app, directly related to reason 1.

Then I read Shawn Blanc’s review of Day One. I had seen Day One in the App Store before, but hadn’t given it much thought, because I never had a clear reason to journal.

Then Shawn wrote this:

As a writer, I believe journaling on a regular basis is critical. It’s writing that will never be judged. It’s writing that doesn’t require an editor. It’s the only place where I am completely free to write for my truly ideal reader: a future me. I have my own inside jokes, my own running story arc, my own shorthand. I love the freedom to write whatever I want, however I want, with no need to make it tidy or clear or concise. And I have no doubt that it makes me a better professional writer.

I realized I had always attempted journaling with the thought that my audience would be someone who would eventually read it. It had never crossed my mind that I could just write for myself and not worry about that writing being judged or analyzed. I could have fun with it.

So I’m giving Day One a shot. I bought the Mac & iOS apps, and after a couple weeks I’m happy to say I have stuck with it.

Being able to attach photos is a nice touch to tie words more vibrantly with memories. I love the automatic tagging of location and weather. Most of all, though, I like brig able to journal from anywhere. I can be at my Mac, or use my iPhone or iPad. iCloud keeps it all in sync.

Most of all, I think I am learning how to approach writing more casually and have more fun with it. Journaling is a new avenue for me, one I like taking a daily stroll down.

You can get Day One for Mac for $5 on the Mac App Store and Day One for iOS for $5 on iTunes.