Ulysses 2.0 Review: Professional Writing Software, Made Beautiful

Ulysses has been around for a long time. Created by German developers The Soulmen, it’s been a favorite of professional writers all over the world for its advanced capabilities, yet in such a beautiful design. This is significant. Previously, with PC software, it would be an all-or-nothing deal: you either get a well-designed basic app, or a cluttered yet feature-filled app. Today, design is respected a lot more, especially after the introduction of the state-of-the-art devices we work with today.

That’s what The Soulmen have done with Ulysses 2.01. In addition to bringing compatibility with OS X Yosemite, they’ve also revamped their file hierarchy and structure to work with cross-platform iCloud syncing. Indeed, this year, Ulysses is now available on the iPad. Along with a brand-new design, major new features such as attachments and goals, and a better distraction-free writing experience, Ulysses 2 is set to reinvent professional writing on OS X.

Using Ulysses

Don’t mistake Ulysses for a simple Markdown editor — that’s not what it is. The power of Ulysses is better described as a professional writing application. While you can use it for publishing occasional blog posts, or your final essay, that’s not what you want to use Ulysses for, and you definitely can’t justify the asking price of $45 if you’re just looking for an app to write occasionally in.

The app is clearly marketed towards professional writers: that means journalists, authors, novelists, even serious bloggers. If an app is meant to target people who write for a living, the writing experience has to reflect that. And Ulysses 2 has one of the most comfortable and remarkable writing experiences yet.

It’s powerful yet simple, and lets you concentrate on what’s most important: getting words down. To do this, it has a simple UI that is firstly simple, yet has all the functionality you’d need tucked away neatly in the toolbar.

Upon first launch, you get a three-pane window: a library of files and folders on the left, a list of documents (which Ulysses calls “sheets”) in the center, and the writing interface on the right, occupying a good three-quarters of the window.

You can switch between views, too. By default, it shows you the three-pane interface, but you can also choose between shown you just the list of sheets and the editor, or just the editor.

The left pane, or the sidebar shows you locations where you have saved files, including the equivalent of “smart folders” on the top — Ulysses has a full-fledged file system, including filters for “All” sheets, sheets from the last week, and a “Trash” folder where all your discarded works reside.

By default Ulysses also shows you a few tutorial sheets in the sidebar, which is helpful for beginners.

The main syncing solution in Ulysses is iCloud. Using iCloud with Ulysses has many advantages, but you can also store sheets locally and in “External Folders” — which I’ll get to soon, but you’ll miss the core functionality that extends Ulysses beyond other apps if you don’t use iCloud for your syncing needs.

Ulysses also supports files from “External Folders” — you can add any folder you can find in Finder (this includes Dropbox and Google Drive folders) to set up Ulysses to work with any folder on your hard drive, and even these other syncing services.

Writing in Ulysses

The actual writing itself is joyful — Ulysses has full Markdown support, and the default style is great. When you first go through setup, Ulysses allows you to pick between your preferred method of Markdown syntax — do you write with *asterisks* or _underscores_?

Like other Markdown editors, Ulysses also styles syntax to help make your writing more readable and preview your writing without having to leave the editing environment. The default choice is beautiful, and I haven’t changed it — headings and emphasized text are set in a bold, striking blue, and bold text is set in dark pink.

Unfortunately, beyond vanilla Markdown, you can’t use syntax as you’d expect — you can’t use [^2] for footnotes as you’d expect in your syntax, because anything wrapped in two square brackets is interpreted as a link by Ulysses — to add a footnote, you have to use Ulysses’ own syntax by typing (fn). Even with images (the ![] syntax you’d expect), you have to use (img) to attach an image into your piece.

Ulysses thankfully goes beyond just styling syntax and helps integrate OS X with your writing. For example, start typing a link in Markdown, and a helpful prompt pops up, giving two fields for the link URL and the title, respectively. These prompts also exist for images and footnotes, and provide a great compromise between the simplicity of plain text and the practicality of native integration.

Ulysses also had a great feature for power users called “attachments”. Attachments give Ulysses the power that extends it beyond just a Markdown editor. Attachments is a panel that groups together four powerful pieces of metadata that can be included in Ulysses sheets: keywords, goals, notes, and images.

Keywords are essentially tags you can add to sheets in Ulysses, and they work with both iCloud documents and sheets in external folders. Adding keywords to a sheet helps you identify them in the file browser, but for some reason, you can’t filter sheets by keywords.

Ulysses Goals

Goals is a great feature that allows you to add a target word count you need to write — whether it’s around a thousand words, at least five hundred, or no more than two thousand — these goals turn a brilliant green once you finish, and gives you a feeling of satisfaction — you can even brag about how much you’ve written on Twitter using the native share sheet. Goals is definitely one of my favorite features of Ulysses, but theres a catch — like notes and images, it can only be attached to iCloud documents, not simple .md files.

You can also attach notes and images to your sheets in iCloud.

Publishing

Ulysses' Myriad of Previewing OptionsOnce you’re done writing, there are many ways to export your writing in Ulysses. And sharing in Ulysses is really comprehensive, and I applaud The Soulmen for it.

Clicking the “Share” button opens up a popup, allowing you to export five main types of documents: Text, HTML, ePUB, PDF, and DOCX.

Ulysses' Myriad of Previewing Options

With Text, you can share your work as plain text, Markdown, or TextBundle, which allows embeddable images in plain text.

In order to appeal to professional writers, Ulysses also has advanced export options, such as .PDF and .ePUB, which really sets it apart from the competition, especially when considering the very many styling options that are included with Ulysses, and the many more you can download from the Ulysses Style Exchange.

The default ones are beautiful, and the advanced exporting options really make a good case for Ulysses if you’re a professional writer.

Tidbits

Hit CMD-O to open a Spotlight-esque file browserSome other great features worthy of mention:
Ulysses also has a great dark mode. Actually, there are two options: dark mode, and dark view. Dark mode turns the whole interface dark, while dark view makes only the editing interface dark. A feature that is appreciated a lot, especially since it makes an important distinction between dark mode and simply white on black — it’s more of a dark gray with off-white text, which is easier on the eyes.
Ulysses makes copy-and-pasting really easy, even preserving links and other rich content if you want — just go to Edit \> Paste from \> Rich Text, and links, images, etc. are converted to their respective Markdown syntax.
Opening files in Ulysses is a breeze. You can hit CMD-O, and instead of giving you a file picker, it opens a Spotlight-esque window you can open recent files from. It’s really great.
Text statistics. Fairly basic stuff for any text editing software, but the choice here is good — you even get stats like “sentences”, “pages”, and also writing speed, which is handy.

Making Ulysses: An Interview with Marcus Fehn

I asked Marcus Fehn, co-founder of The Soulmen, about the development process behind the latest update to Ulysses.

What about Ulysses did you want to change when releasing Ulysses 2 for Mac?
With Ulysses 2 it was not so much about what we wanted to change, but what we had to change. We had the iPad version coming up, and that required a lot of modification on how the file system worked, how iCloud sync worked and so on. And then there were the rather radical design changes in Yosemite (and, to a lesser point, in iOS 8), and we had to adjust to these.

How is developing for the iPad different to making Ulysses for Mac?
The platform restrictions are immense. Screen real estate is very limited, tap targets are huge, there are only a couple of obvious ways to allow interaction etc. For example, we have just submitted a new version which allows iPad users to collapse groups in the sidebar. This is a very basic, well-learned action on Mac: Click the disclosure triangle, done. On iPad, there is no established method to do this, so you need to create your own. And once you do, in come the follow-up problems: How do you manage move operations? How do you manage nested groups? How do you teach users about the options?

Ulysses went through a major design overhaul with Ulysses 2 for Mac. What did you learn from the design process around Ulysses?
We learned that we did a pretty good job designing Ulysses III in the first place 😉. After the initial frustration with 10.10 settled (iconography, transparency, vibrancy, etc.), we were rather quick to adopt the new platform paradigms and use them to our advantage. We got rid of a lot of custom elements and some lesser-used options in the process, and thus were even able to significantly speed up the app.

What was the most impressive feat you pulled when developing Ulysses for iPad and Mac?
I’d say the feature parity. We really managed to bring the whole experience to both platforms, without making the Mac app behave like an iOS app or vice versa. This required an insane amount of planning, design iterations and code rewrites, but it was well worth it.

What should we expect from The Soulmen in the future?
Well, Ulysses for iPhone is quite obvious. And we’ve already started work on bringing Ulysses to the next major OS updates – iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan. Beyond that… no comment 😉.

Ulysses is available on the Mac App Store for $44.99.


  1. The name of the software used to be Ulysses
    and the version number is 2.0. Confusing, I know, but they renamed it to just Ulysses 2.0. 
Zaid is the editor-in-chief of Yellow Signal, and identifies himself as a millennial, and leads a busy life balancing clients, making apps, and attempting to do homework. When he’s not checking RSS feeds, listening to podcasts or tinkering with his blog, he’s writing here on Yellow Signal or reading something that catches his eye for a few minutes.