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Computers

Writing Longform Content on a Mac With Ulysses III

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Ulysses III is an app designed from the ground up for writing longform content on a Mac. It is a minimalist yet powerful piece of software that makes it simple to organise, write, and export long documents.

Like Scrivener, which James Cull covered before, Ulysses III was created with writers in mind. Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, both apps keep focused on a single use case.

Ulysses III is available from the Mac App Store for $44.99, although there’s a free trial of Ulysses III on the developer's website.

In this tutorial I’ll show you how to get started writing on a Mac with Ulysses III.

The Problem With Word

For a lot of people, the default writing app they go to is Microsoft Word; whether it’s a letter, a paper, a will or a book they’re planning to write, that’s where they turn. Although the editor, Johnny Winter, might argue the point, Word has its place. 

For short documents that only need simple formatting, Word is  a more than capable app. For longer pieces of work, however, it has a number of major flaws.

First, Word offers no easy way to break your work into smaller segments unless you want to use multiple documents. As the document gets longer, it’s harder to keep track of where you are. It also makes it very difficult to work on sections out of sequence; if you’re writing the whole thing through from start to finish then it might be okay, but jumping around is a challenge.

Second, Word is as much a page layout app as a writing app. When you’re writing something short it’s fine to consider how it will look as you work. When you’re writing a multi-thousand word piece, on the other hand, you should be first and foremost concerned with getting the words down. After you’re finished, you can start considering things like font choices, page margins and other layout decisions.

Finally, Word has a number of other issues not exclusive to longform writing: it is an expensive program that uses a propriety document format. Although not a deal breaker, it is normally a good idea to save your documents in open formats so you can easily transfer them between different apps and operating systems.

On all counts, Ulysses III is a better app for long form content.

Getting Started With Ulysses III

Ulysses III has a minimalist, three-column interface. On the left is the sidebar, in the middle is the sheet list and on the right is the editor. The sidebar and sheetlist are used for navigating your work while the editor is used for writing.

Ulysses interface
The Ulysses III interface.

Rather than traditional documents or files, Ulysses III uses sheets. A sheet can contain as much or as little content as you liked. Any piece you write will likely have tens, or even hundreds of sheets

Sheets can be grouped together, moved, merged, split, or manipulated in almost any other way you please. The concept of what makes up an individual file is very fluid within the app.

By default, Ulysses III uses your iCloud library to store everything, although you can change that in the app’s Preferences panel.

Creating a New Project in Ulysses III

As the concept of an individual document doesn’t really exist in Ulysses III, it’s simpler to break everything down into projects. A project could have ten sheets all of which will be exported to individual files, or 10,000 sheets that will be combined into a single long document. 

The former project would be the best structure for a blog, while the latter, a good project for a book.

sample project layout
A sample project layout with one main group, two sub-groups and five sheets.

Each project should have its own group. To create a new group in Ulysses III, right-click in the sidebar and select New Group… or use the keyboard shortcut Command-Shift-N.

Within each group you can have sub-groups, sheets, or a combination of both. The project you’re working on will determine the exact structure. 

A longform article or essay might just have sheets while a book project could have a sub-group for each section followed by further sub-groups for each chapter.

Tip: You can create sheets as you need them with the keyboard shortcut Command-N.

Organising Sheets

Sheets can be dragged and dropped to move and organise their position in the final document.

Multiple sheets can be linked together by selecting them and then using the keyboard shortcut Command-J or right-clicking and selecting Glue Sheets

Glued sheets act as a single sheet, selecting one selects them all. You can also un-glue them at any time using the same shortcuts.

Glued sheets
The blue bar indicates the two sheets are glued together.

If you want to merge a group of sheets more permanently, you can instead select Merge from the context menu.

As you work through your longform project, create, glue and merge sheets as it suits. They’re a great way to keep related pieces of a document together.

Writing in Ulysses III

Ulysses III uses a version of Markdown—which I’ve covered in depth before. If you’re not familiar with Markdown, check out that article and then get writing.

One of the underlying principles of Ulysses III is that you don’t need to work linearly. Due to how sheets work and documents are structured, it’s as easy to work on the final chapter of your novel as the first. For writers, this is great. 

I know of very few authors who write a work through from beginning to end. For example, the introduction to this article will be the last thing I write and the section that follows, Setting Goals, is already written. 

When you’re writing with Ulysses III, you should be working on the thing you feel most inspired to do, rather than feeling the need to pick up at a certain point. You don’t even need to know where the bit you’re writing will go, just create a new sheet and write what you want to say. Afterwards you can think about positioning it in the project.

Adding an image
The Attachments menu.

As well as text, Ulysses III also supports images which will be included in the final exported document. To add an image to a sheet, open the Attachments menu by clicking on the Paperclip Icon in the top right and drag an image to the Drop Image box.

Tip: As well as images, you can also attach keywords and notes to your sheets.

Setting Goals

One of the most useful features of Ulysses III is the ability to set a target word count for each sheet or group. With a goal set, a small ring next to the title fills up as you write. If you know a certain section needs to be a specific number of words or want to write at least 1,000 words a day, goals are a great way to unobtrusively keep track of it while you work.

goal setting
Goal setting is one of the most useful features in Ulysses III.

To set a new goal, right click on the sheet or group and select Goal… There you can assign a minimum, maximum or approximate word count as a target.

Exporting Documents

Once a document is written, you'll likely need to export it. Ulysses III can export to:

  • Text
  • HTML
  • ePub,
  • PDF, or 
  • DOCX

When exporting, the Markdown formatting will determine the break point for different sections rather than the different sheets.

exported PDF
A few sheets exported as a PDF.

To export a final document, select the sheets you want to save out. You can select as many or as few sheets as you like. From the top menu, select the Export Icon or use the keyboard shortcut Command–6.

exported markdown
The same sheets exported as a Markdown text file.

From the dropdown menu, select the file format you want to export to. Depending on what you select, you’ll be presented with a number of different options. For example, if you choose ePub you’re able to add a cover to the eBook. If you choose PDF or DOCX, you can select from a number of predetermined document styles.

Tip: Ulysses III has a style exchange where you can download and install additional export styles.

Conclusion

Ulysses III is a great app for writing longform content on a Mac. Unless you’re working on something very simple, apps like Word just don’t offer the features required for longer pieces of work. Along with Scrivener, Ulysses III is loved by writers everywhere for a very good reason.

In this article I’ve covered the basics of using the app. Much of how you use it will depend on what you’re writing and how you like to write. If you plan everything, breaking your project down into hundreds of sheets before you even start writing may be the way to go. On the other hand, if you write in a more haphazard manner, maybe you’ll just create a new sheet every time you sit down at the Mac and write whatever you feel like.

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