From Scrivener to Ulysses

I’m moving my current work-in-progress from one great writing app, Scrivener, to another great writing app, Ulysses. There are two reasons why: my technical limitations and the way I like to work. One of them is a crazier reason than the other, but I’ll leave you to judge which is which.

Technical Woes

I love my new job and the new 13″ MacBook Pro they have placed into my custody. One of their IT requirements is that I not load Dropbox (or any other non-approved cloud storage solutions onto my MacBook). They prefer Google Drive and they give handwavy permission for iCloud since we have a lot of Mac users. Scrivener prefers to use Dropbox for syncing–there are ways to get around that, but when you start to depart from the one true path you’ll start running into issues. I want simple and reliable syncing from my Mac to my iPad/iPhone where I don’t need to micromanage the package files, use command-line tools to push to Dropbox while invoking arcane technical scripts, or anything else. I like using iCloud and I want to use something that works simply enough within iCloud. Ulysses does this easily without any fuss.

Ulysses also has better integrations with other Apple utilities such as Siri Shortcuts or Drafts so I can start typing up a new project within Drafts (or dictate into it using Siri, and then add it into a new project within Ulysses by invoking the share sheet. Easy-peasy. I’ve been badgering the good people at Scrivener to add this capability for years, but it hasn’t been on their radar or they’re saving it for Scrivener 4.

The way I work

Scrivener is kind of busy. It reminds me of Microsoft Word circa 2005–looking at the user interface is reminiscent of a pilot looking down at the cockpit of a 747 jet. There’s a lot of visual clutter. Ulysses has the opposite problem, it’s pretty stripped down, but everything I need is there even if I need to know the right keyboard shortcut to get to it quickly. That’s definitely a personal preference, but it’s my preference.

Another philosophical difference between the two is in how projects are stored:

  • Scrivener subdivides all of your work into different projects and you can only have one project open at a time, so when you search you are only searching within that project
  • Ulysses has a single interface for all of your content, so when you perform a search, you search everything within Ulysses

There are advantages and disadvantages of both approaches. I prefer Ulysses’ approach, but the downside of that is, when you have a lot of content within Ulysses, it can take longer to perform searches. This hasn’t happened to me yet, but if it does, that means it will be till to archive.

What my WIP looks like in Ulysses

What about editing and publishing?

Scrivener has a robust selection of ways to edit and compile books, but I’ve had to fight with it every time I use it. Ulysses is more geared toward producing blog posts and ebooks, and you might need to know a little about modifying CSS to get it to look exactly how you want (not a problem for me), but once you get it set the way you like, you can truly set it and forget it. Ultimately, if I get to the point where I’m working with a publisher, it’ll have to go into Word and if I want to seriously self-publish, I’ll use Vellum anyway, so it feels like a bit of a moot point.

If you publish to the web (like this post I’m writing right now), Ulysses can publish directly to WordPress or Medium. Super handy for bloggers. I’ve been writing freelance blogging/copywriting gigs in Ulysses for years, but I’ve never really considered it for fiction until now.

But what about Scrivener?

I still like using Scrivener and it has a lot of tools that Ulysses doesn’t, like a great name generator, index card scene formatting, and extensive metadata. That said, I don’t need those tools every single writing day. Since I don’t want to jump through hoops to use Scrivener on a non-Dropbox cloud app, I think the smart thing to do is to outline/draft in Ulysses and revise in Scrivener. That also allows me to separate my writing app from my editing app.

I like the way that Scottish writer Matt Gemmell sums up the difference between the two:

The thing is, Scrivener is great. Really beautifully designed. You feel like you’re in hands that aren’t just capable, but that know why you’re here in the first place: to write a freaking book. Scrivener gets it. I have an emotional connection to it. It’s a leather armchair that bears a perfect imprint of my arse.

Ulysses, on the other hand, tries exceptionally hard to tell me that I don’t get it, and that text is zen, and formlessness is the way, and oh but I can still totally make ePubs, and PDFs without widows and orphans. It’s a bit multiple-personality. I have a sense of respect for it. It’s a glass desk, set into a beautiful, chamfered aluminium frame.

I like them both, and they both piss me off. Scriv is somebody’s little brother, complete with second-child syndrome. Ulysses wants to go and visit the library, but won’t let itself skip the t’ai chi class.

Matt Gemmell,
Another good comparison, if you prefer videos.

Ultimately, what matters is getting the words on the page (whether dead-tree or electronic). Whichever tool you use, use it to create wonderful stories and interesting characters. I’ll write an update in a few weeks on how Ulysses is treating me, but I’m also interested to hear what your setup is, even if you eschew electronic tools and just use a legal pad and a pencil!

Featured image source: 9to5Mac – Ulysess is my favorite iOS writing app

4 thoughts on “From Scrivener to Ulysses

    1. Haha, I know that feeling ever so well!

      Ulysses is great, but here are a few not-great aspects of it to stifle your tinkering:
      * It’s Mac/iOS only
      * It’s $4.99/mo – this doesn’t bother me because the software is really good and they come out with new features every couple of months unlike Scrivener who takes forever to add features. Since Ulysses is getting my money every month, their financial incentive is to keep up a steady stream of updates to keep me happy as a customer. A lot of one-time purchase apps make you wait until their next paid upgrade comes out for big new features.


      1. the $4.99/month doesn’t bother me either, as I am currently paying that for Dabble. But I’m happy with Dabble, I have to remind myself that when I get the itch to try new stuff. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Understood. There are other notes apps out there I want to try, but I’m not going to give them my bandwidth right now. I had used Ulysses for my freelance work for years, so I’m already pretty familiar with it, I just had to re-up my subscription and figure out how a smart way to use it for novels.


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