August 21, 2016

Improving Ulysses

My Favourite Writing Environment Keeps Getting Better

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Ulysses. In fact, it’s one of the very few pieces of my productivity puzzle that has survived the test of time. It’s the best writing environment I’ve ever used, and it goes with me everywhere, on every device.

Still, when you spend enough time with a product—even a great one—it starts to reveal its limitations. These are the key things I want to see in the next version of Ulysses.

Sharing & Collaboration

They’ve made it work across multiple platforms, so the natural next step is to make Ulysses work between multiple people. This is the big one, and I can see it working a few different ways:

  1. Native Sheet Sharing (Edited): It turns out this has been hiding in plain sight all along: drag & drop from the Mac app or swipe & share from iOS! Duh. I’m leaving the original text for the sake of transparency and the fact that the TextBundle bit is still relevant: Alongside the existing export options, I’d like to be able to share one or more sheets in their native format so that other Ulysses users can simply open those files and see exactly what I see. No importing, no re-constructing documents from folders of text files and images. I thought that this would work with the (already supported) TextBundle format, but it turns out you can only export, not import, which is silly.
  2. Draft Integration: For those who haven’t heard of it, Draft is a web-based writing environment with a tremendously well-thought-out collaboration system. Instead of Google Docs style realtime editing, each collaborator works on their own copy, and the author can decide which of their changes to merge into the master copy—like Git for writing. I would love it if Ulysses made friends with @Nate Kontny and found a way to have the two environments connect.
  3. Collaborative Sheet Editing: The other option is of course building in a native collaboration system, perhaps similar to the way Draft’s works, allowing Ulysses users to work together on individual sheets as well as share Groups (I could set up a group between myself and my editor for each publication, for example).

Medium Publishing Improvements

Now that my blog lives on Medium, I’m really appreciating the ability to publish a draft directly from Ulysses. While the core experience is great, there are a couple of details that bother me.

A simple one: the built-in preview styles for Medium draft publication don’t reflect last year’s typographical overhaul. They should.

On the left is Ulysses’ current preview style for Medium documents, and on the right is how it actually looks on Medium:

Image handling also leaves something to be desired. When publishing to Medium from within Ulysses, images are re-sized to fit the column width, which means I can no longer access the full range of image size options—not good.

Here’s an example. For the image above, published straight to Medium from Ulysses, my image options look like this:

Conversely, removing that image from the Medium draft and dragging in the image file manually (the same one that’s attached to the Ulysses sheet) suddenly offers me the full spectrum of options:

Somewhere in the publishing process, it seems Ulysses is making my attached images smaller. For those of us who like larger images in articles, this means every single image has to be manually removed and replaced in Medium’s editor.

Is this an API limitation or a deliberate decision? Either way, it needs fixing.

Interface & Functionality Tweaks

One of the best things about working with Ulysses is seeing the pace of development. I have the advantage of a behind-the-scenes peek via the beta stream, but even public-facing updates are frequent and meaningful. It’s not just bug fixes.

When I wrote my comparison between Ulysses and iA Writer, there were a few design details that I wanted improved. I wanted the toolbars to go away while I was writing, and an update went out shortly thereafter to make that happen. I wanted formatting shortcuts to work without having to highlight the entire word—now they do. I found the typewriter mode clunky, and it just got a tremendous overhaul (it now works on iOS, is customizable, and you can set different preferences for windowed vs. fullscreen writing!)

This kind of attention to feedback is admirable, and I’m grateful to the team for their ongoing hard work.

I’d still like to see an option for launching to a new sheet by default; while I appreciate coming back to exactly what I was working on, I’d rather not interrupt the urgency of wanting to jot something down by having to explicitly create a new sheet. It’s a tiny point of friction, but one worth removing, especially if I decide to start using Ulysses to house all my notes like @Ben Brooks has done.

I also miss iA Writer’s syntax highlighting. In fact, I’d like to see Ulysses leapfrog iA and build out their toolset for editing even more. Syntax highlighting, difficult sentence warnings, active/passive voice signals, etc. There’s lots to explore in this space.

Going Forward

Ulysses recently released version 2.6 of their app, bringing an incredibly robust WordPress publishing integration, as well as Dropbox support and Quick Open on iOS.

I continue to recommend it as my writing environment of choice. If you haven’t already, I highly encourage you to try out the demo for Mac, or purchase a copy of the app on iOS.

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