If someone asked me, I would have to describe writing as my main creative work. I do a lot of photography, I sketch sometimes, but out of all of my hobbies I've been writing longer than any other. Even all the way back to when I first got my iPod Touch second gen' and attempted to write about the iOS apps of the time on what was my first website.
That first blog isn't worth even half a glance now other than for the laughs at my own naiveté, but I like keeping it around and linking to it every once in awhile just to show how far I've come with writing in the past half a decade of my life. Where back then the majority of my posts consisted of me promising "tons of app reveiws!!!" that would never come, now I create pieces that I'm proud of every couple of weeks. And while I'd like to up the frequency of those types of pieces, for the time being I'm focusing on quality over quantity, and I'm also focusing on trying to nail a balance between formal and informal, fleshed out and concise, all-business or high school-junior.
Improving my writing is something I'm actively working at, and the process behind it is almost constantly changing and growing. Earlier this year was the first time I implemented spending time gradually over several days or weeks to work on one piece and revise it bit by bit. Before then I'd just waited until inspiration struck and then tried to capitalize on that feeling to bang out a post before the spark of the idea waned. If my inspiration ran out before the piece was finished, then it would rarely end up being published. It wasn't practical, and it wasn't a good way to work, which are both reasons I'm so glad I've moved on and matured in my writing to a new place where I can work on a piece and put it and it's narrative together over time instead of all at once.
Another change was a recent one, when I switched from using a "normal" markdown text editor like Byword or Editorial to using the new Ulysses release for the iPad. That doesn't sound like that big of a deal, but it's had the effect of changing my mindset and process in regards to how I write, and there are some features I really ended up liking about the app, which is mainly why I'm writing this piece today; to tell you about Ulysses and how it fits the way I write.
One of the main differences between Ulysses and the other text editors that I've been using over the past months and years is that Ulysses is much more opinionated and structured as far as organizing and storing your work goes. Everything takes place inside Ulysses, instead of saving things manually in your own organized system of folders as ".txt" or ".md" files. Ulysses has it's own library and hierarchy built in, and automatically saves it's documents; "sheets," as you type. I've come to like this setup more than I initially thought I would. When Ulysses first launched I was upset that it wouldn't interface directly with the Dropbox setup that I'd been using with other writing apps up till then, and it was a tough decision to start using Ulysses at all and not be able to manually organize and look after the files myself. I took the leap though, and once I got into trying Ulysses I came to enjoy it's simplicity and some of the benefits that I just can't get when working with plain text files in Dropbox.
For one, organizing my writing has been a little nicer due to the better-integrated nature of Ulysses' solution. That means I can set up folders with their own individual custom icons and assign items tags as I'm working on them and then change them once I've finished. It's all quite easy to do, and I don't have to think about keeping track of my work or making sure that it's syncing properly, as it all gets backed up through iCloud and that's that. There are features of Ulysses as far as sheets go that I don't use, such as linking two sheets together or keeping a running list of favorited sheets as I work. But on the whole I've appreciated the switch to sheets even if it takes away some of my manual control that I've prized in the past, and it's worth it to me for the added benefits that Ulysses poses.
And I really do like those custom-folder-icons, those make me smile.
The majority of the differences between Ulysses and other text editors are small ones, but they're the little sorts of details that make me love it all the more and make the difference when it comes to actually writing. Mainly, while both Byword and Editorial have decent writing environments that either achieve simplicity or massive complexity respectively, neither can completely nail down the balance between the two, and Ulysses does just that.
Ulysses' composition UI is nothing short of great. It's got the usual smattering of formatting options above the virtual keyboard (or floating at the bottom of the screen if you're using a bluetooth keyboard - more on that later,) and also throws in document search, inserting attachments such as notes, images, and tags, and a document statistics menu. Very comprehensive stuff, but integrated in a way that doesn't clutter the UI and still remains very accessible. It's all very standard, but attractive; and it works.
There are three things about this screen that really endear it to me though. The first is how Ulysses' text selection works: you slide back and forth with one finger on the iPad's virtual keyboard to move your cursor left and right, and with two fingers to select text the same way. I've seen several implementations of this in different writing apps, but for me Ulysses absolutely perfects the behavior, and I often find myself wishing for the same functionality system-wide on iOS. Maybe someday.
Second is a similar vein of functionality, except this time for external keyboards. Unlike so many iPad applications, Ulysses' desktop lineage lends itself to bear here, and bluetooth keyboards work flawlessly with keyboard shortcuts for formatting, toggling between different panes and menus of the UI, and selecting text. It's an iPad-only writer's dream come true in a writing UI, and I would be hard pressed to give this sort of feature up and go back to hitting on-screen buttons while writing. Props to The Soulmen for being one of the first to get this sort of functionality right on iOS, and I wish more developers would follow their lead.
Third out of those essential features is one of the most integral to Ulysses' identity, and that's the export menu. Ulysses comes stocked with no less than five (count em, five) different file formats that you can export to: Plain Text, HTML, ePub, PDF, and RTF. Each of those formats can then be customized with different fonts and styles, and there's a whole online library of community-submitted stylings that you can add through the OS X version of Ulysses; which then sync back across to the iOS application. I hope someday we'll be able to add formatting styles and the app's themes straight from the iOS app, (possibly with some form of iCloud Drive or Dropbox integration?) but for now you can still load them from the Mac, and that's good enough for the time being.
Each of Ulysses's filetypes supports the iOS 8 share sheet, and so on top of the multitude of formatting options you're also able to export pieces to almost any app using the new connectivity built right into iOS. This would seem obvious if it wasn't more rare in other applications. In Ulysses the share sheet is front and center with the rest of the sharing options, and makes it all the easier to get my work where I want it.
All of these "essential bits" are quite small changes from a traditional writing solution taken at face-value. But when added up, the different in experience is a profound one, and that's what makes Ulysses both influence change in, and conform to my writing style.
Because of it's proprietary and iPad-only nature (for now,) I'm only able to work on pieces when I dictate time to sit down and focus in on them. Now, that could be anywhere from at home working, to a coffee shop, to a school classroom - due to the iPad's portable nature - but it still makes me actually delegate time to write more often, and an app that encourages that practice is good for me. The rest of the features that make it more convenient to work with as an iPad-focused writer such as the text selection and Bluetooth keyboard support add to my ability to be able to focus-in and work, as opposed to fighting with distractions or grappling with merely alright controls to get my work done. And the bevy of export options and share sheet extensibility make it so that I can use Ulysses for everything from blog posts to school essays and many things in-between. It's these sorts of small, meaningful changes that make an impact with me and endear me to a piece of software, and The Soulmen have done an incredibly good job of doing that with Ulysses.
There's a lot more to Ulysses than I've mentioned here, and I don't nearly utilize all of it's features in my writing workflow. Rather, I appreciate the features and concessions for writers that I mentioned above. It's not a completely perfect application; I'd like to see better integration with Dropbox and the desktop version's styles and themes. For what it's worth though, Ulysses has quickly become the ideal tool for how I write, and it's made it even easier for me to reach that state of flow-nirvana that I seek every time I sit down with the intention to write. It's not the most powerful offering, it's not the most minimal offering either, but it is ideal for someone like me who values certain aspects of the actual writing experience above all, and I'd say that's something worth appreciating.