Writing a Novel with Ulysses

15 November 2017
15 Nov 2017
3 min read

Rather then review a fiction book, today I will be reviewing a book about writing with the iOS app Ulysses. Aptly titled Writing a Novel With Ulysses, the book is an instruction manual about how to get the most out of the Mac and iOS app. First created in 2012, this app has grown to be tremendously popular as a minimalist writing application. Ulysses lacks features, like the ribbon in Microsoft word, but bills it’s simplicity as a feature instead of a bug. This allows the writer to focus on the most important job at hand, which is putting words on a page.

Hewson himself is a novelist, and I enjoyed his take on the application. As opposed to reviews from technology websites, he has used this app to write several novels which adds a believability to the book which I found appealing. Overall, I enjoyed reading how he set up the application to best maximize his writing potential.

Markdown Background

Ulysses uses a variant of text styling which is called Markdown. Originally created by John Gruber of Daring Fireball, Markdown makes text creation very simple. By removing the multiple menu bars and ribbons, it lets the author focus on writing. There are a few stylistic options: an H1 (first level header) is denoted by an ampersand, like so

\#First Level Header

Meanwhile, bold can be denoted by two asterisks like the following: **Bold Text**

For those that are used to the ubiquity of word documents, there may be a fear that Markdown documents are some artisanal file that can only be read by Ulysses. Because Markdown documents are simply plain text, they can be read and edited by any number of programs. I would say that they may even last longer than a word document of the same age.1

Further, Ulysses offers a wide variety of export options; these include text files, markdown, word, PDF, and ePub. This is not a program that your work will stay trapped in, unable to leave. I found the export options to be sufficient for a wide variety of uses (PDF’s and Word documents being my most common) and the templates they turned into looked fine.

The Book Itself

The book itself reads like an enhanced instruction manual; reading free blog posts and slight fiddling with the application will get you 90% of the material in the book. Like with any instruction book, there were some good ideas that I haven’t even considered, some ideas that I already knew, and some ideas worth exploring. This is a perfect book to give you a start to finish guide about setting up Ulysses. However, if you are experienced with Ulysses, there may not be much new material for you in this book.

There is a structure in the book; from the initial fiddling around with settings to exporting the finished product, Hewson touches on every step in the process. This presents a great walk through of what writing in Ulysses actually looks like, which I am all for.

There is an inherent beauty within Markdown. Its power is that it gets out of the way with the most important thing being the words on the page. Overall, I had takeaways which I immediately implemented 2 and it was interesting to see how a fiction writer has his work environment set up. If you are interested in a new, more minimal writing application or have purchased Ulysses but haven’t done much with it, this book is for you.


  1. Word may not be able to read a file from 2001, but a markdown file will be good forever. [return]
  2. Typewriting mode in particular was a godsend [return]

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