Comparing Ulysses with Scrivener

I was a Ulysses user for a couple of years, until they went to a subscription plan, and that pissed me off, so I left for Scrivener. After reading some posts here on micro.blog about the superiority of Ulysses, I decided to give it a try again. (Perhaps because of the influence of @jack, I am becoming a software and platform tester?) I’m not ready to leave Scrivener, but I am going to use Ulysses for much of my everyday writing tasks and stop using IA Writer.

This post might not help you decide which of these two platforms is best for your work. Both are designed by people who clearly care about writing and who have given the writing process much thought. For long form, they both do something marvelous: You can write in small pieces and glue those pieces together. You can also write in large rivers and split up the river into tributaries. Your research lives in the same digital space and is searchable. And you can reorder scenes and chapters easily. If you ever wrote scenes on index cards and tacked them up to the wall, then moved them around until your story came together, you’ll be right at home with Scrivener or Ulysses.

I’ll try to give you a working perspective of each.

The Big Picture

Since I am a visual thinker when I write, Scrivener has an edge for me there. I like displaying my outlines as virtual index cards, as Scrivener can do. I like color coding characters and stages of drafts. With Scrivener, you can write in colors for specific revisions. In long-form work like novels, you can trace story and characters by color coding them.

Organization

Aside from the visual advantages mentioned above, both platforms help you organize long form material. It’s just a matter of taste and preference. Ulysses has introduced something they call a Material Sheet for background, character studies, and notes. That was new to me and useful. Scrivener has a sidebar you can open up for any document, passage, or chapter to put in notes. I use it every day and it works equally well on the Mac as on the iPad. Global search (and replace) is powerful on both Ulysses and Scrivener, so when you decide to change a character name from Kate to Kat, it’s no problem. Reordering scenes and chapters in an outline form is the secret weapon for any long form writer. Both Scrivener and Ulysses do it well.

I use Scrivener’s inline comments and footnotes often to remind myself something about a scene or to make notes that should make it into the next chapter. Ulysses’ inline comments are easy to use, but I find the footnotes less so.

Fake Markdown

With Scrivener, you have to write in good ol’ formatted text. I prefer Markdown, and Ulysses allows it, but their version of it, which is a kind of fake Markdown or Markdown Lite. I’ve had to learn new commands and workarounds. Real Markdown works everywhere, including in iA Writer, Bear, and other writing software. A few folks here on micro.blog have mounted impassioned screeds against Ulysses’ version of Markdown — and communicated their disaffection to the folks at Ulysses. The ire is well-deserved. Markdown is one of the few things in life that cannot be improved upon. Ulysses’ fake Markdown is maddening.

Elegance

Ulysses is the more beautiful software. It is easier on the eye. The themes are better. In Ulysses, the sync between devices is flawless. I’ve never lost anything in Scrivener, but I have worried about it. Scrivener requires Dropbox to sync, and it feels a little kluge-y. I’ve had “conflicted files” more than once when popping back and forth between the iPad and my MacBook Pro. With Scrivener, I have to remember to close and backup my work on one device before opening it on another. That’s never necessary in Ulysses.

Ulysses has vastly improved its style/grammar checker. There’s no need to export a document into another else. (I’ve used it for this doc, so let me know if I missed anything!)

With Scrivener, I use ProWriter Aid, a terrific software and platform that sucks in Scrivener-formatted documents, Word docs, and Google Docs, and makes short work of corrections and mistakes. It’s an ad-on, though, and makes for another step. Scrivener does have a final-read writer’s helper that removes extra spaces between words and sentences. It also has a name generator for characters. I’ve used the name generator a few times, but I always use the routine that removes extra spaces after sentences. My hands still have typewriter habits. This is written in Ulysses, so if you see some extra spaces after a period or two, you’ll know why.

Outputs

Eventually, you have to get the work out of the magic box. Ulysses (and IA Writer for that matter) have seamless publishing to Ghost, micro.blog, Medium and WordPress. Scrivener requires some wrangling. I’ve written three long-form book projects in Scrivener and have never quite mastered the output process (called Compile in Scrivener). As part of my editing process, I create PDF page proofs to mark up in iPad/Pencil apps like Goodnotes and Nebo. It took me weeks to get an output from Scrivener that I liked. Using Scrivener to create a Word doc to send to Kindle, Lulu, or Blurb — is, to quote Snoopy, blech. I’ve never gotten it right the first time and had to burn hours of my life in Word, my least favorite program of all time, to tweak it.

With Ulysses, you can export your work into DOCX and continue formatting in Word, but if you want to save time, Ulysses offers some slick templates that may serve your needs. Scrivener also has templates, but I find them overly complicated and, as I wrote above, hard to get right.

The Wrap Up

As you’ve probably guessed, I can’t decide for you between Scrivener and Ulysses because I can’t decide myself. I’m drawn to Ulysses’ elegant ease of use, but I need Scrivener’s down-in-the-dirt granularity and control. Ulysses has pretty templates, but I can view my work in fresh ways in Scrivener. I’m going to finish the novel I’m writing now in Scrivener, and then we’ll see what happens when I export it for printing (probably to Lulu, but I have used Blurb, Smashwords, and Kindle as well). Vellum has been my go-to for formatting. But if Ulysses can deliver a print-ready DOCX or PDF, I might try it.

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(c) Lee Schneider 2021. Made in Santa Monica, CA. Take care of each other.