Ryan Irelan

is building Mijingo and doing limited consulting.

Writing with Ulysses

A while back I switched to using Ulysses for my writing. I switched from my normal setup of Markdown files in BBEdit and Marked app because I wanted something that gave me more control over organizing (and visualizing) my writing and easier access on all devices. I don’t write here a lot but I am writing almost daily on upcoming courses for Mijingo.

My courses for Mijingo can be big in terms of the number of words. 10,000 words plus code examples isn’t unusual. When using BBEdit I had one big Markdown file with each module or section of the course as a different top-level header. But reorganizing the course content wasn’t always straightforward (but it was easy to make an error, like that time I deleted a bunch of content) and I didn’t have a good visual of the overall structure of the course.1

So I went hunting for a Markdown app that would make that easier. Let me be clear: I’m wary of all-in apps that take over your content is some proprietary file format or package.2 The reason I moved this blog to Jekyll several years ago is because I wanted to future proof my content. I need the same with my courses. But it could not come at the cost of even minor inconvenience that would slow me down.

Because let’s be honest: when it comes to writing we need to grease the wheels as much as possible just to get the writing done. I’d love to have some purist plain text file setup that’d earn me nerd cred accolades from the nerderati but nerd cred a) doesn’t write courses and b) pay the bills.

Writing and publishing pay the bills. Sorry, fellow nerds. Plus I’m almost 41 and who has time for unnecessary obstacles anymore?

So I needed something that was somewhere in the middle. And that something was Ulysses.

Here are my requirements:

  • Easy, automatic syncing. Dropbox okay, iCloud okay, but preferably not something run by the app.
  • Markdown support
  • A way to structure writing by creating collections or linking multiple documents
  • Simple exporting
  • Universal, 360 degree access. I wanted to be able to write and edit my work on all of my devices (MacBook Air, iPad, iPhone Giant).

Ulysses hit all of those (except iPhone but that’s coming and it’s fantastic).

Here’s my setup:

  • Courses are Collection at the top level, synced via iCloud.
  • Each course is also a Collection inside of the courses collection, in which I have separate sheets for each section of the course (or even broken down into multiple sheets per section depending on the length)
  • Inside the course Collection is another Collection called “Research”. This is where I drop in links, quotes, or idea. I’ve recently revamped this part and “Research” has become more of a scratch pad. More on that another time.

Because I’m syncing via iCloud all of my writing is always available on my iOS devices, MacBook Air, and Mac Pro. I’m on the beta group of the new iOS version of Ulysses which has support for iPhone. I have sat in bed, on my iPhone 6 Plus, and reorganized and edited course content. Works like a charm.

When I’m done writing I can export out the course in one of multiple formats available (PDF, ePub, plain text, HTML, etc). I typically export out to Markdown or PDF, depending on what I need it for. I go to PDF if it’s for publishing with a course (I always try to share my written content as an ebook for each course).

After thousands of words written, I’ve settled in on Ulysses. I traded off some future-proofing by going all in on Ulysses but I can get my stuff out pretty easily as plain old Markdown. The convenience and ease of writing makes that trade-off worth it for me.

Want another take on writing with Ulysses? Check out Ben Brooks’ Ulysses setup

  1. I create mind maps for each course before I start writing but the course takes shape and morphs while I write. Therefore I need an easy way to see the course structure and reorganize it while I’m writing. 

  2. I learned the hard way with Evernote. 

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There’s more to read in the archive.