Holy Wars: Ulysses vs Scrivener

Like most people, I write something every day. I write for a range of purposes and audiences. Some writing is part of a task and some is meant to be read by others.
I’ve been using computers to write since that was even a possibility. I go all the way back to text editors on floppy disks, remember loving wordwise for the BBC micro (in 1981!) that came on an 8k ROM chip that you had to install inside the machine and soon after, the grown-up feeling of Wordstar on DOS. Like almost everyone, I have written too many documents in Microsoft Word to even begin to remember. My history with desktop publishing goes back to the 1980s too.

Writing Apps

I still use DTP and word processing programs but they are not the best apps to use for getting words out of your head. For that, generally, the simpler, the better. You conquer an empty file, or a blank piece of paper, by getting your pen moving, typing or dictating, not by setting margins, fonts or line spacing. Once you have some text, you need to review it, edit it, correct it and refine it until it does what it is intended to do. Only then can a text be used: published in some form, sent as some sort of message, stored as a record or used for a performance. Writing apps are focused on creating, refining and editing text, and in helping you to then use it appropriately.

If you use the Apple ecosystem, even minimal research will lead you to two writing apps: Ulysses and Scrivener. I have used, and still use, both. Writing that feels uncomfortable. It feels as if you should make a commitment to one or the other and that you must make a choice. I found myself wondering why that is.

Until quite recently, I hadn’t thought about any of this for years. I adopted Scrivener a long time ago when it was the only real writing app and I used it successfully for all sorts of projects. It had frustrations and it lost important work for me once too often, just as Ulysses came on the scene. I tried it, found it worked for me and it quickly became where I did all my writing. It is one of those great apps where you find yourself thinking about what you are trying to do (the writing) and almost never have to think about the app itself. In the traditional phrase, “It just works”. I still had an old Scrivener licence, but soon the app was no longer on my devices and Ulysses was.

A month or two ago, I started a new writing project: my own small book about a piece of software that had a steep learning curve and almost no support. My usual writing process broke down. I had all sorts of disconnected snippets, half-written notes, screenshots, extracts from web pages and so on that I was trying to make sense of and organise. The production of text was not the issue. The challenge was organising and structuring material so I could start writing, then making sure that my text expressed and made sense of the material. I could do this in Ulysses, but it was hard work and it felt like there must be a better way. In an idle moment, I downloaded a free trial of the latest Scrivener, copied what I had into a new Scrivener project and made more progress in a day than I had for weeks. This continued. I was much more productive in Scrivener than I had been in Ulysses. In the end, that project was a dead end, but Scrivener is now alongside Ulysses. I use both, but for different purposes.

I’m not going to compare or review the two apps here. This has been done very well elsewhere e.g. on Zapier or on SoftwareHow or at the Sweet Setup.

Both apps are designed to help you write. Ulysses has a core philosophy of “plain text” sheets stored in a single library, which you can structure with folders, subfolders and tags. Scrivener has a core philosophy of “rich text” documents stored in discrete projects, with a manuscript or draft folder containing documents you have written and separate folders with research, notes, ideas and anything else the project might need. Ulysses aims to be minimal and focused, while Scrivener aims to give you tools for the whole process, from ideas and research, through writing, organising, editing and publishing. Ulysses attempts to do a few things very well and Scrivener attempts to be everything you might ever need.

It’s revealing that there are very few tutorials for Ulysses beyond a short example folder that comes with the app. It’s enough. The app is simple, but you can do quite complex things with it by using the relatively few tools it provides.

Scrivener provides a large library of (very well-made) tutorial videos and a 900+ page pdf manual. You don’t need all of this straight away, but you will often find yourself looking up how to do things and I often felt that there was more than I was using.

Holy Wars

I looked around Scrivener’s support forums to get a feel of what had been updated since I last used it, what the current issues were and so on. I quickly noticed a pattern that was also reflected in blogs and articles across the web. Scrivener didn’t just have users, it had adherents or disciples. I already knew that this was equally true of Ulysses.
I repeatedly saw what looked like genuine questions answered not just with some practical advice, but with a lecture about why you should or should not do it this way. A lot of this was very defensive too.

For Scrivener, the touchiest issue was being able to work effectively on Mac and iPad and keep documents safely in sync between the two. This process is a classic hot mess of a kludge in Scrivener. It works (and I am using it) but it is a poor process that has been an issue for years. Users want it to be like most iCloud sync these days, that just “happens” quickly, invisibly, without thought or problem, exactly as it does (for me anyway) in Ulysses. Scrivener makes you use Dropbox, you have to follow specific and exact routines and it is fraught with danger. It would be better if the energy put into explaining why it had never been fixed, how it is Apple’s fault that it won’t change its cloud infrastructure to match Scrivener’s needs, why you shouldn’t want seamless sync anyway and why you shouldn’t be bothering the developer with the issue in the first place had been put into finding a better solution. A great deal of this energy is from Scrivener users, not from the developer, who acknowledges the issue, explains it clearly and is obviously bored by it and not intending to fix it.

A close second for Scrivener is the glacial pace of development. The app is good and it had a major update in 2017 which helped but if it doesn’t do something or needs an improvement, it’s not likely to get fixed anytime soon.

The Ulysses world appears to be less fervent, but still shows the same pattern. Disciples defend the purity of the faith. The hot issue there (still) is Ulysses’ move (years ago) to subscription. For software that aims at being minimal, it’s a significant ongoing cost that does not compare well with what other software does for the money. It’s worth it (in my view) if you are a pro or semi-pro user, but the promised “benefits” of subscription, in terms of frequent updates, improvements and new functions are not obvious for Ulysses. The developers do publish updates fairly often, but these are mainly about responding to changes in the operating system (e.g. dark mode or split screen) which arguably they’d have to do anyway.

The debates are mostly polite, and there are a lot of people who are not adherents or disciples, but the Holy Wars aspect of software puzzles me. People seem to be invested in being right about the choices they have made more than they are invested in using the software well and seeing it improve over time.

My Take

I will continue to use both apps. If I were forced to choose, I’d probably stick with Ulysses.
Ulysses is a brilliant way of writing, more or less anywhere, more or less anytime and keeping what you write, safe and up to date for you. It’s excellent for professional writing in the modern environment. When I was writing dance reviews (professionally), I’d go to the press night of a show and be lucky to get home before midnight. My editor expected 800 thoughtful and polished words before noon. That’s classic journalism and Ulysses made it much, much easier. I would have a first draft or at least key points written on the train home using Ulysses on my iPad. After not enough sleep, I’d pick up the piece on my Mac, finish drafting, edit it, add photos and captions and then export from Ulysses into the web-based system for my editor. It was usually published by mid-afternoon. I never, ever lost a word and could write anywhere, even on a late-night train.

I write blog posts in Ulysses (including this one). It doesn’t publish to my preferred web platform, so I have to copy and paste, but I have a string of posts “in progress” or published, that I can keep track of and work on, whenever and however I like.
I write for study in Ulysses. I have recently started using the [Highlights app] which is great for annotating pdfs and puts my collected notes straight into Ulysses where I can edit and expand them before using them as the basis for further writing.

Scrivener is brilliant where you don’t know what to write yet, fiction or non-fiction. It’s fantastic at structuring, researching, noting, organising and wrangling things around. It’s not as focused as Ulysses, but it’s a perfectly reasonable space to pound out a few thousand words. It’s much better at tracking edits and revisions, knowing where you are and what’s next and with repurposing text than Ulysses.

Scrivener is also hands down the better app where writing has to be structured (e.g. for lyrics, poetry, books with illustration) on the page. You do not need text to be very “rich” when you are writing but trying to keep lines spaced and words positioned where you want them to be in a plain text editor is a nightmare.
Scrivener’s ability to compile your writing project into many types of “real documents” is excellent. Something this powerful and flexible has a learning curve and the compiler is complex, but you feel a focus on making your writing into a product. Scrivener is all about being productive.

I need to do all these things. I will use Scrivener for specific projects. Especially where they are complex and long enough where tools to help me structure, research and organise become important or where my text needs to be structured on the page as it is being written. I will use Ulysses to write, especially when it is a document that is in one piece. I often find myself generating text in Ulysses before it becomes a document in a Scrivener project, simply because of the simplicity of generating text anywhere without distractions before structuring and organising that text within a longer whole.

What About the Holy Wars?

The developers of Ulysses and Scrivener are opinionated. They have tenets of “faith” about writing that is part of the reason of the Holy Wars between their adherents.
Ulysses is built around a profound distinction between the text and its presentation. This reflects a powerful modern idea that informational content and the way in which that content may be expressed are, and should be, separated. Essentially, writing is text and, in this view, should not contain any presentational elements. Plain text can be purposed (e.g. laid out and styled) for print, various types of screen, audio readers, etc. without changing its meaning. (This view is often called “Semantics vs Style”.)

Scrivener is built around the idea of writing as a product. That is, the words are not complete in themselves but written in order to be presented. Content and presentation are not the same thing, but cannot be rigidly separated. To give a simple example, you write a novel to be read. It can be read in a variety of ways (different editions or ebook, audio or print), but it is still a novel. It is not a message. In this view, the original text benefits from being “rich” (e.g. having styled titles) because this is part of the content, as is the structure and organisation of the text.

I think they are both right and both wrong.

There is no such thing as plain text: not as a means of communication. Writing is for a purpose (however lofty or mundane). Conventions such as chapters, paragraphs and even things like margins, spacing and typefaces are integral to our experience when we are reading or writing. Putting a text into courier, with no paragraph spacing or indents and strictly left-aligned is presenting it. The medium is the message and pretending that they exist in isolation is not right.

At the same time, plain text purists are right that text and its presentation are not the same thing and it is important to handle each of them consciously and thoughtfully. The structure and organisation of our writing, and its presentation, is part of its meaning, but much presentation can be changed and writing can be repurposed flexibly without losing information.

Similarly, neither developer is perfect. Adopting their particular approaches has benefits and downsides, as does the way in which they do their development. I find neither company is particularly responsive to the needs of their users, but I am willing to buy and rent their software because it helps me do what I want to do.

I can understand why people want to make a choice. There is only so much time, money and learning you can afford to invest into software and trying to use two different apps for the same area of your work and interest may be too much. I’d love Scrivener to be more like Ulysses and vice versa so I could use one or the other exclusively. Maybe there’s someone now working on something much better than both, which might become my single writing system. Until that happens I am happy to use two apps, for overlapping but distinct writing tasks.

I will try to stay out of the Holy Wars and live at peace with both.