Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

writing big

The bigger your writing project, the less likely it is that you’ll find a writing environment that’s adequate to your needs. When you’re writing a book, you need to find some way to juggle research, ideas, notes, drafts, outlines ... which is hard to do.

As far as I know — I’d be happy to be corrected — the only product on the market that even tries to do all this in a single app is Scrivener, which many writers I know absolutely swear by. Me? I hate it. I freely acknowledge the irrationality of this hatred, but so it goes. I can objectively approve of the quality of an app and yet be frustrated by using it. I have the same visceral dislike of Evernote, though in that case sheer ugliness is the chief problem. But both Scrivener and Evernote are created by people who follow the more-features-the-better philosophy, and that’s one I am congenitally uncomfortable with. (The user manual for Scrivener is over 500 pages long.)

A few years ago I thought my answer for big projects might be Ulysses 2. I couldn’t put PDFs in it, but I didn't mind that because I like to annotate PDFs and you need a separate app to do that properly; and in other respects it had a lot going for it. I could write in plain text with Markdown, and could always have visible onscreen notes, or an outline, for the chapter I was working on and even, in a small pane on the left, the text of another chapter. Also, a Ulysses document was basically a package containing text and RTF files with some metadata — easy to unpack and open in other apps if necessary.

I liked Ulysses, but it tended to be unstable and some of its behavior was inconsistent (especially in exporting documents for printing or sending to others). I was pleased to learn that the makers were working on a updated version — but surprised when Ulysses III came out and proved to be a completely new application. And after I tried it out, surprise gave way to disappointment: essentially, it seems to me, it’s now an ordinary document-based text editor — an attractive one, to be sure, but not at all suited to the creation and management of major projects. As far as I can tell, you can replicate all the features of Ulysses III, except for its appearance, for free with TextWrangler and pandoc.

I use phrases like “it seems to me” and “as far as I can tell” because Ulysses III is getting some good press: see here and here and here and here. But these tend to focus on how the app looks, how well it syncs with iCloud, and its export options — not its status as an environment for organizing your writing, especially a project of any size. Ulysses III seems to me a nice app if you’re writing blog posts, but if you’re working on something big, it’s a significant step backwards from previous versions of the app.


  • It sounds like you want something that you can customize for your particular wishes. Have you considered taking matters into your own hands and using the programmable Emacs?

  • I have fiddled with emacs some over the years — really wanting to use org-mode more than anything else — but I just don't have the time to pursue it. It would take me quite a while to enable it to do what I need, if I could ever manage it, so I've waved goodbye to emacs.

  • Well, to each his own. I've never read the 438 manual, and I don't plan to. The video tutorials got me started. I don't use all of Scriveners features—I don't think anyone does—but they're there if you need or want them. I'm puzzled because it seems easy to ignore a feature if you don't like it. I like that I can keep just about everything in a writing project well organized and one click away in one file. When I want to get serious about writing, I just flip into full composition mode, and everything falls away leaving just my writing. Scrivener will be perfect when the iPad version comes out.

    I don't use Evernote either. It's an amazing program, but I prefer to do my organizing within Scrivener. I also use FileMaker.

    Anyway, good luck in your search for a program that fits your needs.

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