Ulysses vs. Scrivener

Hello! I was just wondering about the user experience between Ulysses and Scrivener. Are there any ex-Ulysses users out there that would care to share what made them switch over? I just found out about both Ulysses and Scrivener the other day. I’ve learned how to use Ulysses, but am now wondering about Scrivener because everyone is giving it such praise. I’m kind of stuck on the fence about which program to go with. I will be using the program to write essays for school, and hopefully an entry for NaNoWriMo in November. I really like how the community in Scrivener is so friendly and user-driven. I’ve taken to the interface of Ulysses well, but Scrivener also looks very compelling… price point aside, what advantages do you see in Scrivener over Ulysses?

Oh yes, and btw ,can anyone tell where the name “Scrivener” came from?

A quick search of the forums pulls up Keith’s own response regarding Ulysses:


And I think from memory he has commented on it more fully before as well, and you can probably find numerous other discussions if you search the forums (I suggest you limit it to Software by Other Folk to avoid finding discussion of the James Joyce novel).


The history of the development of Scrivener to which I refer in that post can be found here:


Even as the developer of Scrivener, I wouldn’t try to persuade you to buy Scrivener over Ulysses, as they are rather different and I like Ulysses - and its developers - a lot. I would suggest downloading the trial of Scrivener and seeing how you like it compared to Ulysses, then buy the one that fits the way you work.

The main differences - though this is a huge over-simplification - are as follows (at least, these are the main things that drove me to develop Scrivener rather than use Ulysses, even though I loved the design and feel of Ulysses and still do):

• Ulysses’ main editor is plain text (no bold, italics etc - you have to mark those up and they only become true rich text when exported); Scrivener is rich text (allowing bold, italics, indents, line spacing etc).
• Ulysses’ source list is not hierarchical (it is a flat list), whereas Scrivener’s allows you to group files into folders and so forth. However, I believe since Ulysses 1.5 you can group things in a different way - not represented as folders, but by assigning documents as part of a group or something. AmberV, if she is around, who uses both programs thoroughly, would be able to describe the difference better there.

Those are probably the two things that made me decide I wanted to develop my own tool rather than use Ulysses. Before I even discovered Ulysses, though, back when I was using a (shock horror) PC and had tried out writing programs on that, the things that I really wanted and that no other writing program offered - and which most writing programs other than Scrivener still don’t - are the following:

• A way of assigning synopses to individual documents within a project and then to be able to see those synopses separately on an outliner (or corkboard) so that you can get an overview of the project (or outline before you write).
• A way of viewing more than one document at the same time, for cross-reference.
• A way of viewing images or other reference material in one pane while having the text open in another pane.
• A way of viewing the individual documents as though they were one long document without permanently merging them.

Ulysses, on the other hand, allows for multiple notes to be associated with a single document, using an innovative collapsible notes system (with Scrivener, you just get a general notes area for each document). It also has various other differences which I’m less qualified to describe, and hopefully someone like AmberV will come along and clarify. If you haven’t done already, you may want to ask the same question on the Ulysses forums so that the developers there can explain the differences as they see them, too.

I think that sums up the main differences and the reasons I personally chose to develop Scrivener over using Ulysses. If you are more a plain text sort of guy, and if you really like Ulysses already, then you may wish to stick with it. Ulysses is definitely more streamlined and less cluttered (something I’m trying to remedy for 2.0 with Scrivener).

As for the name, “Scrivener”: a scrivener is anyone who writers (although it’s usually associated with the legal profession these days), and I chose it both because I like the antiquated sound of it and also because it is sometimes used in the self-deprecating phrase, “I’m a bit of a scrivener (in my spare time)”, which is a bashful way of saying that you like to write but fear that the person you are telling will think you are pretentious for it.

Hope that helps.
All the best,

I’ve been summoned repeatedly :wink:, so I’ll address a few points here. I do still use Ulysses for some projects. I’m a plain-text kind of a person, and everything that I write in Scrivener is going to end up as plain-text (through the MMD engine at any rate), so the rich text differential is of less interest to me, except in that it does allow a degree of what I refer to as format commentation. This is also true, to an extent, for rich text users of Scrivener, thanks to the compile reformat feature.

Yes, prior to version 1.5 everything was in a big list, though it could be sorted by type (or any other column, or manual sorting for that matter). Things are still in a big list, but if you click that little “zooming square” icon beside the filter feature, you can expand a second list of what could be referred to as a collection bin repository. By default you get “All” which is self-explanatory. It’s not immediately intuitive, but if you right-click on the “zooming square” thing, you can create new collections, filters, and groups. Collections are collections of documents, which can be assigned with drag an drop. When you add things to collections, they all get moved together in the main list.

So, as you can tell this is a bit like making a chapter. Documents associated with the chapter will all be grouped together and sorted independently from the main list, and by dragging Collections around amongst each other you can re-order chapters.

Groups cannot contain documents, but are strictly for holding Collections and Filters. Oh, and yes Filters are what they sound like: smart folders. Assign rules and they will collect documents automatically, this allows a form of dynamic chapter assignment, or just plain-old status searching for workflow purposes.

The neat thing is that all you have to do is click that zooming icon and it all goes away and returns to the flat list. So you get an articulated view when you need it, but can go back to a minimalist view if that is what you prefer.

One other point of distinction with Ulysses is that it makes projects which are composed of lots of publication points much easier. Scrivener has a pretty good facility for this. A common example would be a journalist or a blogger that would like to write multiple articles in one project so as to consolidate workflow and research. In Scrivener you can easily compile by hierarchy branch, and granted for most things that is good enough. Ulysses has a slightly different approach which allows a little more power in cross-axis selection.

That might sound complicated, but basically all it means is that what you see in the document list is what will get exported. If you are viewing the contents of a filter, that is what will get exported. This would be equivalent of say, compiling a saved search in Scrivener—something that isn’t possible. So there is a bit more power there.

But, it comes at the cost of being a bit weird. Once you get used to the Ulysses method of grouping it can be very efficient, but it does take some getting used to. You have to think in an entirely different way than “folders” and “hierarchy”. For simple cases it works well, but if you have sub-sub-sections as in many technical works, the Ulysses method can quickly get frustrating—at least in my experience. It’s better to just make sub-sections and sub-sub-sections within the document itself, using their syntax system (and it looks like the 2.0 release will dramatically improve this with the automatic bookmark by syntax feature, which looks like it will be similar to TextMate’s automatic table of contents when editing MMD documents).

Going back to what I use Ulysses for, it’s not for large projects. :slight_smile: I definitely prefer Scrivener for that. I like Ulysses for projects which are a bit more “nebulous” and might not even be technically “books” but rather clouds of information. I used to use it for short 10,000 word or less projects, but that is less frequent recently.

Actually these are both possible in Ulysses. It’s quite easy to do, just select more than one document in the source list. The preview windows below the source list will contain a combined view of the selected documents in the order that they appear in the source list. To make this more useful as a side-by-side reference, clicking the small double-arrow expansion button will expand the size of the text preview area. The second window allows you to preview document notes, project notes, and “Except” which is similar to Synopsis in Scrivener. Switch between these modes by clicking the small eyeball icon.

Keith is right though there is no way to view all of these Excerpts at once in a corkboard-like view which allows directly accessing the resource. As with above, when notes are visible they will be temporarily merged in the preview area. So you can actually see all of your excerpts at once, but in a single text view with no link to the original document it came from.

And while Ulysses can show other documents in the Preview area, it isn’t like Scrivener’s split window editing system. You do get tabs, which means you can rapidly jump between documents in a working session (something that can be emulated in Scrivener, but without the visual representation of tabs, using History), but the Ulysses split editor feature only works within one document. Which actually comes in awfully handy since the workflow in Ulysses tends to encourage the author to put larger amounts of text into a single document than in Scrivener, where things might get broken up quite a bit more. So there is a bit of a pro and con there. Some people are more comfortable with tabs and find the history function in Scrivener a little disorienting. One other thing that Ulysses makes easy is switching between these tabs in Full Screen. Again, Scrivener can emulate this with history, but it is slightly less intuitive.

The big fantastic important thing that Keith did not emphasise in the above statement is that Scrivener supports the editing of temporarily merged documents. Option-click on a branch of the outline and it looks like a single document with an alternative background. Edit away; dissolve the temporary merge; and all of those edits you made will already be made to the original documents. This is just not possible in Ulysses. You can rapidly view any number of documents all at once, but it’s preview only. You can select the text in the preview pane and copy and paste it into an editor session—but then you lose the original document assignments.

Hmm. Another pretty big difference is that Ulysses, while it autosaves just as aggressively as Scrivener, works in an open or closed way in regards to the documents themselves within the project. In Scrivener you just click on something and start typing then move on to the next thing. In Ulysses clicking on something just loads it into the Preview panes, you have to double-click to load it as a tab. As you type your progress will be auto-saved, but not committed to the original file yet. If you click on a file that is open in the editor tab and read the preview, you’ll note it is the old version. This can be quite useful for revision purposes as it allows you side-by-side access to the original version.

Scrivener’s version of this is slightly more pro-active. You have to tell Scrivener you want a milestone by taking a snapshot. At that point you can open the Snapshot window and leave it up beside the new revision. So you get the same features, but Ulysses handles the milestone concept automatically (and destroys it once you commit). Oh, and these uncommitted versions can be left open for years.

So that represents a different workflow.

I suppose the main difference is what Keith put in the first point: Semantic plain-text vs. Rich text. This is a huge topic, and there are schools of thought on each side with valid points. There are those that say the author shouldn’t have to mess with meaning, and those that say the author shouldn’t be messing with what a blockquote physically looks like at all.

Ulysses takes the latter philosophy. As the write you merely mark sections of text or paragraphs of text as being “something” and then later on that is turned into LaTeX or RTF formatting. Unless you are already familiar with the concept of semantic data it can be a little weird to indicate italic ranges with a symbol instead of just making it italic. The key argument in favour of the Ulysses system is that all your marking really means is “emphasise this”. How that ends up being emphasised is up to the output model. For an editor, bright red and underscored might be good for emphasis because they’ll pop out of the page. Obviously in a book, plain old italics is all the reader is going to want.

But, the difference between Ulysses and Scrivener is not quite so clear. Yes, while Scrivener was developed to provide for the rich text model (where italic means emphasis, as opposed to emphasis becomes italics), it also happens to have excellent integration with a very powerful and fully semantic export engine, MultiMarkdown. It’s included right in the distribution bundle, but can be installed in a separate folder and hacked extensively, essentially allowing Scrivener to become a fully programmable semantic editor. I’d say hardly anyone needs to take it that far, but some do, and having that ability there is quite nice for those that do.

Ulysses is programmable as well, but involves a higher amount of entry-level knowledge. You’d have to be able to write a Cocoa export module which can be installed in Ulysses. The barrier is such that I don’t know of any third-party export modules for Ulysses—but there is a number of export “modules” for MMD to supplement the 20 or so built-in methods. I’ve written a few myself in a few hours.

So it really isn’t fair to say that Ulysses is a semantic editor and Scrivener is an RTF editor. In truth, Ulysses is a purist semantic editor and Scrivener is both.

I’ve probably spent more time on that topic than you are interested in, but since that is one of the key philosophical points of Ulysses, I figured it deserved a little fair comparison.

So why do I still use Ulysses from time to time? One word: Interface. Don’t get me wrong, I think Scrivener has a lovely interface, but the Ulysses interface is more appealing to me. It’s deadly simple, doesn’t change much (biggest change is probably export mode, which is built into the interface rather than being another window), and is easy to navigate quickly with the keyboard. Some think it has too many little boxes (though some of these can be removed or minimised if preferred), but for some reason that has never bothered me. It’s probably a degree of “what I got used to”. It was the first real writer’s focussed application that I used like that, and so a lot of my writing habits have evolved out of early Ulysses. Part of it is hard to put into words. Ulysses, once you get comfortable with it, is a bit like an Apple laptop. It might have fewer ports than a PC, it might look a little spare and “dumbed down”, but once you’ve used an Apple laptop for a while, you grow to appreciate the simple lines and overall aesthetic.

But, as they say, the proof is in the pudding (and I’m rather fond of pudding). For every project I use Ulysses for, I probably write 80,000 words in Scrivener. That isn’t a recommendation, per se; just my experience. I’d have to say the same thing that Keith said. When it comes to writing, its the most comfortable fit that is important. The fewer layers between the software and your creativity, the better. And yes, also to repeat: visit their forums. The developers there are friendly and respond quickly to questions. Just don’t ask for italics. :wink:

Hi Keith. Thank you for your prompt reply. As it stands, I’m leaning more towards Ulysses, but there are certain features in Scrivener that I absolutely adore (such as the target word count button). I’ve also learned that Ulysses 2.0 will be released soon, so I’ll have to see how that compares as well. Truth be told, I just started becoming familiar with Scrivener’s interface, but will commit to writing my next couple essays using it to see how it handles in a real world situation. On the plus side, I see that the learning curve for Scrivener is much faster and your self-help documentation is top-notch. I’ll keep you guys posted on my findings.

I’ve made my comments on Ulysses public before on these forums, and you can see from the Ulysses forums the ire the software generates in some users, including myself. You don’t find that here on the forums, no one complains about lack of features or weird workflow etc. I switched from Ulysses to Scrivener because I was constantly struggling with Ulysses, having to work around its features and finding the software to be developer-led rather than writer-led. Some people (generally, it seems to me, the more technically minded) like Ulysses precisely because of the features I dislike - again discussion of this can be found elsewhere. As a writer, however, I cannot fault Scriv, whereas I can Uly.

Scriv is the first piece of software I have used consistently since finding it and I haven’t looked back.

The other thing Ulusses can’t compete on is price, unless they’ve chopped it in half.

Just my personal opinion, based on the way I like to work.


Wait, Amber, you weren’t supposed to persuade him that Ulysses was definitely the way to go! :smiley:

md23 - no problem. As I said before, choose whichever fits best, and you’re still welcome round these parts even if you don’t choose Scrivener, of course. :slight_smile:

All the best,

Thanks again. I can defiantly see myself spending more time here regardless of which program I choose to go with. I like the atmosphere. This forum is a great meeting place for writers and tech-savvy types to mingle and exchange ideas.

I like a man who defiantly sees himself, definitely.
Reminds me of that superb line in Back to the Future:
George: Lorraine, you are my density!

Woops! Good catch. I think I should turn my Auto-Correct off. . .

Once I took a job in sales, a very long time ago. I was fired two weeks later. Now you know why. :slight_smile:

You know, I opened up Ulysses for the first time in a while after reading your earlier post, and it reminded me of how wonderful the interface is - it is a beautiful design. But for us lesser mortals it’s best to stick to the Apple templates of Mail et al and play it safe, even though I fully admit to jealousy of the Ulysses interface. (Ha, now I’m being a poor salesman myself!)

I bet Amber hears this quite a bit.

I was actually referring to the great design by the Ulysses team, not to my Judas. :smiley:

Like Amber, I found U early on and so have it planted rather firmly in my writing system. More than anything else I’ve tried, it re-creates the simple “piece of paper in a typewriter” world in which I wrote for so many decades before word-processing was possible. (Early comparisons to “processed cheese” were not inapt.) And as Amber has described, U has capabilities which may escape notice by all but attentive users.

And – as I’ve probably noted elsewhere – U has a distinctive Germanic style, something between Bauhaus and BMW, which, if nothing else, amuses me.

All that said, Scr remains my number one tool, and I cannot imagine an upgrade to U which would change that.


Judas?!? You think mere sliver could cause her to betray you? I would think Peter would be better. Militant defender, quick to act, faithful until death with only a mere suggestive hint of disassociation.

Ok, this is getting a bit sacrilegious.

md23: Just to add, I saw your post on the Ulysses forum where you’ve got some very smart replies too, one of which remarks upon Ulysses’ pioneering of full screen mode - which is quite true. Ulysses was the first application to my knowledge to feature a full screen mode for text editing. Apple’s hubris about the great new “distraction free writing” full screen mode of Pages annoys me no end, given that they make it sound as though they are introducing something new when Ulysses brought that in - what? It must be seven years ago!
All the best,

Amber Iscariot. It really does have a nice ring to it, and I must say, more pleasing to mine ears than the ringing of silver.

Wait, you mean I have to pay you?

Hmm. Perhaps I shouldn’t give up my secret goal of going into sales!