Ulysses, Revisited #amwriting

I am finding some value in Ulysses after all…

Yes, I’m kind of beginning to like Ulysses.

The last time I picked up Ulysses, I rejected it because of its non-standard Markdown (Markdown ‘XL’), and the fact that it saves its iCloud Library in One Big File(TM), thus giving the lie to its vaunted “plain text” basis. But it’s getting a bit daunting to manage my blog on Dropbox with a true plain text editor (Editorial for iOS and TextWrangler plus Marked 2 for Mac.)

So I picked it up again, renting it for $5 for a month. And I am cautiously pleased. It looks like I’ll be able to keep tags and categories as Ulysses keywords, which will make searching for the last time I pontificated on a certain subject easier. Its WordPress publishing capability is very good. And I can even do tables (not that I’ve ever put tables in my blog, but hey, you never know) by using its “raw code” capability:

This is the source of a Markdown table:

| This  | is   | a  |
| :-    | :-   | :- |
| table | with | 3  |
| rows            |||

This is the result of putting that Markdown source into raw code blocks and uploading to WordPress:

This is a
table with 3
rows

Not bad. The only thing the other Markdown editors do to make tables easier is put up that grid of pipes (the vertical bars) and alignment indicators (the colons and hyphens.) I can build a table in another of my numerous Markdown editors if I need one and paste it in.

I’m not going to switch to novel writing in Ulysses. There’s far too much that Scrivener includes that Ulysses doesn’t (compilation, index cards, folders that are also text files, the ability to split my writing into the tiniest possible increments, and so forth.) Where would I put my beats? My chapter cards? Oh, yes, now that Aeon Timeline 2 (AT) syncs with Ulysses, all that stuff can be kept in AT and will live in notes in my Ulysses project, but there’s no corkboard (!) in that workflow. Not OK. I’d be reduced to planning everything in advance, because I really can’t get that info into a place I can play with it during production.

And as for Ulysses being less distracting, bullpucky. There is not now nor will there ever be a piece of software that makes it the least bit difficult for me to become distracted.

So the question is: Does Ulysses have enough utility to me as a blogging tool, to keep renting it for $5 US per month (or $40 US per year)? That’s a question I haven’t answered yet. The answer depends, in part, on my investigation of the Setapp Mac software subscription service. I’ve started the 30-day free trial–and will report back soon.

The Great Blogging Tool Quest of 2016 (Editorial wins!) #amwriting

Editorial for iOS
Editorial is my iOS blogging tool-of-choice

I have nearly 250 posts on this blog. At a rate of about one post per week, that’s more than four years of posts. Until recently, I’ve used the WordPress browser-based editor to create my articles. Easy-peasy, and the iOS WordPress apps have allowed me to compose and niggle at my posts on the go.

Until I accidentally deleted a post, that is.

It wasn’t a great post. It was from about two years ago, and embarrassingly snarky. But there it was, or rather it wasn’t; I deleted it by mistake and had no backup.

I’ve therefore been playing with various offline blogging tools for the past six weeks, in addition to recording my iOS Scrivener workarounds and writing fiction. (Yes, I have been writing fiction. Honest.) I’ve been looking for tools that meet the following criteria (in rough order of their importance to me):

  1. Posts are stored on Dropbox or other cloud service (Google?) in a format that will let me change tools at will—preferably a widely-used dialect of Markdown. PHP Markdown Extra (used by WordPress) would be ideal, but MultiMarkdown would work for me, too.
  2. The tool set enables me to work both on my MacBook Air and on my iOS devices.
  3. These tools let me have the kind of control over post format that I’ve enjoyed with the WP classic browser tools.
  4. The tools help me keep my posts and research material, such as it is, organized.
  5. The tool set permits me to publish directly to WordPress.
  6. Said tools are dead cheap.

I haven’t been able to meet all six criteria, but I’ve come close. All but four of the tools I investigated were ones I’d already had on hand because of iOS Scrivener investigations. Three of those had free trials available.

For editing and publication on the iOS side, I’m using Editorial. This app is one of the best $10 USD I’ve ever spent. I haven’t been able to get it to upload graphics yet1, but posting Markdown to WordPress is one of the many Python scripts available for this expandable wonder. Since it publishes Markdown, once I get my image set up the way I like, it stays that way. It’s not perfect; it’s not compatible with any cloud service except Dropbox, and it doesn’t support iOS 9.x multitasking. Still, it serves my persnickety purposes.

For storage, I’m using Dropbox (free level). It’s all Editorial uses, but it’s already well-integrated into my workflow so it’s no hassle.

For a research database, I’m using Evernote (premium level). It still has the virtues that first recommended it to me: It’s available everywhere, it searches everything it’s got, and it accepts an astonishing variety of input. I use it for everything else; why not this?

For editing and publication on the Mac side, I’m using TextWrangler (free), Marked 2 ($9.99 USD), and copy-and-paste to the WordPress browser editor. Oh, well. Most of my blogging is done on the iPad, anyway.

For the record, here are the tools I tried and rejected:

  • iA Writer. iA Writer insists on translating Markdown into HTML before publishing to WordPress. This means I can’t use WordPress’s proprietary shortcodes (which look like Markdown, but aren’t.) The HTML translator chokes on the stuff, so I have to go into the WordPress editor at least twice to get my images to display the way I want. If I weren’t so picky about how my images are displayed, I might have been able to use it, but—I am picky. Very picky. My tools have to deal with that.
  • Byword. Yeah, I spent the $10 USD to check this out. See iA Writer.
  • Blogo. Fails criterion 1 above. In its free version, it is merely an alternative to the WordPress app or browser editor. In its subscription version, it’s more oriented to the writer who has many blogs to update. It uses its own proprietary cloud service, and saves only a limited number of posts. To be fair, it’s not intended as an archive, but as “One app to blog them all.”
  • MarsEdit. Another “One app to blog them all.” This one is Mac-only. It doesn’t meet criterion 1, either.
  • Scrivener. Yes, there is a writing task for which I find Scrivener unsuited. Try not to faint. Some of the folks on the Scrivener forums had used it for blogging with success. So I tried it, but getting my posts out of Scrivener’s native rich text format and into WordPress.com while satisfying criterion 1 was an exercise in frustration. To be fair, Literature and Latte have never claimed Scrivener to be blogging software, and have neither WordPress publication now nor plans to add it in future. Besides, using Scrivener for a blog post—even with 240 other blog posts recorded—feels like swatting a fly with a cannon.
  • Ulysses. Ulysses (demo for Mac) is closest to what I really want in an offline blog editor—closer than the solution I chose. It uploads graphics but doesn’t do captions or alignment, so I would still have to tweak with image display, but at least Ulysses wouldn’t sabotage my efforts afterwards. I rejected it partly on its closed iCloud storage format (its Dropbox integration doesn’t have the features I want), partly on my intense dislike of its proprietary Markdown dialect, but mostly on its comparatively hefty price tag. I don’t need to sink $70 USD into yet another long-form writing solution—which also feels like swatting a fly with a cannon. Besides, despite its “distraction-free environment” I tinker with its interface even more than I do with Scrivener’s.

  1. In order to do my images the way I want (uploaded with captions, alignment, and other metadata, with the WordPress identifier as well as full display code returned), well, heck. I might even do what I swore never to do again, and learn Yet Another Programming Language (Python). Probably not, though.