Designing the Ulysses Editor

Ulysses is intended to be a great tool for any kind of writing, equipped with elaborate organizing features and a powerful export function. However, the core piece of the app is the editor – the part where you, well, write. Minutes of a chat with Soulmen co-founder Max Seelemann.

Max Seelemann
Max Seelemann, cofounder of The Soulmen

How important is the editor for Ulysses as a whole? 

Well, Ulysses is a writing application. And while there must be features for organization and export, users spend most of their time writing – in the editor. The editor is clearly the most important of all parts, and using it needs to be the most pleasant experience. We placed the same emphasis on the editor during the creation of Ulysses: the overall development of the first version took about 18 months, and of that we spent almost one year on the editor alone.

Why did you go for plain text editing in the first place?

Many writers are eventually more productive using plain text. It is a bit like writing on a classic typewriter, or even writing on paper. You’re not distracted by anything – when there are no formatting options, you can focus entirely on your text.

The important thing about a text is the text itself – it’s not about how it looks or how it’s formatted. When you read a book, what’s most important is the text, the content, the story – not how the book looks. With plain text, there is no formatting, no distraction from the text, because there is just text. There is no second level of meaning. You can not make parts bold or italic. Plain text is straightforward in the very sense – what you see is “the thing” and there is nothing else.

When the most important thing you want to do in a writing application is focusing on writing text, plain text is the logical consequence.

Do you think writers out there know about the benefits of plain text writing?

I think relatively few people have even realized that there is choice regarding text editing environments. Most books and articles are still written using Word. And there’s nothing “wrong” with that per-se: You can certainly build a closet using a Swiss army knife, but using a set of screwdrivers and a hammer may yield better results in less time.

“The Right Writing Tool
May Dramatically Increase
Your Productivity”

The same is true for writing: the right tool can make all the difference and may dramatically increase your productivity. Like you don’t need a corkscrew and scissors to build a closet, you don’t need formatting or a second level of meaning for writing great texts. They may in fact rather stand in your way and distract you.

From time to time we get an email where an author thanks us for the new perspective and tells us how plain text editing increased his or her productivity.

But writers will not want to give up structural elements in their texts… 

They don’t have to! In almost every text there has to be some structure. You have headlines in articles, images in blog posts, emphasis on certain parts of the text, or a quote. There is a very very simple way of denoting such elements. In an email, you often write asterisks or underscores to emphasize a word. This is the way plain text or, rather, markup editing works: You can use two asterisks to mark a word as important or strong and use underscores to make emphasis. To denote a heading, use the hash mark #. Put one hash in front of the paragraph, then it is a heading; put two hashes, then it’s a subheading. Three hashes – a sub-subheading, and so on.

Why would writers prefer to do this instead of just using a bigger font for a heading, or set words they want to emphasize in italic, as it is done in normal word processors?

First, it is very easy to do. You just have to type a few characters, whereas in other editors you have to select text and press a button or select an option in a menu.

Second, it’s a different way of thinking about text. In traditional word processors, you set a text italic because you think italic is a good way to denote an emphasis. Or you format a paragraph bold and large because you think bold and large text makes a good heading. In contrast, when you write plain text, you mark a paragraph as a heading, and as as result it is displayed in a different way. You first define what it is, and from that is derived how it looks. Whereas in traditional word processors you define how it looks and from there it is derived what it is. The latter does not make much sense, and it is certainly more distracting. When you write, you know what it is anyway – why don’t you just say it by typing one single character?

There are many plain text editors on the market. What is so special about Ulysses?

When we developed Ulysses, we were looking at many plain text editors and markup languages. Headings or emphasis generally work great, but it doesn’t end there. Writers want to have images, footnotes or links in their texts. These are not handled very well by pretty much all the markup languages and editors we looked at. You always have to remember a rather complex syntax. We wanted to improve on that: Something as easy and immersive as plain text, but still with all the features of common markup languages.

“Easy as Plain Text, Feature-Rich as Common Markup Languages: This Is Plain Text Enhanced”

This idea was what eventually turned into Plain Text Enhanced, the engine behind the Ulysses editor. For example, you no longer need to remember the syntax of a link – you just get an input form with fields for the link’s URL and title. You’re no longer able to destroy a link or an annotation only by putting characters in wrong places. You are able to drag and drop image files to include them with your text. In similar ways you can attach videos, make annotations and add footnotes. These things tend to be quite complex to do with any other editor, but not with Ulysses.

Having no syntax for complex objects like links and images also tremendously increases the readability of your main text. But you can still easily access all included elements. For a footnote, all you see is a little bubble, and with a double-click on it you see the text of the footnote. In other editors you would have to scroll to the end of the document to see what is inside the footnote.

What’s more, the concept of objects and annotated text gives us great flexibility for future development. We are not limited to the options plain text is offering in regard to objects and object attributes. In an upcoming version of Ulysses, we will make use of this for the annotation of style classes on images when exported to HTML, for example.

When writing with Ulysses, text looks different than in traditional writing apps. Spend some words on the reason, please.

Making images, links and other objects easy to handle is just one aspect. When thinking about writing texts, one must not forget the reading aspect. You typically don’t start at the beginning of a text and finish at the end, you also spend a lot of time reworking and fine-tuning your words. Therefore, reading needs to be an equally as pleasant experience in any good editor as well.

“Reading Also Needs to Be a Pleasant Experience”

Most important in this regard is of course the appearance of the text. We spent a lot of time and energy on making words shine in Ulysses. There are colorful highlights for all text elements that make them easy to recognize. When you denote something as important, the text turns to a distinctive color like red, so you can easily see it. The editor also makes quite some use of indentation and outdentation. For example, headings are always outdented, they’re affixed to the left. So when you scroll through a document you can see: anytime the text outdents to the left, there must be a heading (or a comment, for what it’s worth). Lists indent to the right and have colored bullet points, so it is easy to see what they are and what belongs together.

As a close, could you try to put the Ulysses editor in only one sentence?

I’ll try to. Ulysses editor is, first and foremost, about plain text editing, because it is fast to use, very productive and lets you focus; second it is about making complex objects simple and straightforward to handle; and third it is about making your text look good, because writers also edit and read a lot. These are the three main pillars, and long live the semikolon.

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Rebekka Honeit

Blog-curating writing maniac and public relations person. Loves coffee, chocolate cookies and literature. Finds peace in tweaking press copy.