Ulysses, Byword, and “Just Right”

My own killer Markdown app is still unwritten.

March 26, 2016Filed under tech#design#software development#writingMarkdown source

I’m trying out Ulysses again, as it’s been updated substantially since I last used it. I think the main thing to say about it is that it’s gorgeous and a really great editor, and that there is nonetheless something about it which makes it feel not quite as fluid as Byword always has.

Neither of them quite nails it for my purposes, though:

  • Neither is quite there for text that includes a lot of code samples. (Basically: neither supports the GitHub variations on Markdown, which are incredibly important for a lot of my writing
  • Neither has the ability to do things like autocompletion of citations from something like BibLatex. (No standalone app does, to my knowledge.)
  • Ulysses’ most powerful features only work in its iCloud bucket. And they’re not standard: rather than embracing CriticMarkup for comments, they have their own. The same is true of e.g. their code blocks.
  • Ulysses converts any other Markdown documents to its own custom variant when you open them. Had those documents formatted a way you liked (e.g. with specific kinds of link or footnote formatting)? Don’t expect them to still be that way.
  • Byword really does one thing well: opening and writing single documents. It does this extremely well, but it also has none of the library management that is useful for larger projects.

Both of these apps are really wonderful in many ways, and I think it’s fair to say that they’re perfect for many writers. My wife, for example, does nearly all her fiction writing in Ulysses; it works wonderfully for her. But for the kinds of writing I do—usually technical in one way or another—it is limited in its utility. That’s not really a critique of the apps. It’s more the recognition that I have some pretty unusual requirements of my writing apps.

That said, I don’t think I’m the only person out there who has these particular needs. I am, for example, hardly the only person working with citations and academic text, or writing Markup with lots of code samples in it. And as much as you can bend general-purpose text editors like Atom to your will,1 it’s not the same as a dedicated writing app that focuses—in the ways that Ulysses and Byword both do—on just being a great tool for writing. Writing and writing code are not the same, after all. A tool that’s really well-optimized for the latter isn’t necessarily well-optimized for the former.

Keep your ears open. You might just be hearing more about this in the future.


  1. Trust me, I have: I have Zen mode installed, a custom Byword-like theme I use when I just want to write, and even a citation autocompletion package integrated with it. It’s not bad. But I still don’t love it as a first-choice writing tool.