How to Write a Novel in Ulysses on iPadOS

Writing a book, whether fiction or fact, is a difficult and daunting task, and it makes sense to use all the tools at your disposal to make the job easier.

While traditional word processors have always been a popular choice, we now have apps more suited to large and complex writing projects, and one of the prime examples is Ulysses.

Ulysses (opens in a new tab) is a Reduction (opens in a new tab) writing environment, meaning you write in plain text, using simple punctuation to apply styling. The syntax will be familiar to almost anyone who has written a text message or a tweet; for example, you can surround a sentence with underscores to emphasize it, use double asterisks for bold, or use hyphens to create a bulleted list. Ulysses also offers commands to apply the style for you, but it’s all easy to learn.

The app works on macOS, iPadOS, and iOS, with all your writing synced automatically via iCloud. It is available on the App store (opens in a new tab) as a monthly or annual subscription, priced at $5.99 / £4.99 / AU$6.49. Backups are also automatic, and you can take additional snapshots at any time. Although Ulysses is subscription-based and regularly enhanced with new features, it has a free trial available on all supported platforms.

Organizing your writing

Ulysses Library view in iPadOS

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With a word processor you can have one big file for an entire text, but in Ulysses you can work much more flexibly. Ulysses has a unified master library of all your work, made up of groups and sheets. Groups are like folders, which can be nested, and sheets are single documents that can exist anywhere in the group hierarchy. There’s also a special type of group called a filter, which resembles a smart folder: a group whose content is dynamically updated based on conditions you specify.

You can mark any sheet as a material sheet, which means it won’t be included in the word count and won’t be exported when you save your work in another format. Material sheets are ideal for reference information, character profiles, location details, and your planning documents such as plot outlines. You can – and should – create groups to hold this information too, separate from your actual manuscript.

A smart tactic is to use one sheet per scene or at least one sheet per chapter of your book. This lets you work on smaller chunks at a time, makes it easier to rearrange parts of the text later, and also makes it easier for you to keep track of what’s going on using some of Ulysses’ other features. You can even “glue” multiple sheets together, ensuring that these sheets behave as a unified document when editing or exporting them.

Use keywords to track story elements

Ulysses Keyword Feature in iPadOS

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Ulysses offers color-coded keywords that you can create and apply to any of your sheets. The keywords will appear in the groups list, giving an overview of the aspect of your book that you use to signify the keywords.

For example, scenes written from the perspective of a particular character (like the protagonist) might have a certain keyword applied, and another for the antagonist. This will let you quickly and easily see the flow and balance of the narrative, and you’ll know if you’re spending too much time with a character.

The same technique can be used to annotate scenes of conflict, location changes, particular plot arcs, and just about anything else. Tags are also useful for tracking the status of a particular sheet, such as first draft, revised, or finished.

Managing TK Tasks Using Filters

Ulysses Keyword Feature in iPadOS

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One of the worst things you can do when writing is to break your focus or flow. For this reason, writers often like to create what’s called a TK (often also called a To Come) when they realize they need to pick something up or insert something later.

The idea is that you quickly insert a TK – which is usually literally the letters TK, on ​​their own – where you know you need to come back later and fill something in, then keep writing. The letters TK are used because they rarely appear in English, so it’s easy to search for this sequence of characters and not get false positives.

Ulysses also supports several types of Markdown highlights, for adding inline notes to your writing, and since Markdown is all plain text, you can then search for them later. Better yet, create a filter which, as mentioned above, is a kind of smart folder. Choose criteria for the filter, which will find your annotations or TK, and you will have an always up-to-date list of what still needs attention in your book.

Proofreading and editing

Ulysses Keyword Feature in iPadOS

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Ulysses has various tools to help you check your writing, including spell check, word count and statistics, as well as advanced text checking using an online service (at no additional cost) , which also checks for grammar and consistency.

There is a dedicated review mode for this purpose, and you can also view each sheet’s annotations, the auto-generated structural outline, and any attachments such as notes or images you’ve added.

Editor view typography can be quickly changed on the fly without needing to go to the main app settings screen, allowing you to change the layout to help proofread your work and spot errors.

Creation of ebooks and paperbacks

Ulysses export feature in iPadOS

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In addition to exporting in various text formats, such as HTML, or as a Word document, Ulysses also allows publishing to WordPress and Medium, and generating PDFs and ePubs. These formats are all controlled by export styles, of which there are dozens available for free on the Ulysses Style Swap (opens in a new tab) website.

Your writing can become a screenplay or poem, a print-ready paperback interior, or an ePub file ready for upload to the Kindle Store, Apple Books, and elsewhere. Export styles can be previewed online and installed with one click, using Ulysses on any platform, and your installed styles will also be synced via iCloud.

If you are looking to publish a novel or a collection of stories as ebooks and paperbacks, check out the two matching styles called Roman Gemmel (opens in a new tab) on the style exchange. You’ll also find a long list of editor color schemes there, to customize your writing environment to your liking.

From writing the first word of the first chapter to producing a finished book in multiple formats, Ulysses can help you do it all, no matter which Apple devices you prefer to work on. The story you want to tell, however, is up to you.

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