I’ve used Ulysses since it first came out, and it is my favourite writing tool. I love the way it lets you break down writing into smaller more manageable chunks, as well as its focus and typewriter modes and its ability to tag and organise your work. It can also publish straight to a WordPress blog or export into virtually any format you want, which is the icing on the cake.
The part that I don’t like is the way Ulysses stores your work. Yes, underneath everything, it’s Markdown. But it’s stored in iCloud, and the files aren’t exposed — they’re hidden inside a library. I have enough experience trying to get large amounts of content out of cryptic file stores to be wary of anything which complicates the file structure.
Case in point: Apple’s Photos app. The photos themselves are hidden inside a library. You can export them from Photos — Apple makes this commendably easy — but in practice, for a library of any size this kind of export is impossible. I tried exporting around 10,000 images, and after a while, Photos just crapped out. Perhaps that was unsurprising, given it had started to use around 80Gb of virtual memory (it’s a testament to Apple’s system design that it had gotten that far).
The last thing I want is my writing to suffer the same fate. My writing is probably even more important to me than my photos. I have often found inspiration in going back and finding old writing, reworking and polishing it, and publishing. I also use Ulysses for storing notes and what I call “fragments” — little notes usually from real life about places, people and things I see. Often these will end up in later work, which is really important. I don’t want to lose them to weird data corruption affecting an undocumented and obscure library.
Coupled with this, Ulysses is an Apple platform-only application. That’s fine if you want to use Mac, iPad and iPhone all the time, but that’s not how I tend to work. Since I bought my ThinkPad X1 Carbon last year, it has been my preferred laptop, running either Windows or Linux, because it combines good (matte) 14in screen, performance and battery life, and its fantastic keyboard. Going back to using my 16-in MacBook Pro after working on the ThinkPad is torture for my poor fingers.
I really want Ulysses, but working on any platform and using just plain Markdown files in a folder structure. The good thing is there is something which comes close to being exactly that: Obsidian.
Obsidian is best known for being part of the wave of personal knowledge management applications that allow you to use two-way linking between documents to create a knowledge graph based on what you read and write. However, it’s also possible to use it to create a simple but powerful writing environment.
Setting up for writing
Obsidian isn’t known for being a writing environment. It’s designed as a notetaking application, and out of the box that’s what it’s set up to do: text notes linked together with two-way links. Turning it into a replacement for Ulysses takes some setup.
The good news is that several people have gone down this path already. Curtis McHale has written and created YouTube videos on all the things you need to do to get Obsidian into shape as a writing environment, and the folks at The Sweet Setup have also trod this path.
You will want to install a few add-ons to make it work. I won’t go into how you enable third-party add-ons, as there are plenty of guides to doing this, but here are all the ones that I have found useful.
This is a great addon, still very much in beta, which recreates Scrivener and Ulysses’ ability to let you re-order scenes and then export them into a single draft. I’m sure there’s more to come from this plugin, but it’s already a lifesaver that makes it possible to use Obsidian for long-form writing.
Pandoc lets you export into various formats, including Word, PDF, and much more. You will need this if you send your work off to publishers or editors. You will need to install Pandoc on your computer first (sadly, it won’t work with mobile devices).
Templater lets you create templates which include variables. I use it to make templates for regular posts, such as the one for my weeknote, which includes the date in its title.
I love typewriter scrolling — it’s one of my favourite features of Ulysses. This keeps the line you’re typing in the middle of the screen rather than gradually moving down towards the bottom. This plugin also has a neat focus mode which greys out paragraphs you’re not working on, allowing you better focus.
This plug adds a sidebar which gives you a Pomodoro timer for your work and prompts you to keep writing. It’s a little bit annoying, but if you’re the kind of person (like me) who occasionally stops writing to stare into space, it will keep you on the right path.
One plugin I thought deeply about using was the one that offers integration with Readwise. I’ve been a Readwise user for quite a while, with all of my annotations, highlights and comments from applications like Kindle, Matter, Pocket and more going into it. It’s a great tool for storing all that kind of information. The plugin downloads all your notes in a handy format into a folder in your Obsidian vault.
Having all my highlights and notes from Readwise integrated into the application I write in is incredibly powerful. It means that all the quotes which I might refer to are easily found and linked to, and because Obsidian allows you to split the screen and use two documents at the same time you can easily refer to a note about a source while you are writing.
Can Obsidian really replace Ulysses? The initial signs are promising. Today, I have written over two thousand words and published a blog post which isn’t bad going. I’ll probably save this to publish another time, which means I will have another post in the bag.
The real test for me will be when I start writing fiction with it. So far, I have used Scrivener or Ulysses for my fiction: Obsidian could, in theory, replace both. It can also become where I put all those fragments of writing I mentioned. I’m certainly going to give it a go and see if it really works for me.