Organising Writing with Ulysses

It’s time to talk about tools: I’ve been using Ulysses for all my writing for a few months, after seeing multiple recommendations and, well, never really loving the much-loved Scrivener.

If you want a basic rundown, because there are lots of tutorials and testimonials on the app’s site and elsewhere:

  • Plain-text composition with Markdown / Extended-Markdown syntax
  • Individual ‘unit’ of text is a “Sheet”
  • Sheets can be collected into Groups
  • Groups can be nested inside one another, creating a hierarchy
  • You can set word-count goals, filter, and search at any level of that hierarchy, including at the Sheet level
  • Syncs between macOS & iOS
  • Keeps incremental backups
  • Built-in support for quickly exporting text in a variety of formats, one-click publishing to WordPress or Medium

Okay. I’m going to talk about using this app for everything I want to write down, whether notes or stories. The big thing for me has been developing my hierarchy of Groups.


Here’s where I’ve landed, so far: I have a top-level “Fiction” group, and I’ll get into that in a minute. Next to it sits “Craft of Story”, which is for this blog. That’s divided into three sub-groups: “Ideaphile” (I’ve been calling my drop-box for ideas by that name for ages, and I’m quite proud of the pun, thank you very much), “Draft”, and “Polish and Publish”.

That third one doesn’t get much use, and I might bin it: once I take an idea from Ideaphile and move it to Drafts, that’s when I write the post. Once I go back to the draft to polish it, I usually just do one editing pass and then immediately move it to Published (see below), so it doesn’t seem like I need a whole group that will probably only have one thing in it at a time.

Then again, I am still trying to get my editorial calendar up and running (so I’m not always writing the thing I’ll post, deciding what it is, on the day I want to make a post… i.e. what I’m doing right now) so there might be something to drafting a bunch of posts and then leaving them enqueued to be polished and published…

Tracking Published Words

Back at the top level, I have a “Published” group. Under that, “Published in 2018”; I’m going to have groups for each year because I want to track how many words I’ve put into the world each year, not just how many words written (there are too many different ways to track how many words you write—per hour, per day, per project—it doesn’t lend itself to one master collection. Words Published is simpler that way).


Now, a Fiction group serves as the root for fiction, both long and short. Inside Fiction I have another Ideaphile group. This is for all fiction-related ideas that haven’t yet become a project. Each project gets a Group. I haven’t done much short fiction lately, that might just get a single group for all such stories, but anything where I think it’ll have multiple chapters and have some character and world-building sheets, that gets its own Group, with an appropriate icon (because let’s have some fun).


In order to avoid over-complicating things1, I usually just dump sheets directly into a project’s group without creating sub-groups, at first. Once I start having lots of sheets of different kinds, then I’ll create appropriate sub-groups. For a novel, I’ve been following the structure outlined by my writing coach Joe Nassise in his Story Engines course, so I’ll create a group called “Scenes” that’s broken down into “Preparation Phase”, “Reactive Phase”, “Proactive Phase”, and “Conclusion Phase”, and then as I brainstorm scene ideas, I chuck them into the appropriate bucket. This makes it quite easy to see how the novel is shaping up and where I need to solidify and generate more ideas, before I’ve even started writing the draft.

Monitoring Progress

If you click a group in Ulysses, the sheets in that group are listed underneath headers for their own sub-groups. So you can get a high-level visual indicator of which groups have a lot of sheets and which don’t. Then, you can right-click the group in the group list and select Statistics, and it will show you the number of sheets in the group. So if I see that my Preparation Phase has 20 sheets but my Conclusion Phase only has 5, I know I need to do some more thinking and planning / brainstorming for the end of the book.

Still talking novels: alongside Scenes, I’ll create groups for Characters and Settings. Those will of course contain sheets that describe each important character and place as I have ideas about them. I do a lot of free-writing here. Whatever ideas for characters and places don’t come to me in the shower usually come by creating a sheet with the header “Sidekick – Talking Turtle” and then just cranking out words until a sketch of the character takes shape.

Now, then. I’ve started drafting a couple aborted novels, and will be starting one again soon (this one’s getting finished!) My plan there is to create a Draft sub-group, copy in scenes from the Scenes group, or just pin a scene in a separate window for reference, and then create a sheet in the Draft group for the actual writing. Once I have scenes drafted, I can easily move them around and combine them into chapters. The Draft group contains the thing that will eventually get edited and produced and published.

I’ll revisit that last bit once I’ve actually written the thing, because I’m sure my techniques will change in practice.

  1. I can see you rolling your eyes over there, quit it.