The Problem of Blogging, Solved!

In my last post I laid out my requirements for a blogging tool. I said:

Bottom-line. I wanted a solution that would let me compose blog posts off-line, using whatever hardware I had to hand; would let me move from device to device as convenience dictated; would keep the posts resident in one place on my local machine; and would streamline the posting process.

My current favored solution is a tool called Ulysses, which you can see in the screen shot at the top of the page. Ulysses is a tool for getting your words down, and then getting them where they need to go.

Let's start by taking a quick look at the default window layout (pictured above), which shows three columns. The first column displays a tree of folders that you use to organize your work. You can define any set of folders you like. As you can see, I've got a Blog Posts folder that contains a Zymurgia House folder, which in turn contains folders for the different categories of blog post I write. The middle column contains a list of the documents (Ulysses calls them sheets) in the current folder and its subfolders; and the third column contains the text of the current document.

To begin a new post, I select the Zymurgia House folder and press the new document icon on the toolbar; and then I just start typing. Once I've finished the post, I drag it from the Zymurgia House folder to the appropriate category folder for safe-keeping; and I can easily copy and paste the content into WordPress.

Ulysses and My Requirements

So, how does Ulysses stack up against my requirements? Let's take them one at a time.

Access. Ulysses has versions for OSX and iOS (sorry, Windows users), and it syncs your data between your devices over iCloud. I've written posts on my desktop, my laptop, and my iPad, and they all sync up perfectly well. iCloud is not DropBox, which I much prefer, but it gets the job done. Consequently, I can work anywhere, and move seamlessly from one machine to another. (You can also sync to an external folder, which might be in your DropBox, but there are limitations so I haven't tried that yet. And if you don't like iCloud syncing, you can turn that off and just keep your files locally.)

Offline Composition. Yeah, got that. I can write whether I've got a network connection or not, and let Ulysses sync things up later.

On-Site Backup. Ulysses stores your documents to your local disk, as well as to iCloud; and it stores them as plain text files. You have to know where to find them, mind you; the information is in the Ulysses FAQ. So even if iCloud went away, I'd still have my files; and because they are plain text files I'll always be able to read them. And since your documents are synced via iCloud, you also get off-site backup as well.

No Formatting Fix-ups When Posting. And here's where Ulysses really shines. Ulysses saves your documents in a text format called Markdown. It's a simple format, easily learned, which lets you add formatted headings, boldface, italics, hyperlinks, and so forth to a plain text document. If you've ever used a Wiki, it's basically a kind of wiki markup. It's intended to be both easy and pleasant to read, and easy and pleasant to type. (Actually, Ulysses supports several markup styles; the default is something called Markdown XL.)

For example, to make something bold you enclose it in double-asterisks. To put something in italics, you enclose it in underscores.

This is **bold** and this is _underlined_.

But Ulysses is more than just a fancy text editor. You can enter bold and italics using these special characters, or you can use the usual command keys you'd use in Word or most other programs. Ulysses displays both the special characters, and the style you asked for, as you can see in the screen shot.

Because it's using Markdown, Ulysses can easily convert your prose to a wide variety of formats, including plain text, HTML, Word, and ePub format (used by e-readers). You click the "export" button on the toolbar, and it will export the desired format. More than that, it can export it in a number of ways: to a disk file, in another application, or (my preferred approach) directly to the clipboard.

Uploading a Blog Post

When I finish this post, I will upload it to the blog as follows:

  1. Press the Export button in the toolbar. Select HTML from the pulldown, and press the "Copy to Clipboard" button.
  2. Open the WordPress dashboard in my browser, and create a New Post.
  3. Select the "Text" tab rather than the "Visual" tab in the WordPress editor.
  4. Paste the post.
  5. Cut and paste the post's title into the Title field.

As far as formatting fix-up goes, #5 is the only step. And in my normal usage, HTML is always already selected in step #1, and the "Text" tab is always already selected in step #3. I get my text into WordPress without about four clicks of the mouse.

After that, of course, I need to set categories and tags and attach a featured image…but all of those are easier to do in the WordPress GUI, and they don't involve editing the body of the post.

Caveats

Ulysses isn't for everybody. First, it's an OSX/iOS app, which leaves out a lot of people. It's not free, either (though there's a free OSX demo you can try), though I find the cost to be worth it (and as a working programmer, I don't mind paying for a good tool; the workman is worth his wages). And, of course, you need to be willing to deal with Markdown. But given that, it's just about perfect for my current needs.

Other Features

The real point of Ulysses is to make it easier for you to get started writing. You've got an idea, you start Ulysses, you hit the "New Sheet" button, and start writing. Later, you can drag the sheet to whatever folder you like. But it's there, and you can find it again. You don't need to worry about where to save it or what to call the file, and because the formatting is so simple you don't get caught up in trivialities like playing with the header font. You just start writing.

You can work on your documents anywhere, with or without a 'Net; you've got both an on-site and off-site backup; and you can export your writing in most formats you're likely to need. What's not to like?

Update: Ulysses now exports directly to WordPress!