Note-taking with Ulysses: beside NValt and Byword

Following Csaba’s post on Ulysses, I have been trying it for over one month. Somewhat surprisingly, I have used it quite often. For example, for drafting  grading rules, evaluating research proposals, writing a report for an Academic Board, preparing a response to a reviewer of a publication, taking notes at oral exams, and summarizing ideas on an  website. I think Ulysses works very well for systematic, but not necessarily very creative, writing, especially if it has to be organized and/or  shared with others.

Ulysses has five features best suited for such tasks:

  • Colourful visualization of markdown (see picture); it may distract creative writing but it’s great for structured texts containing various elements;
  • Organization of sheets (notes) in hierarchical folders;
  • The possibility of navigating longer documents (pressing ⌘8 brings up a navigation window that allows you to jump to any Heading marked with # in the document);
  • Smooth naming of sheets: the title (the first line) of each sheet is also its name;
  • A great export function (just press ⌘6) to pdfs, Word, or email to share with others.
Example of editing with Ulysses

Editing window in Ulysses with various types of markdown syntax

These features differentiate Ulysses from both NValt and Byword. NValt is for taking very fast random notes on the fly. A smart naming system helps keeping NValt notes organized (e.g. display related notes next to each other) but on the other hand it takes certain effort to come up with the right names, especially for someone running many different projects. Of course, notes can also be searched by their content or even tags, but sometimes thinking of the right term may also be disruptive. Ulysses works better for organizing notes in folders so it’s much easier to see all related material together. Such organization is better for project (rather than reference) content. Ulysses interface is also better for writing longer and more complex texts than NValt. However, NValt remains irreplaceable for lighting-fast adding a short note without thinking twice.

The ability to organize sheets/notes also differentiates Ulysses from Byword. Byword is great for writing but it does not have any special features for organizing documents. Thus, it’s perfect for the first draft of an article or a blog post like this one (lots of writing, little organizing) and worse for keeping track of your feedback on students’ presentations.

My wishlist for Ulysses includes two things: (a) the ability to keep (or easily export/backup) all the content in some non-proprietary format (e.g. both NValt and Byword keep their documents as separate *.txt files) and (b) the ability to quickly search the sheets by their content (as in NValt). At the moment the latter is only possible through organizing a filter which seems to be a bit clumsy for such an easy task. Other than this I find it a great tool and thank Soulmen for developing it.

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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy at Central European University and Associate Professor of Lund University. He is also the coordinator of MESPOM, an Erasmus Mundus Masters course operated by six Universities in Europe and North America.
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5 Responses to Note-taking with Ulysses: beside NValt and Byword

  1. haedari says:

    I’m also using Ulysses just like you. On searching the sheet, I use “Spotlight”. It’s quick and easy.

  2. Michael says:

    re: maintaining content as .txt or .md files, this is from their FAQ (http://www.ulyssesapp.com/faq/#sync):

    > Click the plus button on the bottom left corner, hit “Add External Source…”, then select any folder in your Dropbox.

    This has been working really well for me.

    • Aleh Cherp says:

      Yes, I actually link to my NValt folder through “External Sources”. However external sources can’t be tagged in Ulysses and can’t contain attachments. But you’re right, one can just drag your sheets to External sources and they will be copied there (with some content loss).

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