Tag Archives: apps

Sorting Out How I Work With Plain Text

My cup runneth over with superb apps for writing, manipulating, and writing text on any Apple device; so much so that it’s hard to pick the one I want to work in right now. A nice problem to have, but still a problem. A post by @macdrifter published on New Year’s Day, Quick Notes with Sublime Text, prodded me think about this.

As a nerd plunked firmly in the “fiddly” class, at least I know one thing. After years of agonizing over which font I want to use and how big the margins should be, I committed a long time ago to working in plain text using Fletcher Penney’s MultiMarkdown (based on John Gruber’s Markdown). All of my files are synced using iCloud or Dropbox for ubiquitous access from my Mac, iPhone, and iPad mini.

On my Mac, most ideas start in Sublime Text 3. It is always open and one of the best text editors on the market (along with BBEdit, of course).1 A bonus to both text editors is the hot exit; all open files are saved and reopened the next time you launch the app. This alleviates my File Naming Anxiety Disorder (FNAD), an affliction that submitted for inclusion in DSM-6.

So from my Mac I may start quickly in Sublime Text, but at some point I freeze and wonder, “Is this really where I want to be working on this?” These are my top three options, all of which recognize variants of Markdown while curating their own unique strengths:

  • MultiMarkdown Composer — This application for writing in MultiMarkdown is designed by Fletcher Penney, the man who designed the markup language. What could be better?
  • Ulysses III — In my memory, Ulysses kicked off the plain text editing revolution on the Mac. The developers completely overhauled the design and it is beautiful (and dovetails perfectly into their iOS app Daedalus Touch).
  • Byword — Another popular app with many writers on the web, Byword’s designers built in capabilities to publish directly to WordPress and Tumblr.

All three are terrific. Though it’s a Mac application, Ulysses III works the most like an iOS app; open a new file, start typing, and it’s just saved somewhere in the app without irritating my FNAD. Byword and MultiMarkdown Composer (MMC) work with standard files that are saved in iCloud or Dropbox, respectively. MMC handles MultiMarkdown metadata better than the other two (as it should coming from the man who wrote the spec).

Another Can of Worms

This has so far focused on the Mac while ignoring two other platforms, the iPhone and iPad. I’m getting bored with this topic for now, so I’m just going to rip out a few points here.

  • Byword is available on all three platforms
  • Ulysses III, coupled with Daedulus Touch, is sort of available on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad.
  • MultiMarkdown Composer is Mac-only, but being plain text is available for easy editing on any device when synced with Dropbox.

Findings?

The whole purpose for writing this article is to sort through my options and determine a system that works best for me. I don’t think I am quite there yet. If you’re still reading and curious, I chose to write this article in MultiMarkdown Composer. When I nail down something that works for me, I’ll let you know.


  1. BBEdit is still my go to app for cleaning up and reformatting documents using Text Factories. My most common use case is copying the text of meeting agendas sent to me in MS Word, pasting into BBEdit, running a Text Factory that strips weird spaces and characters, converts to Markdown, which is exported into HTML to publish online. 

Maximize UI for Rdio & Simplify

When I’m in my Fortress of Solitude working on my Mac, it’s a safe bet Rdio (I’m ELBeavers in Rdioland) is feeding my brain a steady stream of rhythms and beats. Brett Terpstra made Sidecar13, a skin for a third-party Rdio controller called Simplify.

Sidecar13desktop

Sidecar13 provides a nice visual interface, but I can’t stand to have anything floating above all windows so I can’t see it in the background.

Then I thought about my shortcut to maximize windows, Keyboard Maestro macro that’s always a quick keystroke away.

First I considered created a Macro Group, but as far as I can tell that only makes actions available based on a selected apps availability. Knowing there had to be a way, I looked at the Maximize Window script again and added an if then else statement.

If Rdio is running, the Maximize… script zooms the front window to 1,116 × 786 (on my MacBook Air) ((This macro’s utility is limited to my screen’s dimensions, but with a little more work someone could tweak the macro to see what size screen it’s dealing with and act accordingly.)) and scoots the window 250 pixels from the left edge of the screen. This fills the space to the right while Brett’s beautiful Sidecar13 languishes gorgeous on the left.

Maximize window macro

Another couple of macros watch Rdio’s status. If it’s active, then Simplify is launched (if it wasn’t already). When Rdio quits, Simplify quits too. When those apps aren’t running, the Maximize Windows macro zooms to fill the entire screen.

2013 10 20 simplify

Check out the macros on Github or just go ahead and download them to use with Keyboard Maestro. Let me know if they’re as helpful for you as they are to me.

Labor Day

Labor Day for us meant our daughter came home for her first break from Valdosta State University, which was great. We miss her when she’s gone, which already kicked in after she left earlier today to return to campus.

We watched The Shining together; her first time. During the first half she was rolling her eyes. Second half? Scared out of her wits. She’ll carry that one around for a while. Hey, they don’t call it a psychological thriller for nothing.

On nerdier notes, I sorted out my text files and narrowed my iOS app use to Notesy for quick reference (though I’m still digging into Editorial). I also began migrating to the new Apple Affiliate program. When you click links to apps and make a purchase, you’re supporting this site.

You can learn more about me, this site, and click updated affiliate links on the About page.

Ulysses III brings something old, something new

Buy Ulysses III – The Soulmen GBR and support this site.

The Soul Men launched plain text editor Ulysses 10 years ago and introduced Mac users to the glory of a full-screen writing environment. I don't claim to know Merlin Mann's opinion about the latest release, but this is what he had to say on his site 43folders.com in 2004:

Ulysses is a text editor for writers. That’s it. It doesn’t make code, draw pictures of your kitty, or pop kettle corn. It just helps you plan, organize, track, and write your stuff in a way that I find entirely intuitive. Other document editors have a full-screen option–Scrivener1 springs to mind, I'm a fan–and the concept has infected Macs and iOS devices as full-screen design was embedded in the operating system. The developers of Ulysses have had ample time to reflect, refine, and redesign the writing environment.

New design for a new era

One of the concepts that made Ulysses unique from the beginning was the idea of semantic writing. Using a predefined set of textual cues, a simplified set similar to the HTML and CSS use to manage textual style on websites, allowed the writing to embolden, italicize, and otherwise enhance the style of their text completely within a plain-text environment.

Since the application's genesis, semantic writing has become relatively commonplace as more writers adopt John Gruber's Markdown, which is baked right into the app.2 The Soul Men also include “Markdown XL,” which augments Markdown with text-based editing marks to mark up a document with inline comments, annotations, or suggested deletions for yourself and collaborators.

By default, the blinking blue cursor is reminiscent of iA Writer for Mac OS X and iOS. The rigid standards required by Writer pushed me away, though I appreciate that app's resistance to my fiddly nature.3

iOS influence, iCloud done right

Well-placed popover windows peppered throughout Ulysses III attractively spice up the app with a flavor of iOS.4

Apple Pages and its ilk still freak me out a little when it offers an iCloud dialog box upon opening. Ulysses III eliminates any weird iCloud-Finder5 confusion by altogether skipping the dialog. Much like most iOS apps, users just open a new “sheet” and start writing. Those sheets may be organized with groups or filters.

The developers built in support for their iOS app, Daedalus Touch, as a natural extension to Ulysses III, though wordsmiths may also sync their work via Dropbox (affiliate link) and Box.com, or their own WebDAV server.

Write once, publish anywhere

Most of the words I write are slated for publication on the Web, yet who doesn't need to print every now and then. Ulysses III provides an attractive stylesheet for printing to actual gasp paper. (Print tip: limited options to adjust the fonts are available in the print dialog box).

Room for improvement

Autopairing items such as [], (), and "" would be helpful for writing in any flavor of Markdown (keyboard shortcuts exist for tasks, i.e. select a word or phrase and press ⌘-i to wrap it in asterisks or underscores for italics, ⌘-b for bold, etc.) and I'm fairly certain I'm not the only one who would like to see MultiMarkdown support rolled into Ulysses III.

The Soul Men encourage and welcome suggestions at the bottom of each page at their website:

There may be shortcomings, errors even, and you will have questions. We are anxiously awaiting your feedback, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Let us know how it fares. The Soul Men have done a lot of things right with their latest iteration of their premium writing application. Let them know how they're doing by email at support@the-soulmen.com and on Twitter as @ulyssesapp.


  1. Scrivener also enjoys cross platform support with versions for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. More information is available at literatureandlatte.com.
  2. I look forward hope the developers will expand to support Fletcher Penney's MultiMarkdown (fletcherpenney.net/multimarkdown), which enables writers to display attractive tables set in plain text and more.
  3. For writing apps, I waffle between Adobe Source Code Pro and Inconsolata (though I'm trying out Courier Prime as I write this review in Ulysses III).
  4. Apologies if my extended metaphor left a bad taste in your mouth.
  5. For the record, I prefer Path Finder.

Fantastical-esque BusyCal 2

Shawn Blanc mentioned that BusyCal 2:

“added a Fantastical-esque Menu Bar extra that lets you view your schedule and crate events quickly with natural language.”

I’ve had a BusyCal license for many years and switched to Fantastical in the past year. I have read nothing substantial about the latest version yet, and I’m sure it’s an awesome release, but Blanc’s description implies the upgrade is almost as good as another app. That does not encourage me to upgrade? If you need the full calendar “”experience,”” I can recommend BusyCal based on past performance. If you don’t need a full-screen app, then Fantastical is an awesome alternate and that’s what I will continue to use.