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Books Technology

One writing app to rule them all

There’s been a fun discussion on Twitter about the various kinds of writers, how they organise their workflow and what apps they use. This image has made a lot of us laugh.

Journalist workflow alignment text

The last option, “write directly into the CMS”, is listed under Chaotic Evil. And it is. If you’re a working writer and you have any choice, and I know not everybody does, don’t write directly into a content management system.

There are several reasons for that. The first and most important one is that if the CMS crashes, or something on your computer crashes, you may need to start all over again and you don’t have a backup. Whereas if like me you write first and then copy it to the CMS, a crash is only a minor irritation.

I had a conversation once with a younger colleague who clearly thought I was daft for writing locally and then going into the CMS. Just do it directly, he said, before the CMS crashed and wiped out his day’s work.

The risk of that happening is particularly important if, like me, you’re paid by the word. If you have to write the same article twice because the CMS crashed, you’ve effectively cut your hourly rate in half. With so much freelance writing barely making minimum wage in the first place, that’s potentially disastrous. Many of us are barely paid enough to write a piece once, never mind twice.

It also has an opportunity cost. For the financial reasons I’ve just mentioned freelancing these days is often about achieving a certain volume of work to pay the rent. That means your days are often very packed. There’s very little wiggle room there, so if you get your work done and then have to do it again that can have a knock-on effect on the rest of the day. It might mean not hitting your next deadline, or having to cancel social plans so that you can.

Another key consideration for freelance writers is that if you don’t have a local copy of your work, a problem with the CMS or the closure of that particular publication can mean you end up without any copies of anything you’ve done. In recent months several publications I’ve written for have closed down, but everything I’ve written for them is right here on my Mac.

Last but not least, if you work for multiple clients the likelihood that they’ll all use the same platforms and software is very small. Even individual departments of the same company use different things, so for example today I’m doing work for a publisher that uses a CMS but for a department that uses Google Docs instead. In a typical week I’ll write for a half dozen different clients, none of whom have the same submission requirements.

For me at, least, the solution is to use the same writing app for everything. I write almost everything in Ulysses, which then enables me to copy and paste into CMSes, export to Word format, PDF or rich text, paste formatted copy into email… you get the idea.

There are many apps that do what Ulysses do; I just happen to like the way Ulysses does it.

The benefits of doing everything in Ulysses is that the actual writing process never changes. There are no different CMSes to learn, no different interfaces to remember, no apps to relearn. The app I’m writing in always looks the same, works the same, uses the same keyboard shortcuts, displays the same fonts.

That matters because it means I waste exactly zero time trying to remember how anything works. 100% of my writing time is spent writing. When I’m finished I can then export the document in whatever format the client wants.

It also means I have an archive of everything I write for absolutely everybody, and that archive is all stored in the most widely supported format of all: plain text.

That’s because Ulysses enables me to use a writing language called Markdown, which is plain text with a few additional tags for things like links and formatting.

Here’s an example of how that looks when I’m working.

I press the hash key for a title, press it twice for a subtitle, type numbers at the beginning of lines for a numbered list and so on.

Plain text means the system requirements are tiny, performance is blazingly fast and I can search my entire archive instantly. I can also synchronise that entire archive with my phone, iPad and laptop so I’ve always got access to all of it.

CMSes are useful things, I know. But if you’re freelancing for lots of different people I think it’s worth taking the extra time – and it isn’t much extra time – to do everything in your favourite text editor first and then put it into the appropriate format or publishing platform. It’s a lesson I’ve learnt the hard way. I hope you don’t learn it the same way.