Drafts and Ulysses: a (very) quick comparison

I do everything on my phone including blogging, both the actual writing and posting.

I've been writing on my phones for years, always having the phone with me means that I can tap down thoughts as soon as they strike. But actually transferring that to the blog used to mean sending the text to myself and doing the backend tasks on a PC.

Improvements with both hardware and software mean that we can now be fully mobile bloggers without recourse to desktop operating systems and applications.

Since Automattic introduced native Markdown support for WordPress via the Jetpack plugin it has been easier than ever to write and publish. I recently took some time to rethink how I write, deciding to stop experimenting and focus on one app: Drafts 4.

I first used Drafts a few years ago before switching to Android for a couple of years (mainly due to the desire for a larger screen) so it was natural to come back to it after returning to the iPhone. It gives me almost everything I need.


My post on workflows was conflicted, torn between making the most of what I have versus alternatives. I wanted to examine exactly how I write and what I need.

In truth I need very little.

It might, therefore, seem somewhat contradictory to begin looking at another app, another workflow, but the opportunity to beta test Ulysses on my iPhone (with the inclusion of direct WordPress publishing) was too good to pass up. I had not, previously, been able to justify the cost of the app sight unseen so beta testing is a great way to "try before you buy" whilst providing useful feedback to the developers.

Why another app?

Writing in Markdown is so simple, it's just plain text after all; you don't even need a special app as long as you're familiar with the simple markup. So why the need to try multiple applications that do a very similar thing?

As I wrote, there is always the hope that a different app will contain a feature set which streamlines the process and makes life simpler. Most Markdown editors take a similar approach so what could a different app offer to sufficiently differentiate itself?

In this case, the prime draw is native WordPress support but I have also been impressed by the glowing reviews. Along with other apps (such as Byword) Ulysses already supports posting to Medium, since I decided to relaunch my blog and cross post this is no longer a key factor - an extra "nice to have."

Rather than write full reviews of both apps (this has been done more than adequately elsewhere ) I wanted to outline some of the areas that affect me as an end user, as a writer and compare the approaches taken by each.

Perhaps this is more for my own benefit, to search for the best workflow and decide where I am willing to compromise or not.

So let's get into it

Being text editors that excel when using Markdown, Drafts and Ulysses might seem to be very similar - there is a good amount of overlap between them - but they take different approaches to similar problems.

File management

Both apps adopt standard email nomenclature: Inbox, Trash and (in the case of Drafts) Archive, but how each handles this is different:

  • Drafts lets you create filters to view a set of files, e.g. different sections of a project. All files will be in the Inbox or Archive
  • Ulysses works on a more traditional folder structure you might see in an email application and items are moved explicitly to folders

Both approaches are perfectly adequate, although Drafts filters require you to add specific text to files if you want to be able to group them together in this way. Think of them as Search Folders in Outlook.

Section/paragraph organisation

When writing we are often working with brief ideas, parts of a whole that we expand and move around to achieve a best fit and flow. This is implemented in a fashion in both applications albeit in separate ways:

  • Drafts has an overview mode that lets you drag paragraphs around within a single file
  • Ulysses, instead, has you split the file into sections and arrange these instead within its folder structure

A combination of the two would be preferable. Ulysses' approach is obviously targeted towards larger blocks of text such as chapters. Dividing these larger sections would become unwieldy over time so the ability to easily reorganise paragraphs within them would be a welcome addition.

Drafts, on the other hand, would benefit from the manual sorting of files in a filter view providing users with true control over different parts of a project.

Commands and customisation

Both apps utilise an extended keyboard, an additional row of keys above the normal keyboard providing access to formatting, special keys, and other functionality beyond the simple act of typing. The approach each takes, however, is remarkably different:

  • Ulysses has a singular purpose: to enable you to write and the writing stays within the app. Although it can be used for anything, it is designed with longer works in mind. Because of this Ulysses feels much more structured (I deliberately don't want to use the word rigid as that might have negative connotations). All of the additional keys and formatting options are always available housed within the three function buttons on the extended keyboard. You can choose which markup variant you prefer, which in turn limits the available commands, but that is it.
  • Drafts, on the other hand, is designed as a textual starting point. You begin in Drafts but the aim is to move the text out to other apps depending on what you're writing. Notes, tweets, emails, reminders, anything; Drafts is built on flexibility and customisation. While it can be used as a self contained writing stage (and this is largely how I have been using it) this is not really where it shines.

Drafts v Ulysses extended keyboards

I deliberately wanted to outline these points before comparing the developer-written descriptions of the two products on the App Store:

  • Drafts, where text starts on iOS. Quickly capture text and send it almost anywhere!
  • Ulysses for iPhone and iPad is your one-stop writing environment on iOS.

The descriptions lay out their respective positions very succinctly. The interesting thing, however, it that because Drafts is so flexible it can be used as a one-stop writing environment with a little sacrifice whilst still being able to share shorter pieces of text with any other app that supports its methods.

Ulysses has a core purpose and, as such, is unable to replicate what Drafts can achieve due to this intentional lack of customisation, but that won't cause any sleepless nights for it's developers I'm sure.

Which is better?

When two applications approach a similar goal in such disparate ways it is incredibly hard to form an opinion on which is better, especially when they are not being used entirely to their strengths.

Simple, clean writing environments are now de rigueur, a distraction free experience essential. There is no help here for the indecisive.

Personal preferences normally count for so much. On this occasion, however, both apps are a pleasure to work with. Maybe it does come down to specific features like native posting support.

Oh, and before you ask, this post was written in Ulysses.