Crowded Space for Academic Markup


The space for competition between different apps is extremely crowded and it is crowded with high-quality stuff. All, basically, want to do the same and promise you to address the central needs and all do it, but differently. Sometimes only slightly but nevertheless the little differences can throw you into despair and confusion. I have been fiddling around with iA Writer, Scrivener, Ulysses, MultiMarkdown Composer to mention only the ones which I am still using. All of them are in their very special ways excellent and impressive and I can only be full of admiration of their developers’ skills. However, when it comes to the crunch each of them lacks what the other can do. (Nice logical monkey bar.)

I have ended up scrutinizing my own most important needs and I was saved by the brilliant idea to reduce my expectations to the bare minimum. Everything else has to be done as an extra, from “outside” and with a different application. This cleared the fog and turned out quite simple. What I need or want is footnotes, citations, bibliography and then export to RTF or docx. Furthermore the ideal app must offer a file management system which keeps all my writings under one roof and, perhaps most importantly, synchronized between all my devices. This means, the app should work perfectly on my desktop and on all my other mobile devices. Here the list of steps in my “academic” writing :

  1. All 4 apps offer what I need. Straight forward markup writing with all the essential tags.
  2. Ulysses, however, replaces the command for footnotes with its own proprietary tag – unnecessarily, in my opinion, and creating conflicts with other applications. Ulysses also has its own way of handling citations and again forces one into its own system.
  3. I use Bookends as my bibliographical reference app. Copy /paste or drag / drop works perfectly, provided the markup app follows the basic rules of tagging. (This is where Ulysses creates conflict.)
  4. I work with Mellel – in my opinion the best word processor ever made for Mac and totally superior to Word or others – and Mellel serves for exporting the document in whatever format I need. (Basically, plain text, RTF, docx and ePub.)
  5. Mellel performs “convert text to citations” and “scan document” flawlessly, provided the text follows established non-proprietary tags for markdown.

Who then comes out on top? Who does it without the need to study the manual or tweaking bits and pieces? I would say that iA Writer is closest to my ideal. However, it lacks, in my opinion, the elegant and very transparent power of Ulysses’s file management system. Having all my documents under one roof and at the same time fully synchronized with iCloud and amongst all my desktop computers and mobile devices is pure genius.

Yes, one can just combine different systems and use all the apps. (In the end very prone to confusion and mess.) I have one big hope: That the developers of Ulysses decide to clean up their citation routine and perhaps give me back the very simply tagging for footnotes established by MultiMarkdown.

I am adding here a short text illustrating the different steps of my work flow. (I leave out everything about headings and emphasis and lists because this is all identical in all the applications).

This first sentence ends with a footnote, using as tag [^footnote]. This established tag is easy and once learnt becomes second nature for typing.
The second paragraph embeds a quotation by using \shift->

this is the quotation.

In this paragraph I insert a citation of a book by William Faulkner (Faulkner, 2010) by simply pulling the citation from Bookends into this text. While this works in iA Writer, Ulysses requires extra steps using the command from the menu which adds confusingly one \{ bracket which needs a second one \} at the end to close the citation.
After exporting this text as docx to Mellel, Mellel converts and scans it without any problems and adds a bibliography at the bottom. From Mellel this text can be exported to all the relevant important formats.

To sum up: While Scrivener and MultiMarkdown Composer satisfy all my needs, they require a lot of extra learning and tweaking and fine-tuning for one’s needs. My ideal of basic academic writing in Markdown is best implemented by iA Writer. iA Writer leads here the way, but misses out on all the goodies Ulysses offers in relation to the management and synchronization of all the documents. Mellel is my undisputed favourite for all post-markdown editing and formatting.

What about image and video in Markdown? For the time being I am happy to do that from inside WordPress which is my main outlet for publishing documents. (Ulysses has its own version to do image and video trying to work around inherent complexities of  MultiMarkdown when it comes to pics and video.) Video for example is easy to embed by link \[…] .

Enjoy the musical example by Happy Depression: Crowded Space,

Faulkner, W. (2010). As I Lay Dying. W. W. Norton.