Which is the best app for journalling — Ulysses, Day One, or Scrivener?
A detailed look at three digital journals, including my (unorthodox) ideas on usability and long-term archiving
When I first started keeping a digital journal in 2014, my personal life was in crisis. Hidden from view, I was deeply depressed, and I had just started what turned out to be long-term psychotherapy.
I began writing down my thoughts (for only me to see) using a writing app called Ulysses. I’d never written about myself before, but I found this new process surprisingly helpful. It enabled me to distance myself from the events and feelings I was writing about — to see myself more clearly, and to reflect on things I was learning in therapy.
In my earlier working life, I’d written reams of business letters and advertising copy. I always found this painfully hard work — writing hesitantly and slowly, editing everything as soon as I’d written it. Now, with no one else to judge my writing, my words flowed much faster, and more freely.
Ulysses’ limited formatting choices helped too, by stopping me from tinkering with the typography and layout, and I found myself editing myself much less.
In the four years since then, I’ve intermittently returned to writing in my journal. As I began to write more about events than feelings, I swapped from Ulysses to Day One, an app designed specifically for journalling, and I especially enjoyed using Day One ‘in-the-moment’ on my iPhone during cycle touring trips.
Now, in 2018, I’m struggling again with some health problems, and my journal writing has become even more like a personal tool — to help me manage my life, and to distract me from things I find difficult to cope with.
I’ve begun to consolidate my writing, too. As well as creating this blog, I’m now trying to gather all my personal writing into one place. In the last four years, I had amassed over 100,000 words, spread mainly between Ulysses and Day One, and I’ve just finished moving them all into a single file, this time in yet another writing app called Scrivener. In fact I ended up choosing Scrivener, not just for my journal, but for all of my digital writing and note-taking.
This is a very long, experimental post
I’ve used it to develop my blog design, and to practice writing complex, image-heavy text.
But, it’s also a detailed exploration of usability, the impermanence of digital files, and the important role of printed backups in digital journalling!
This blog post is based on my four years’ intermittent use of these three apps, reflecting my changing needs and expectations as I swapped from one app to the other.
It’s certainly neither an objective nor a comprehensive review, but I’ve tried to explain all my priorities and my thinking, incomplete and shifting as these are.
I hope it might be helpful to someone.
The three apps
- Day One is a macOS and iOS app designed expressly for journalling
- Key features include slick typography and design, exclusive use of the Markdown file format, lots of extras such as automatic stamping of posts with location, weather, date, time, and fitness data, and encrypted password protection throughout
- There’s a Timeline view, Calendar view, Map view, and Photo view; and everything can be searched and filtered using keywords
- Day One is now a subscription-based service: the Premium $35 annual cost includes both apps, and sync between devices using Day One’s own servers
- There’s also a free Basic option that restricts you to one journal, one image per entry, and excludes sync between devices
- Ulysses is also a macOS and iOS app, but designed more for general writing and note-taking — anything from a blog post to a novel
- Ulysses hides its power behind a simple, clever, and intuitive interface, allowing writers to focus on their writing
- Everything is well thought out, and nothing gets in the way. Like Day One it’s also based on the Markdown plain text format, and there’s password-protection (albeit non-encrypted) too
- Ulysses is now also subscription based: $40 per year gets you both apps, with full sync between devices via your iCloud account
- There’s a free trial, but no long term free option
- Now in version 3 for macOS and iOS (and version 2 for Windows), Scrivener is well established as the ‘go-to’ app for writers of long-form projects such as novels, screenplays, and academic theses
- Scrivener is an uncompromisingly complex and capable app, with menus, preferences, and options for almost everything these serious writers might need to research, brainstorm, outline, create, edit, or format their masterpieces
- It’s a bit like Photoshop for words — most writers will only use a few of its capabilities — and every writer will probably use it differently
- But Scrivener is good for shorter writing, too. Michael Hyatt makes a terrific case for this in 5 Reasons I Switched to Scrivener for All My Writing. (Full disclosure: after a couple of false starts, I’ve now done this, too)
- Scrivener doesn’t require a subscription — the macOS version costs a flat $44, the iOS version is $20, and you’ll also need a Dropbox account for syncing between them
Six ‘must-have’ features in my ideal personal journalling app
I’ve not attempted anything like a full review of these three apps, and I’ve not been able to write much about their iOS versions, either.
Instead, I’ve focused on their macOS versions, looking at these from the perspective of six key features, that I think are specially important for digital journalling.
I’ve tried to make the case for each of these features — but, of course, they may not all match your needs, or your thinking. Please take what you need!
An Apple Mail style sidebar displaying the first few lines of each entry
When I first started writing my journal in Ulysses, I quickly developed a habit of writing a special ‘headline’ as the first few lines of each entry.
Sometimes this was a short summary, but quite often I highlighted a single event from the day instead. Each headline had the power to trigger more memories for me, and together they created an evocative overview when viewed one after the other in Ulysses’ Apple Mail style sidebar.
In fact, all three of these apps offer versions of this classic sidebar format — still the fastest and most intuitive way to scan through a long list of entries:
- Ulysses’ Sheets sidebar is simple and clear, and it offers options to show filters, keywords and other meta data
- It’s a flat list, but like everything in Ulysses, it’s really easy to browse, read, filter, and search
- The display can be widened, and set to show up to 6 lines, around 60 to 65 words
- Day One call their sidebar a Timeline, and it’s the only one of the three apps to include a thumbnail image
- It can display up to 90 words if you widen the sidebar
- Day One’s typography is the most stylish of the three apps
- But, sometimes it was difficult to spot information, such as the entries’ month, tucked away at the top of a long column
- In Scrivener, a custom ‘Three-Pane Outliner’ layout has to be set up to create this sidebar
- This needs more care than the default layouts in Day One and Ulysses
- Only four lines, around 30 to 35 words, can be displayed in the fixed height setting (there’s an alternative Synopsis setting, but that means writing one of these for each entry)
- It’s a fully functional outliner, with reveal triangles, indenting, and manual sorting
- Custom meta data can be added, such as coloured chips and keywords
- Typography could be better — reducing the line height would improve readability, and save space
An editing window that’s nice-to-look-at, and nice-to-use
It was Ulysses’ simple, distraction-free editing window that first encouraged me to pour all my thoughts and feelings into a digital journal.
Then, quickly adding notes and photos on the road won me over to Day One, when I was cycling in the Hebrides.
But, now, with more complicated entries to write, I prefer the clear simple typography of Scrivener’s Editor pane…
- Day One opens each entry as a formatted preview, but then you have to switch to the Markdown editor view, every time you want to edit anything
- Since there’s almost no visual difference between these two views, I often started to edit in the preview, and I got irritated with constantly switching back and forward
- There’s no option for paragraph spacing in Day One, so less efficient (and uglier) ‘double-returns’ must be used instead
- Otherwise, editing is quick and easy — click on any word, and up pops the Markdown formatting menu
- Update: In August 2018, Day One replaced this clunky Markdown editor with a ‘Unified’ editor — that now works effectively like a beautifully simplified rich text editor
- Ulysses’ Editor window displays a lightly-styled Markdown format for all editing
- Ulysses’ Markup preferences and themes include a choice of fonts, colours, line widths, and paragraph spacing
- You can also open a separate (continuously refreshed) preview window, in a choice of templates for PDF, DOCX, HTML, and ePub export formats
- I really like writing in Ulysses — it’s got a spare, pared-down layout that feels crisp and robust
- It’s hard to get confused, and harder still to fiddle with the layout or organisation
- To apply Markdown, you just click on a menu button for a drop-down list of all the available syntax
- Instead of Markdown, Scrivener displays everything in Apple’s rich text RTFD format, showing everything exactly as you want your journal to look
- So, you see only formatted words, headings, links and images, without any of Markdown’s distracting syntax
- Once set up, it’s quick and easy to style text, or add links and images — using the menu bar, a pop-up styles panel, or a keyboard shortcut
- Font and paragraph styles can be applied to, and updated for, the whole document, or any other project
- Setting up Scrivener for journalling is complicated, and it took me a couple of days to import all my journals, and to then learn, and set up, all the formatting preferences
Re-sizeable images (and tables)
I’m quite opinionated about image sizes. I think that in every page layout — whether on a PC, or a mobile, or printed out on paper — it should always be possible to to balance the size of text and images, so as to optimise the readability and browsing experience.
I want every image to be big enough to communicate its meaning — but not so big that it interrupts or dominates the flow of text communication.
I’ve applied this thinking to the design of this blog, and of course I want to apply it to the design of my journal pages, too.
- Day One can include any number of images in each journal entry (but, only one per entry in the free version)
- These are featured as thumbnails in its Timeline, and there’s a useful (and also attractive) Photo window, filled with a scrolling gallery of all images
- In Day One’s main Edit and Preview windows, however, images can only be displayed actual size
- This can look great for a single photo at the head of an entry, but it can often completely overwhelm the text, especially when there are a number of images, or if the image is a simple logo or illustration
- Ulysses has recently upgraded their app to optionally display inline images as small thumbnails, using a global image height setting
- This actually works really well, and, like everything in Ulysses, it’s cunningly simple
- It’s just a pity that this option is only global, applied to all images throughout the app
- Scrivener enables individual re-sizing of every in-line image
- This works very well — except it would be quicker with a draggable handle, as an optional alternative to the pop-up control panel
- Larger images can be reduced down to just the right size for viewing in proportion to the text, and smaller images can be neatly positioned in an inline row
- Because the original image size is always preserved, all these images can still be viewed (or exported) at full size, whenever they’re needed
Scrivener’s flexibility and control with images puts it head and shoulders above Day One and Ulysses, and many other note-taking apps. But, there’s one problem: Scrivener’s image resizing only works in macOS!
This means that Scrivener’s iOS app is only able to display images at full size, usually filling the full text column width. Worse still, if you edit anything in its entry, iOS will revert any re-sized image back to its original size. Scrivener’s support has told me that this ‘round-trip’ bug is a known issue, and they’re trying to come up with a solution.
Of course, for all three apps, there’s always the alternative of reducing each image’s pixel dimensions in an image editing app, prior to import. This would be a cumbersome extra step, and you’d lose the option of printing or exporting the images at their original resolution, but it’s otherwise simple and effective.
I’d hesitate to recommend it, but using Scrivener’s tables feature could be a better workround, if you’ve got the patience to set up a template for them:
- Scrivener is the only one of these three apps to include tables, and this is really useful for things like exercise logs, and all sorts of monthly, or yearly lists
- Using Scrivener’s tables, I’ve been experimenting with a neat way to display text alongside an image — using a hidden table, with two columns, a single row, and cell borders set to zero width
- And, since images in table cells are sized by the cell widths, and seem not to be affected by iOS, this could be a good workround to the image re-sizing bug described above
A scrolling, continuous display of multiple entries
This is a core feature of the Scrivener app, in which the full content of a group of entries can be displayed, sequentially, as a continuous stream in a scrolling window (Scrivener’s developer calls these these entries ‘scrivenings’).
- In my new Scrivener journal, several short journal entries can be viewed together (and edited), without the need to click back and forward between them
- Each entry is separated by a dashed horizontal line
- This line is clearly visible, yet it doesn’t waste vertical space, so the text can be read as a continuous narrative
- Ulysses offers an almost identical feature, except that entries first have to be manually selected in the sidebar, or ‘glued’ together as a group, before they can be viewed together
- Like Scrivener, individual entries can still be edited in this view
- Entries are spaced out more than in Scrivener, so there’s a bit more scrolling when browsing through
- Weirdly, the lines between entries are almost invisible
- Day One doesn’t offer this feature — instead, groups of entries can only be viewed together as ‘masonry’ styled panels — and Individual entries can’t be edited there
- Panels are reduced to about 50% text size, and jumbled alongside each other in a multi-column layout
- Annoyingly, there’s a map view at the bottom that can’t be dismissed
- Otherwise, this is a quirky, attractive layout — but it’s harder to read, and I’d much rather view entries in a clearly linear date sequence
- And I’d much prefer to edit entries, especially shorter ones, displayed like this too
A well formatted printed version for long-term archiving
I’ll guess that, for most readers of this post, digital writing is much faster and more convenient than old-fashioned pen and paper.
But it’s easy to forget that digital files have big limitations. File formats, devices, apps, and cloud hosting companies can become obsolete almost overnight. Digital media can ‘rot’ and become unreadable within just a few years. Passwords can get forgotten, and without a physical form, we may not even remember where (or that) our journals still exist.
This Guardian article about Germaine Greer’s journals vividly describes the reality of some of these long-term problems in accessing digital archives. Tellingly, at its end, a battle-scarred archiving expert gives his unequivocal recommendation for the best way to save personal files:
You should print them out!
For, once they are printed, journals can be safely archived, filed, locked-away, pushed to the back of a drawer, or stacked up in an attic — silently waiting to to be re-discovered, weeks, or decades later.
When they can be leafed through, pored-over, remembered, passed around, annotated, cut-out, scanned, copied, mailed, gifted, burnt, sold, or even published — just like journals always have been, since writing on paper first began.
So, I think every journalling app should always offer a straightforward way to print its pages — in a routine operation that must be quick, simple, and accurately formatted. Not as a big job at the end of the year, and not an expensive glossy production, but printed out as a routine task every few days or weeks, to be filed away for future use, whatever that might be.
This turns out to be a tall order for many current writing and note-taking apps. Surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, there are still only a limited number of developers who pay any great attention to accurately formatted printing, with margins, text, and images, all sized exactly as they are on screen.
- Unlike its screen version, Day One prints multiple entries sequentially on the printed page
- But the text is quite small, so the columns are wide and difficult to read, and images can dominate the printed page
- Day One also offers a commercial book printing service — but it’s been in beta for years, and it’s based on these same screen layouts that I’m not keen on
- Ulysses aims to do much better than this, offering a native templating system that exports its screen format to a PDF, DOCX, or ePub — with a choice of customisable typography and layouts
- But, crucially, Ulysses’ CSS-like templating syntax doesn’t yet support image sizing
- This means that Ulysses’ neat thumbnail images are strictly screen only, and they revert to their original, page-filling sizes when exported or printed using these templates
- Ulysses’ support say they’re aware of this, but they don’t know when they’ll fix it
- Much better news is that Ulysses’ thumbnails do print accurately direct from the editing screen — but this retains the editor theme’s Markdown syntax, huge margins, and its single font size
- In Scrivener, the default print format accurately prints text, image, and table sizes (but strangely, I couldn’t get it to exactly match all my type colours)
- Or, delving into Scrivener’s powerful ‘Compile’ system enables exporting and printing of the whole, or part of your journal, formatted to a set of custom rules set by you
- These include everything you’re likely to need for almost any style of printed journal: section and page headings, margins, backgrounds, all typography, image sizing, and simple tables
- But, there’s a steep learning curve — even after half a day of learning and fiddling, I still wasn’t quite there!
Unfortunately, printing images in Scrivener is also vulnerable to the iOS re-sizing bug I highlighted earlier in this post. Working round this means always printing from macOS, and always doing a final check of image sizes before printing. Easy enough — if you only print and archive a few pages at a time — but a major pain otherwise.
Although I have absolutely no intention of ever sharing my journal, and I don’t want to keep much of it for myself either, it still seems better to have a printed copy, of those bits I really do want to keep.
I’m hoping to write more about booklet printing and binding, and my experiments with combining paper and digital journals — sometime soon.
A sidebar with a true multi-level hierarchical structure
Hierarchical organisation is the natural way we structure all sorts of things in our lives. Our houses are divided into rooms, and we put objects, and containers, into each room. So we can find our books on a bookshelf, in the study. Or spices in a jar, on a shelf, in a cupboard, in the kitchen.
This also means that whenever we need to re-organise, we don’t always have to examine every single item in every container. We can move a stack of folders to a new location, drag an entire filing cabinet into a store room, or move boxes of toys into the attic for our future grandchildren.
How we organise our stuff into a hierarchy also helps us to think. The physical size and shape of our organisation reveals hidden patterns and ideas. So we stack research papers into piles on a table, then we shuffle and rearrange them. We can examine each stack — comparing and contrasting them — to visualise and develop a structure, to trigger ideas, to get an overview, or to help plan our future actions.
In real life we get masses of visual clues about our content’s organisation — from the size and weight of box files, by peering into glass spice jars, or by reading sticky notes stuck onto bulging folders. But, although computers have long been able to arrange documents into these hierarchical structures — using multi-level nested folders — they always struggle to replicate those real life clues.
But some apps try harder than others, and Scrivener’s Binder is one of the best versions of a hierarchical sidebar format I’ve seen:
- Scrivener’s Binder sidebar supports multiple hierarchical levels
- It adheres closely to the original Macintosh indented folders and ‘reveal triangle’ metaphor
- It displays a count of the number of files inside each folder
- It displays the entries themselves in the Binder
- And it’s got a full repertoire of expanding, collapsing, and hoisting commands to help you browse and focus on groups of related files
- Every entry and folder can be titled, and sorted, however you want — so it’s easy to set a date range
- Folders and their contents can be dragged anywhere in an instant, into another folder, or another project, or archived in their entirety — always with their full internal organisation preserved
On top of all that, Scrivener also allows us to write as much as we’d like onto the ‘front’ of every folder, sub-folder, and file (just as you’d scribble onto the front of a real folder).
If you’re writing a novel this is very useful for chapter introductions, or content planning. But for my personal journal, this has already worked well to display a list of the year’s highlights, and I’m planning to try out cover photographs, and tables with monthly cycling logs, etc.
Another way Scrivener’s hierarchical sidebar has enhanced my journal so far, is by allowing me to quickly reorganise my entries with extra folders, easily expanding its scope to include much older logs and files.
So I’ve already set up a new folder structure right back to the year I was born, and I’ve begun to make summaries of major events on the outside of these folders, and to file documents and photos inside them. I’m adding to these whenever I have an odd moment to spare, and they’ve already helped me to look back on my life in a more structured, and more positive way.
Best of all, they dovetail seamlessly into the organisation of my on-going live journal, without slowing it down, or complicating it in any way.
- Day One doesn’t have a hierarchical structure, and instead everything is strictly in time order
- If you’re on the Premium subscription, you can create lots of different journals, and there’s also a very easy-to-use tagging set up
- Creating a back-dated entry (which I seemed to do a lot) is fiddly, especially if you’re a bit obsessive like me and reset the times too
- In fact, for speed, I often combined the last few days into one entry — but there’s no way to display a date range like in Ulysses and Scrivener
- Ulysses comes much closer to the functionality of Scrivener’s Binder sidebar — in a simpler, but more limited way
- You create groups instead of folders, and the icons are nicer
- Unlike Scrivener, the Library only lists the groups, not the entries themselves
- You can’t display the number of entries, and you can’t ‘hoist’ (or focus on) a single group in the Library sidebar
- And you can’t add content (like cover pictures or summaries) to the front of groups
- Like in Scrivener, each entry can be titled, and manually sorted, however you want (eg, set to a date range)
- You can move, reorganise, and archive groups, just like in Scrivener
- But reorganising a long list of entries (like 30+ entries in a month) can become unwieldy in the Sheets sidebar
- And, unlike Scrivener, Ulysses mixes all your trivial notes, major pieces of writing, and important archives, all together in one giant Library
Other key features
Syncing and security
All three of these apps offer both macOS and iOS versions, with full synchronisation between them:
In Day One all your entries can be split into separate journals in the sidebar, but they are all saved to a single database file, and this file is synced to Day One’s own servers (previous versions used iCloud or Dropbox). Everything is password protected and encrypted.
With Ulysses you put all your entries, whether they are journal entries, blog posts, or your next best-selling novel, all combined into a single hierarchical sidebar, and this single file is synced to an existing iCloud account. Ulysses’ rudimentary password protection might be enough for your needs, and it’s better than nothing, but it’s definitely not secure. Syncing, however, is fully encrypted.
Scrivener allows you to set up as many separate projects (macOS package files) as you want. So you could have a journal project, a notebook project, and lots of work projects. Each of these projects can be independently opened, copied, archived, backed up, and synced to an existing Dropbox account. There’s absolutely no form of password protection in the app, but all Dropbox syncing is encrypted.
Syncing for both Day One and Ulysses runs invisibly in the background, and you can have the app and its single library open on several devices at the same time, without issues. Syncing, though automatic, can have a noticeable time lag, and occasional unexplained delays, and for Ulysses’ iCloud based sync, there’s no manual control.
In contrast, Scrivener’s sync has to be manually invoked: you must always close each project, and wait for it to fully sync, before re-opening the same project on another device.
Scrivener is clunkier to keep in sync than the other two apps, and definitely needs more care. Nevertheless, Scrivener’s project-based file structure is more open, and offers a much more flexible approach to backup and archiving, than either Day One’s or Ulysses’ single library structure.
‘Must-have’ and key features
Summary of results
Feature 1 An Apple Mail style sidebar
Day One’s Timeline has the edge with thumbnails, Ulysses has more flexibility, and Scrivener has a limited display that’s fiddly to set up.
Feature 2 A nice editing window
Out of the box, Ulysses is both simple and powerful. But once set up the way you want it, for me Scrivener’s WYSYWIG easily wins. (Until August 2018’s update, when Day One drew almost level with their ‘unified editor’.)
Feature 3 Resizable images, and tables
Clearly the best app for image re-sizing is Scrivener — but only if you can keep images away from iOS, or if you’re willing to experiment with tables. Otherwise, Ulysses is simpler, and more robust.
Feature 4 A scrolling display of multiple entries
Scrivener’s ‘scrivenings’ are indispensable. Ulysses’ editable display is just as useful, but maybe a bit wasteful of space.
Feature 5 A well-formatted printed archive
Difficult to choose: Ulysses and Scrivener are both flawed, but usable. Image re-sizing in Scrivener needs special care. It’s not clear whether developers will be able to improve either of these.
Feature 6 A hierarchically structured sidebar
A difficult call, between Ulysses (for looks and simplicity), and Scrivener (for functionality), but both excellent.
No contest: Day One is the only app with encrypted password protection.
Syncing in Day One and Ulysses is nearly invisible, and reliable. Scrivener offers better manual control, but it’s slower and clunkier.
Backup and archiving
Day One and Ulysses both have a single library, whereas Scrivener’s project-based file structure enables more flexibility — I’m not sure which is better, or if it matters?
My final conclusions
Scrivener is my favourite journalling app (for now)
Day One, Ulysses, and Scrivener are all developed by small, independent, Apple-centric companies. Their developers are at the top of their game — all these apps are innovative, mature, reliable, well supported, and still in active development.
So, if you’re less worried about (or disagree with) any of my ‘must-have’ criteria, then any of these apps could work very well for you.
Overall, Day One is the most visually attractive of the three. But, to my mind, it still has a cluttered and sometimes confusing interface. Part of the problem is there are too many things I don’t need or want: weather, maps, step counts, locations, nagging reminders — and not all of these can be hidden. However, Day One is designed to make ‘in-the-moment’ journal entries quick and easy, especially on iOS, and it’s definitely the best of these three apps if this is important to you.
Ulysses excels in offering an elegant, clever, and uncluttered interface that’s not only great for writing in, but simple and easy to organise your entries, whether they’re journal entries, notes, or long-form text. This simplicity, plus its friction-free syncing, would probably make it my favourite, were it not for the ‘must have’ features I think it’s weak on, that I’ve detailed above.
My conclusion is that (for now) Scrivener is the best app for my personal journal. It comes closest to meeting my ‘must-have’ criteria, and it’s got lots of other stuff to learn and grow into.
Writing this lengthy blog post has helped me think through this decision, and I hope it will help you too.
I’m also planning to use Scrivener for all my digital writing. So far, I’ve gathered most of my archived files into three separate Scrivener projects: journal.scriv, notebook.scriv, and blog.scriv, and I’m setting them up with a consistent look and feel. I hope that I’ll become more fluent and organised in my writing, by concentrating on this single app.
- Chris Rosser has written a terrific article about Ulysses from the perspective of a Scrivener user.
- The Sweet Setup has loads of material, and a different perspective, about both Day One and Ulysses, including What’s In My Day One, Day One Review, and Ulysses Review.
- Scrivener’s useful (and generous) links for writers. “If you’ve tried Scrivener and found that it isn’t the best fit for you, then we hope you’ll find something useful from this list.”