Commonplace Books Part 4: My Setup Using Ulysses

Ulysses works across both Mac and iOS devices. (Images from Ulysses)

If you read books at all (and I mean even if you read just a little) you should consider keeping a commonplace book. I am writing a series of articles about commonplace books and this is the fourth article in the series, which talks about how I configure and use Ulysses to keep a commonplace book.

If you’re just getting into this series with this article, I suggest you start at the beginning of the series and work your way through:

What Is Ulysses?

The precursor of Ulysses was a 2003 text processing application for creative writers. Fast forward to 2011 and the company behind the current day Ulysses app was formed. Ulysses started out life as an easy to use writing tool with minimal user interface distraction all while being a powerful writing app for the Mac, but expanded to the iPad in 2015 and then later to the iPhone as well. And then in 2017, Ulysses moved to a subscription-only model. So right now you can download the Ulysses applications for free and get a 14-day free trial along with it, but after that, you will have to subscribe to continue using the tool. Since going to a subscription model Ulysses has been continually updated and I’m confident that had a lot to do with the reason that Ulysses ended up being the most automation-friendly app I tested, which as you know from Part 3 of this series is why I ultimately chose it as my tool of choice to keep my commonplace book. But there are other great features that make Ulysses a great choice as a commonplace book tool:

  • Supports tagging
  • Supports attachments
  • Cloud-based, so it shows up on all my devices
  • Clean and simple interface, which makes it easy to get into the app and get straight to writing or adding content
  • Supports folders
  • Support smart folders, which lets you on the fly add a folder that has customized search content to it (this lets you change the layout of your commonplace book as much as you would like)
  • Great automation support to easily get information and then re-read and get information back out

My Ulysses Setup

But that’s enough background about Ulysses. What should interest you than details about the book itself, as someone wanting to get into commonplace books, is how I use and setup Ulysses. First off, I use Ulysses for much more than just a commonplace book system.

Proof that I use Ulysses as my primary writing tool, even for this site! (Image by Skip Owens)

I bring this up for a couple of reasons. One being that Ulysses is a subscription-only app, so you really need to get some use out of the app if you plan to continue to pay into a subscription. But on the flip side of that, you get a very powerful tool to try out for free for 14-days and for a month for just a few bucks—pretty low-risk price of entry. The subscription model wasn’t an issue for me as I have multiple uses for Ulysses. I’ve been using Ulysses since 2016 for all of my blog post writing (both GeekDad and my personal blog). I am also using Ulysses as a historical research tool for a book I plan to write and publish. So I more than get what I am paying for from my yearly Ulysses subscription plan. The other nice thing about using my commonplace tool of choice for other purposes is that I already know all the bells and whistles associated with the tool going in, so no steep learning curve. That being said, having a dedicated tool you only use for your commonplace book isn’t such a bad choice either.

My Ulysses Content Structure

I have four main sections to my commonplace book within Ulysses:

  1. Books Read
  2. Tags
  3. Music Lyrics

Each of these four sections is just a separate folder within the “Commonplace Book” section of Ulysses. In the case of my current commonplace book structure, I am just using folders for their basic function, which is to just hold a number of separate documents. For the “Books Read” folder I just have a single file that lists all of the books I have read since I started keeping a commonplace book in the approximate order that I read them.

I keep the book list simple, but it’s a handy reference. (Image by Skip Owens)

I keep this list for a couple of reasons. One being so that I can quickly scan through and remind myself of the various books I have read. But the main purpose in doing this is that it allows me to select a book or two from that list and very quickly add a smart folder to my commonplace book such that the contents of that folder only has entries from those books. This comes in really handy if I am reading a book for a blog post on GeekDad. Within a few seconds, I have all of the relevant material I need in a nice folder, and then when I’m done writing the article I can delete the smart folder (think of it as a temporary search result within Ulysses).

The “Tags” folder is very similar to the “Books Read” folder in that it also only contains a single sheet that simply lists out in alphabetical order all of the tag categories that I use throughout my commonplace book.

Maybe my tags will give you ideas (and maybe they won’t make any sense) for your commonplace book. Just add them as needed as you go. (Image by Skip Owens)

I’ll give you a couple of tips regarding tags. First off, you don’t have to identify all of the tags you plan to use for your commonplace book before you get started. I started off with a basic list and then added to it as I started reading. The nice thing about a digital system like this is that you aren’t locked into a physical layout or structure. Also, when using tags in Ulysses choose a consistent way to write tags (either all lower case or first letter capitalization). Ulysses, at least, is case sensitive and by accident, I now have some dual tags in my commonplace book (like story and Story). I recommend sticking with all lower case (it is one less key press when entering in tag information).

The “Music Lyrics” section of my commonplace book is where I keep all of my entries about music. Honestly, I’m not sure why I gave music lyrics their own section, other than it can be kind of fun to scroll through just the lyrics from songs you have entered and revisit just music.

The main folder in my Ulysses setup is the “Quotes” section and this is where I keep the vast majority of my commonplace book content. I use a separate sheet within Ulysses for each passage or quote I save off from a book I have read. The text of the book is the first thing on the sheet, followed by the page number the passage/quote was taken from (if it was a physical book), and then the last thing I add is the name of the book and the author (the exact word for word item from my “Books Read” list so that when I use that term from that list to do a search I get every single entry from that book).

You can see the organization of the individual quotes is just a string of entries in the order I put them in, but they are all there and searchable with tags and even more importantly, I have an automated system to help me revisit them. (Image by Skip Owens)

Most of the time I don’t bother with using quotation marks when adding quotes or passages from a book in my commonplace book, unless it is character dialog or unless I have some of my own thoughts I want to add. If I am adding my own thoughts I put the original content in double quotes and then add my own thoughts below that outside of quotes.

And that’s pretty much my system. This approach may or may not work for you and your needs, but this at least gives you one idea to start from. Everyone’s commonplace book will have a slightly different look and serve a different purpose, so don’t hesitate to make it your own and do what works for you.

My next article in the series will be diving into how I use iOS automation with my commonplace book and can be found here.

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