Exploring Mellel

Introduction

Back in 2016 I purchased a copy of Mellel and decided to put it through its paces. At the time I was impressed with this Mac exclusive word processor’s feature set, but I had stopped using a traditional word processor in favor of Markdown and just couldn’t find a spot for it in my workflow.

The application has remained on my mind, however, and I’ve often been tempted to purchase a more recent version to see how the software has developed. So when I was contacted to see if I’d be interested in a review copy I quick to respond with a resounding, “Yes! 1

Mellel in all its glory.
The Mellel work environment can take some getting used to, but it’s clean and fast.

I still don’t use a traditional word processor for my writing, opting instead to work in Scrivener, but I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with iWorks’ Pages as a word processor so I’m looking for something to use to type-set long format text 2. Because of the way I write, I decided to explore how Mellel would function in my normal workflow. I exported the text of In The Land Of The Penny Gnomes to a .docx file and imported it into Mellel. I was impressed with the results, though I was confused at first as to why my footnotes hadn’t been imported correctly. After reading the documentation I learned that any complex document, such as one with footnotes, needs to be imported from an RTF file. Once I did this my Penny Gnomes manuscript imported perfectly. While a requirement like this might be frustrating for users who don’t read the documentation 3 it’s one of the few real oddities I encountered while leaning the software.

Mellel’s Strengths

Mellel is an application with can be picked up and used by anyone familiar with any modern word processor, but it’s most useful when a writer leans on it’s power feature set. I’ve picked four features in which I feel Mellel is best of its class. Each of these should be incorporated into any workflow which uses Mellel.

Styles

Mellel uses a professional setup to handle the look and feel of text by separating paragraph and character styles from one another. This means structural elements like line and paragraph spacing are separated from visual elements like font family and size. Paragraph styles are linked to a character style, which gives them a default look when implemented, but this look can be altered by applying any other character style to selected text without changing its registered paragraph style. In addition, character styles can have up to eight variations. This is useful if you want to have styles displayed in a different way depending on context, such as a document title or sub-title.

Mellel’s Paragraph Styles editor
Mellel’s Paragraph Styles editor

Most consumer word processors combine these two distinct ideas into one style, which are called a paragraph styles. These styles join both visual look and element structure into one, which is fine for most situations. Because they are paragraph styles, however, it means any changes which are made to a portion of that paragraph has to be done by hand every time. Users who are accustomed to applying character formatting like bold, italics, and font-size by hand each time they make an adjustment 4 won’t find this to be an issue. But for power users who want to insure consistency for specific character styles beyond simple formatting, being able to set up a visual style and implement it with a single click is a great time-saver. And the power of splitting paragraph and character styles is really unleashed when used in conjunction with auto-titles.

Mellel’s Character Styles Editor.
Mellel’s Character Styles editor.Notice the variations.

Auto-Titles

When a paragraph style is created in a word processor that style carries with it an implied structure. So when a word processor sees the style “Heading 1,” for example, it will always be treated at the top of the document’s structure. Mellel splits document structure from a specific paragraph or character style, and relies instead on their excellent auto titles.

My auto-title flow in Mellel
My auto-title flow in Mellel

Auto-titles are set in a strict hierarchy, which is used to organize the document outline pane. Any title at a specific level will be automatically formatted to match the auto-title set up to match it’s corresponding level. Configuring what a title looks like in a particular context is also easy. Whereas other word processors will separate the configuration panels which govern how a title will appear as a heading, in a table of contents, or as a document reference Mellel combines all these into a single interface. In addition, special tags for document items like images or table captions can also be created. Getting auto-titles to work as expected can take some acclimation 5, but the consistency they offer is well worth the time it takes to design titles to you liking.

For my test project I created auto-titles for my chapter headings and designed how those titles would look in a Table of Contents. I also created auto-titles for my non-numbered prelude and epilogue, which I’ll describe later in this review. My chapter headings were set up with two lines, “Chapter #” and “\”, each using their own paragraph style. I carried over this general setup into my table of contents, but kept the auto-title on one line and formatted the chapter title with a specific character style. Separating document hierarchy from the Mellel’s styles may be one of it’s best features.

Page Setup

In just about every word processor I’ve ever used, the page setup for a project must be consistent all the way through. Both margins, and header and footer layout, are constants. Not so in Mellel.

Instead, a project can have any number of different page styles which have their own settings – including pages numbers, margins, and orientation. Better still, a page style can be set up to be different depending what settings are checked. If a particular page is the first, left, or right page in its sequence the page setup can be arranged differently. For novel writers this is a huge win because the first page in a chapter can be set to not have either a header or footer, and the top margin can mimic the six or eight returns which so often mark a new chapter 6. Setting up margins, gutter, and the header and footer is done via a slick graphic presentation. This was a great help as I worked with formatting my test project.

Mellel’s graphic page style editor
Mellel’s graphic page style editor is a fantastic to set up margins, headers, and footers.

Section Creation

Sections are also easy to create in Mellel, and handle attributes like number of columns, gutter 7, background, and line numbering. Each section can also be told to begin on a specific page – any, left, or right. This is wonderful for chapter breaks as they will always appear on the right, where they belong! I’ve always found sections to be one of those features which word processors include, but hope deep down no one tries to use. Mellel incorporates them as a “front and center” feature, and implements them well.

The section editor in Mellel.
The section editor in Mellel.

Mellel’s Growth Areas

While Mellel has a great many strengths, any software is going to have idiosyncrasies which serve as its growth areas 8. Here are two which I’d love to see updated in future versions.

Document Hierarchy

Auto-titles are, as I wrote above, one of Mellel’s greatest selling points. Their strict adherence to hierarchy, however, means it can be rather easy to throw them a curve.

I encountered this while formatting the auto-titles for the two unnumbered chapters from my In The Land Of The Penny Gnomes manuscript. Because my prelude and epilogue were top-level chapters, their auto-titles included text they didn’t need, “Chapter #.” I looked for a way to set up another top-level auto-title to initiate alternate formatting, but Mellel is not designed with this workflow in mind.

I was stumped for a solution for a day or so, until I came across a post in Mellel’s forums with a work around. First, I moved my chapter level headings to the second-tier in the auto-title flow. Second, I created an auto-title for my prelude at the top level of the hierarchy. This auto-title matched the formatting of my chapter headers, but had different text in the title. Third, I created a third-tier title, matching the settings for my other two titles, for my epilogue. The end result was a document outline which looked like my chapters were out of place, but which functioned the way I wanted it to.

My auto-title flow in Mellel
If you look at the title levels you’ll see my chapters are at the second level because I have to separate them from the Prelude.

If that description didn’t make any sense to you, then you understand the problem. What I did was an excellent hack, but there needs to be a more elegant solution to handle a structure like this built into Mellel at some point. Especially if, as you’ll see below, they want to encourage fiction writers to use the application.

I did notice some quirks with Mellel’s section breaks when it had to deal with elements in my manuscript, like my copyright and title pages, which were not part of the the document hierarchy 9. When I inserted a section break between my map of The Realm and the Prelude Mellel insisted that the map was part of the section below it, even taking on its headers and footers. It was one of the few glitches I encountered when setting up my sections.

Table Of Contents

In Mellel’s excellent tutorial video users are told that a table of contents is treated like any other text in the document, and this is touted as a feature rather than a bug.

In some ways I see their point. In order to edit the TOC I don’t have to enter some convoluted interface and hope I don’t break anything – I just change the paragraph and/or character styles to my liking and move on with my life. I like that.

A Mellel table of contents.
A table of contents is treated like any other text in Mellel. Gives great flexibility, but it doesn’t auto update page numbers.

The problem is, once the TOC is generated and formatted it doesn’t update. So if I move a section or change pagination in any way I need to recreate the TOC all over again and perform whatever personal tweaks I came up with the first time.

So in Mellel a table of contents is flexible, and I can come up with layouts other word processors would throw fits over 10, but maybe to a fault. I’d like to see a balance which allowed the TOC to be formatted as text, and yet detect when page numbers change 11. The longer a project is, the more essential auto-updating becomes.

Cool Feature – Story View

One feature which I surprised to discover, and one which shows how Mellel is seeking to break into the market for fiction writers, is Story View. When the left side panel is opened to this view authors are able to create story events, characters, and locations. These can be linked to one another, which makes it easy to track their paths as the story progresses. Story events can be toggled to appear as a dot in the margin, which makes them unobtrusive, or as in-line characters which can be moved through the text as needed.

A story point on display in Mellel.
Story points are not linked to the hierarchy of the document, and can be moved anywhere in the text as needed.

The metadata which can be added to each element created in story view is limited. Events can have a start date, but lack a duration field. Characters can be described, and have an image associated with them, but there are no distinct fields for details like age or birthday. Places can be described, but little else.

Each story element can be tagged and color coded. These allow the story view to be filtered to show only desired elements, which is great if an author wants to include several scenes, each following a different sub-plot, in a chapter. Once a story is mapped out, an author can filter their story view to show only the plot points they want to work on during a writing session. It’s a very nice trick.

Editing a character in Mellel’s story view.
The metadata which can be added to a story element is limited, but it’s useful for keeping track of sub-plots and characters.

It should be noted that authors are not able customize their calendar to match a fictional world. This reduces the view’s usefulness for fantasy writers who are trying to keep their sub-plots working smoothly, but for general tracking it is both an elegant and simple solution.

Conclusion

While I no longer use a traditional word processor for my writing, Mellel 4 may become my “post-writing” tool of choice for the foreseeable future. The way the application handles styles and page design, combined with the power of auto-titles, makes it ideal for typesetting lengthy projects. I’m looking forward to exploring it more.

For those who don’t want to learn the complexities of a writing suite like Scrivener but are still looking to move away from MS Office or iWork, Mellel might be a near-perfect solution. There is a learning curve, but it’s not as steep as with some other professional writing tools, and it’s output looks wonderful. In addition, Mellel provides a well-produced set of tutorial videos covering the basics of the software. These are well worth checking out 12!

Mellel can be purchased on the developer’s web-site for $49, or $39 for students. Licenses come with two free years of updates, after which an upgrade to a newer version costs $29. There is also an iPad app available, which I hope to review soon.


  1. This is my disclaimer. I did receive a copy of Mellel to write this review, but am not being paid in any way. This review is my opinion. 
  2. I refuse to use MS Office, and haven’t since I first used Star Office on Linux in 1999. 
  3. That is, everyone. 
  4. That is, “Users to do things the wrong way.” Manually formatted text is a pet peeve of mine. 
  5. I was inserting a line break character by hand for a bit, wondering why it wasn’t translating to the title. It turns out I needed to use the auto title interface to insert a line break which was designed for titles. It wasn’t a big deal, but it took a bit to wrap my head around. 
  6. Even my chapter auto-title includes these returns in my layout. I explored the page formatting panel only after I had my titles created. 
  7. The space between columns. 
  8. I’m a pastor, and when doing pre-marital counseling the course I lead uses the euphemism “growth areas” instead of “relationship weaknesses.” Is it a bit silly? Sure. It’s also helpful. If I called these features “weaknesses” you might be inclined to think, “Mellel is awful at these things,” which isn’t the case. A “growth area” leaves the impression that Mellel can work to turn these idiosyncrasies into core strengths. 
  9. Because they didn’t have auto-titles. 
  10. Again, thanks to auto-titles. 
  11. But I don’t think for a minute this would be easy. There’s a reason why developers use either the fixed text or the regular text approach. 
  12. They also provide some excellent documentation, but who reads that? Other than me, that is. 

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