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Why the outliner program is an essential tool for everybody
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JohnnyBoy
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PostPosted: Wed Oct 10, 2007 12:01 pm    Post subject: Why the outliner program is an essential tool for everybody Reply with quote

I want to talk about outliners, how they have changed the way that I work and why I think that everyone should know about them. Without any exagerration or hype, I sincerely believe that trying out for yourself what I demonstrate in this post will change the way that you work for the better.

Sometimes, we want or need to to compose some lengthy textual document - a writing assignment, a computer program, a spoken presentation, website copy or a progress report are all examples of this. The usual 'tool' that we reach for when composing some new text is the text editor. But often, we dread creative writing tasks like this and I believe that the text editor is part of the problem.

What happens when we try to compose an essay, assignment, speech, report or sales brochure using a text editor?
- Word processors force you to input your ideas in sequential order - you have to start your typing with a beginning and finish with a conclusion. So the most important ideas that come to mind - those central concepts that are the meaty substance of your work - are put on hold while we struggle to find a place to start. Hence those long periods spent staring at a blank screen.
- With a text editor, we tend to write in full sentences and therefore feel compelled to worry about finding the right word, constructing correct grammar, proper spelling, well-placed punctuation and so on. While we're focusing on the nuances of the English language, the most important ideas are getting away.
- We don't get clear feedback on the structure of the work; it's all hidden within the sentences and paragraphs. This means we spend a lot of time re-reading from the beginning to recall the direction of our work.

Hierarchies, creative thinking and outliners
Text editors force users to input ideas in 'order of appearance'. But what users really want to do is input ideas in whatever order they occur to the mind and then be able to rearrange them according to scope or importance. We need to be able to arrange our ideas into a hierarchy.

Hierarchies are all around us:
- At work, our company (large unit) is split into divisions (medium units), and each division is split into departments (small units).
- When shopping, the supermarket is divided into departments and then the departments are split into sections.
- On our Macs, the hard disk drive is divided into folders and in turn, those folders are divided into sub-folders.

Furthermore, this structure also pervades creative work:
- Albums are made up of songs which can be split into choruses and verses.
- Movie scripts are divided into acts which are in turn made up of scenes.
- Books can be split into chapters and each chapter into sections.
- Forum websites can be split into forums which are divided up into threads.

English teachers who know the importance of this hierarchy teach students the technique of outlining using a pencil and eraser in class, because an outline combines the sequential, narrative structure ("Once upon a time" ... "I'll huff and I'll puff" ... "The End") with the hierarchical structure ("This small detail is part of a medium-sized idea that is part of this big, sweeping concept"). Outlines help students to compose well-structured assignments, because essays can be split into sections and then into paragraphs. So can speeches, reports, sales brochures, e-mails, poems and comedy sketches.

As I'm hopefully about to demonstrate, it is very important to be able to see hierarchical structure when creating and arranging information, but a text editor can't show us this. We need a different tool that enables us to rank some ideas as more important than others, putting them into a hierarchy, and this is where an outliner program comes into its own.

Creating an example outline
Okay, enough theory, let's see an outliner in action. I'm going to use OmniOutliner, a very popular Mac app from OmniGroup.

Let's say that I want to tell the world about how great the Mini is, and to do this I want to put together a post for 123MacMini on this very subject. How could an outliner help me to organise my thoughts into a coherent article?

1. I'll use the freeform nature of the outliner to list lots of positive Mini characteristics in no particular order (screen shot below).


2. Outliners allow me to group similar ideas, so I'll look for ideas that share some common ground and move them near to each other (screen shot below).


3. I can add new text anywhere, so if there is no entry that describes each group of similar things, I'll create one (see below).


4. Now I can impose a hierarchy to clarify the difference between the broad, sweeping themes and the small, particular details. I'm going to hit the 'tab' key to indent all of the similar things, so that they become subordinate to a group heading (see below).


5. Now I can collapse and move whole branches of ideas that I'd like to keep grouped and ordered. First I'm going to click the arrow head next to each first-level topic to hide the second-level topics attached to them. Then I'll move the first-level topics about to put them in a more logical order which will improve the 'flow' of the article (see below).


6. The shortcomings of my outline can easily be seen. I can fill in the easily-spotted gaps, including the addition of an introduction to tell readers why I'm talking about this topic and how it could be of benefit to them. At any time, I can add, move, copy, indent, outdent or delete topics in any of the branches at any level.


7. Okay, stop the clock! How long has it taken to generate an outline of that 'difficult-to-write' piece of text? It's not finished but it's a decent way along the road, and the entries that I've already typed will trigger my imagination to come up with more section headings and more topics within each section heading. Furthermore, I haven't spent long periods of time staring at a blank screen or tearing my hair out for the lack of knowing where to start. I've continuously either been adding ideas, moving them, grouping them or ordering them and receiving constant feedback as to where I next need to turn my attention. Because of the way that outliners display the overall structure of ideas for an entire piece of work, I can always spot something that needs my attention and can thus maintain my momentum in working towards the 'finish line'.

8. Let's say the outline's complete. To each item, I can attach proper English sentences that are ready to copy-and-paste into a text editor or word processor ready for formatting (screen grab below).


9. Some outliners permit the addition of web links, pictures, sound clips and video clips to an item.

Outliners are useful for...
- writing computer programs
- school/college assignments
- composing e-mails and letters
- report writing
- project management (resources and activities)
- organising your thoughts on a topic
- screenplays and film scripts
- television/radio/stage scripts
- business plans
- goal setting
- establishing the plot of that novel that you've been meaning to write for years

In conclusion...
- Outliners allow you to get your ideas down as bullet points
- This means no worrying about sentences, punctuation, flowing text, link words or any of the other pleasantries that get in the way of getting your ideas on the screen
- You can move these bullet points - this means that ideas can be easily re-ordered
- You can group these bullet points - this keeps connected stuff together
- You can indent these bullet points - this separates big, sweeping themes from small supporting details
- The end result is that you can fashion the main ideas in a business plan, the rough shape of a film script or the structure and page headings of a web site in an hour rather than a week
- This is why the outliner is my number one computer application

Links to articles
- Article describing how an outliner was used to record the events and progress made during the course of a meeting
- Article where paper-based outline is used to plan a move to a different city...
- and here is a movie of the guy who moved to the different city telling the story in person along with an account of how he used an outliner to help him write a 1200 page book on Samba
- The father of outliners in the 80s and 90s was Dave Winer. Here is his website.
- Here is the Wikipedia article on outliners. Contains loads of links to outliner related stuff.

For those who want to download and get going...
- JreePad - free Java based outliner for OS X: http://jreepad.sourceforge.net/screenshots/
- OmniOutliner website (with video tutorials): http://www.omnigroup.com/applications/omnioutliner/
- Circus Ponies NoteBook: http://www.circusponies.com/
- AquaMinds NoteTaker: http://www.aquaminds.com/

Finally, if you try outlining then reply to this post to tell me how it went! Smile

[Edited to reinstate the screengrabs -- the old ones were uploaded with my previous ISP account and were deleted when I switched ISPs]
[Edited a second time because the screengrab for step '6' was missing... Embarassed ]
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Last edited by JohnnyBoy on Fri Jun 04, 2010 5:12 am; edited 3 times in total
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Cypher
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PostPosted: Tue Jan 01, 2008 10:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks John,

That was a useful bit of info on Outlining. I must have missed it when you first posted it, but I've just found it now whilst searching for another thread which you helped me on, when I was looking at a replacement for MS Onenote. In that thread I remembered you had suggested a couple of alternatives which turned out to be OmniOutliner and Circus Ponies Notebook.

I did trail Circus Ponies Notebook at the time but I gave up with it mainly due to the ease of use of my windows laptop with OneNote which allowed me to record my lectures whilst taking notes.

I really would prefer a Mac based solution though so I may have to invest in a macbook for myself in the coming months. I sometimes use my daughters around the house but taking it to Uni may be pushing things.

On the subject of Outliners the only one I have really tried to use was the one built into MS Word which wasn't to my liking. Today I'm trying to compile my Exam revision list and associated notes so I've decided to give OmniOutliner I try. I'll let you know how I get on with it.

Thanks again
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PostPosted: Tue Jan 01, 2008 7:19 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for the positive feedback, Cypher - I thought that my outliner tutorial had been lost in the mists of time! Smile

OmniOutliner is without a doubt my number one application. Any work that I do starts life as an outline, for the reasons I explain in the OP. The good news is that if you do decide to buy OmniOutliner and a MacBook, you're permitted to make 2 installations of OO (desktop and notebook) that share the same licence, so long as both copies aren't in use simultaneously.

Another app that I'd love to have is MindJet MindManager. It's a mind-mapping app that would look fabulous on anything larger than my 15" screen! There's also a free mind-mapping application called FreeMind, but it's not as sophisticated as MindManager.
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 02, 2008 5:07 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I did trial MindManager as well, but only briefly tried it at the time. Just fired it up now and its expired. I might extend its trial for another 21 days and give that approach a try as well.
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 02, 2008 7:02 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'm having a few problems with Omnioutliner, possible due to using it as I would MS words outliner. So maybe it just doesn't do what I'm trying to do.

After filling out an outline I want to print a view of it with the lower levels hidden. Is there a way to do this without having to manually click on every line.

What I want to do is have is a structure similar to this.
main headings on level 1
sub headings level 2
bullet points level 3
brief notes as level 4
then more descriptive notes level 5

This will allow me to make one set of notes, but to quickly turn on and off the level of detail shown. So for quick revision notes I would let it show me headings and bullet points only, I can turn on briefer notes if required or full blown notes for when I'm really struggling.

I then want to be able to print some of these views, so for last minute cramming I only want to see pages showing up to level 3 leaving levels 4 and 5 hidden. For day to day revision I would want to print level 4 and just leave level 5 hidden.

Also sometimes I may only want to have a subject heading and a brief note missing out the bullet point level, so something like.

LEVEL 2 Subject Heading
LEVEL 4 this is a note to explain the topic.

OmniOutliner seems to force me to have every level, so I can't have a level 5 note attached to a level 1 heading without all the bits in between

I've set up Automatic level styles so my notes get correctly formatted but due to not being able to nudge things into the correct levels all the formatting gets messed up. Unless I add dummy lines for the missing levels which sort of defeats the point as I end up with notes miles alway from the headings. Also without the formatting it all looks the same and it becomes hard to see the wood for the tress.

Am I doing something wrong or I have got the wrong idea about OmniOutliner. I known I can do the above in MS Words outliner.
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 02, 2008 7:40 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Cypher wrote:
I'm having a few problems with Omnioutliner, possible due to using it as I would MS words outliner. So maybe it just doesn't do what I'm trying to do.

After reading your description Cypher, it sounds as though Word's outliner offers much more flexible viewing options than OmniOutliner.

OO does group level 1, level 2, level 3 etc. topics together using the 'Utilites' sidebar, but only to impose a text style upon all of the topics at a particular level (like a Cascading Style Sheet).

Now that I know what you'd like to do, I'll keep my eye open for a Mac app that'll organise information into a hierarchy and hide/show all the info at a given level of the tree (a bit like switching PhotoShop layers on and off). To be honest, I don't think OmniOutliner is it. Sad
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 02, 2008 10:56 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

annoyingly OmniOutliner is almost there, its done the hard bit of the actual outline, and already supports collapsing an outlines sub levels, all be it by doing them one at a time. If they just automating that feature to collapse all levels below a given level it would do exactly what I need and make it much more powerful.

I can get around the Level 4 not being below level 1 but it just forces me to add a couple of blank lines to be level 2 and level 3, it doesn't look to nice but it would work. Again if OO could simply ignore any blank lines that would fix that particular issue.

BTW I redid my first days revision in Freemind which worked pretty well
although its not so good when printed as it becomes too big, trouble is I'm spending more time playing with programs than I am revising so I think sticking with OmniOutliner might be the best approach for now.

I'm trying to get myself better organsied, this last six months has been a nightmare juggling work and uni. I'm currently reading a book called Getting Things Done by David Allen and I've also been trying a couple of task managers for a few weeks namely Omnifocus and Things, I prefer OmniFocus, so I may just buy both OmniOutliner and OmniFocus at least they have a similar look and feel.
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 02, 2008 2:07 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Cypher wrote:
annoyingly OmniOutliner is almost there, its done the hard bit of the actual outline, and already supports collapsing an outlines sub levels, all be it by doing them one at a time. If they just automating that feature to collapse all levels below a given level it would do exactly what I need and make it much more powerful.

I can get around the Level 4 not being below level 1 but it just forces me to add a couple of blank lines to be level 2 and level 3, it doesn't look to nice but it would work. Again if OO could simply ignore any blank lines that would fix that particular issue.

At it's most simple, OmniOutliner is basically TextEdit with grouping and indenting. Even so, outlining is still a very powerful way to organise information. Such simplicity is good, because it doesn't get in your way, and bad, because (as you are finding) it doesn't do anything that's too sophisticated.

The one program that came to mind after my last post is still considered the Holy Grail of outliners. It was a Mac app called MORE 3.0 and it dates from the early nineties. It had a devout set of users who swore by it. It could automatically take any outline and convert it into a chart, a slideshow or a document. The last version was 3.1 but apparently there's been nothing like it ever since - none of the modern outliners can come close to its feature set.

The good news about MORE is that it's abandonware, you can download it and its user manuals for free. The bad news is that it's a pre-OSX app. So trying it out either requires an emulator or an old Mac that can run System 6 or later (I'm so intrigued by MORE that I've come close to buying an old Mac just to try it out). Dave Winer, the author of MORE, has it all on his website: http://www.outliners.com

Cypher wrote:
BTW I redid my first days revision in Freemind which worked pretty well although its not so good when printed as it becomes too big,

Well at least you gave it a go. One annoying thing about FreeMind is that it commandeers the 'del' key for its own use, so when you try to delete some text to the right of the cursor, you find that the entire 'branch' on which your text entry is sitting is removed. Very frustrating!

Cypher wrote:
trouble is I'm spending more time playing with programs than I am revising so I think sticking with OmniOutliner might be the best approach for now.

Oh Cypher, tell me about it! I get so fed up with searching around to find programs that just do what I need them to do. The most exasperating thing is when you find a program that almost does what you want, but somehow doesn't get close enough to actually make your life easier. Sometimes I fantasise about being a Linux programmer, so that I can just make the damn tools that I need. Cool

Cypher wrote:
I'm trying to get myself better organsied, this last six months has been a nightmare juggling work and uni. I'm currently reading a book called Getting Things Done by David Allen and I've also been trying a couple of task managers for a few weeks namely Omnifocus and Things, I prefer OmniFocus, so I may just buy both OmniOutliner and OmniFocus at least they have a similar look and feel.

Yes, I also have a copy of GTD. I've read some of it, and keep meaning to pick it up and finish it off... Embarassed
I've not tried OmniFocus, but now you've mentioned it I'll take a look. If you're curious about how you can use OmniOutliner in conjunction with the ideas of GTD there's a pretty good YouTube video that some guy has posted - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcIkygt3G48
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 02, 2008 2:18 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Spooky coincidence! This 45 minute David Allen GTD seminar was posted on YouTube by Google just a couple of hours ago! Pity about the out-of-sync audio.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cww-EUe0lJk
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 02, 2008 4:00 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I got the GTD book as an early Christmas present for myself Razz and have briefly started reading it, but I've put it on hold till after my Exams next week.

My Son wants to jump on Call of Duty 4 X-Box Live so I've given him an hour to play whilst I have a break. I'll check out those You-Tube videos whilst I have a cuppa Thanks

I've heard about MORE a few times recently whilst looking around GTD links.

I think I will start using OmniOutliner just as a way to get things down quickly and then move the data over to WORD to tidy up the formatting. Just not sure now if I want to spend money on OmniOutliner if its only being used as a stepping stone. Although I initially looked at OmniOutliner after I'd remembered you mentioning it and seeing its name popping up everytime GTD was mentioned such as Merlin Mann, 43 Folders. I'd also been looking at kGTD http://kinkless.com/kgtd

Quote:
Kinkless GTD is a free set of Applescripts that work with OmniOutliner Pro to create a framework for implementing David Allen’s Getting Things Done task-management methodology.


So I may still get it, my Student discount comes in handy at times like this Razz
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 02, 2008 6:25 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Cypher wrote:
I think I will start using OmniOutliner just as a way to get things down quickly and then move the data over to WORD to tidy up the formatting. Just not sure now if I want to spend money on OmniOutliner if its only being used as a stepping stone.

Yeah, I hate spending money only to regret it later - it's a horrible feeling. At least trial versions allow you to play about to see if the software suits your needs.

Don't forget that there's a basic outliner called JreePad (it's a version of TreePad that's written in Java) that will run on OS X, Linux and Windows. It's not as polished as OmniOutliner, but it is free: http://jreepad.sourceforge.net/


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 03, 2008 9:01 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Cypher, I may have an answer to your problem. You'll see that in the last screen grab of my opening post I attached a note to a topic. These notes can be added by clicking the little grey 'note' icon at the extreme left of a topic and then hidden and shown at will by clicking the same icon:



I realise that small grey italics isn't the best text for easy reading but this style can be changed for the whole document by clicking the 'Utilities' icon on the taskbar, highlighting the style for attached notes (highlighted in blue on the screen grab below) and then changing the attributes using the 'Format' menu.


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 03, 2008 9:19 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks John,

I have used the notes section on another document but never thought of using on the revision outline. I'll give it a try.

I finally bought OmniOutliner Pro this morning, I was going to leave it a few weeks and run out the trial licence first but I'd also decided to buy OmniFocus which at the moment is still in beta. It launches on tuesday and is currently being offered at around half price, also existing owners of OutlinerPro got an even better deal on OmniFocus.

So with educational discount and the OOPro upgrade option I got OmniFocus for less than a tenner. OutlinerPro was a little expensive even with the educational discount but the deal on OmniFocus more than offset it.

Cheers for your help.
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PostPosted: Sun Jan 06, 2008 7:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Here's my thoughts on OmniOutliner after using it this week and a run through of how I got on with it.

I did all my revision notes in OmniOutliner and it worked a treat, but I found with all the level indents my main notes ended up starting over half way across the screen. I got around this by splitting the main stuff off seperate sub files. I then had a master index just using the higher levels. I then attached the sub files using hyperlinks so I just open the first one and get access to all the others. It works well, but omnioutliner is a little bit thick and does allow you to open up multiple copies of the same documents so you have to be careful, it should really notice the document is already open and just give it focus rather than opening another copy.

One major cockup on my part though was not trying to print until an hour ago. The outlines looked great on screen but when I print them, they get seriously messed up. I forgot just how wide my iMac screen is I'd also embedded some images which were very wide. It was these that really caused the problems. By default the printer setup is set to "Scale to fit page width" so when it printed it squashed everything down to fit the images across the page so I ended up with my notes in about a size 4 font. I could hardly read them Sad When I turned off the "Scale to fit page width" it tried to print on absolutely loads of pages. So I had a lot of editting to do to sort it out. Thats probably down to me trying to use it as a wordprocessor and not just as an outliner again.

Overall my revision has gone really badly, being truthful I wasn't really interested in it and fiddling about with outliners and reading forum posts, oh and playing on the X-Box were all much more interesting. I'm going to be panicing in the exam though. Sad

Anyway I've really got into omnioutliner, and have used it for several things this week not just my revision. Its definitely my note-ttaker of choice now.

I also plan to buy a macbook sometime in the coming months (funds allowing) and it will then get some serious use at work and at uni.

So thanks for all your help John. Cool
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PostPosted: Sun Jan 06, 2008 10:03 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Cypher wrote:
I got around this by splitting the main stuff off seperate sub files. I then had a master index just using the higher levels. I then attached the sub files using hyperlinks so I just open the first one and get access to all the others.

I like this idea a lot, very clever! It's just a pity that OO insists on opening additional copies of files that are already open.

Cypher wrote:
One major cockup on my part though was not trying to print until an hour ago....

For as long as I can remember, simply printing something onto paper without the computer balls-ing it up has been a black art, especially when the app was something other than a WP. The time that I have spent trying to coax a spreadsheet or a CAD package to just fit an image onto a piece of A4 boggles the mind.

Cypher wrote:
Overall my revision has gone really badly, being truthful I wasn't really interested in it and fiddling about with outliners and reading forum posts, oh and playing on the X-Box were all much more interesting. I'm going to be panicing in the exam though. Sad

Cypher, I feel for you. I used to HATE revision - it always seemed to be an unspoken admission by the education system of its inability to effectively communicate. After all, if the class had completely understood and 'taken onboard' the material during lessons, students wouldn't need to revise.

Cypher wrote:
Anyway I've really got into omnioutliner, and have used it for several things this week not just my revision. Its definitely my note-ttaker of choice now.

I also plan to buy a macbook sometime in the coming months (funds allowing) and it will then get some serious use at work and at uni.

Great news, on both counts!

Cypher wrote:
So thanks for all your help John. Cool

My pleasure, Cypher.
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